By 1750, in Samuel Johnson’s era, the population of London had reached 650,000, more or less. It had been growing at a steady rate since 1500, and by 1650 had outstripped Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, Peking and Cairo. One in six of the population of England had been drawn to London at some time in their lives. As Johnson wrote, “It is not the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human inhabitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London exists.” On another occasion, he uttered the enigmatic line, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

For the privileged of mid-18th century London, those steeped in the professions and arts, “clubbing together” had become a way of life. Johnson enjoyed the club life as a way to take his mind off his dictionary-in-the-making and “enjoy literary conversation, and amuse his evening hours.” His biographer Boswell went to a club that Benjamin Franklin belonged to, at St. Paul’s coffee-house, every other Thursday. “Wine and punch upon the table, some of us smoke a pipe…at nine there is a side-board with Welch rabbits and apple-puffs, porter and beer. Our reckoning is about eighteen pence a head.”

The most famous of the periodic gatherings favored by Johnson, Boswell and their friends came to be known as the Literary Club, and here a few similarities with our own club of the 21st century begin. For many years they met to talk over dinner and drinks at an agreeable inn, on Monday evenings at 7pm, much as we do today.

While there were many differences between the membership and activities of London’s original club and today’s Chicago Literary Club, there is also a lineage that seems to me comprehensible, and almost tactile, if not exactly direct. So, I’d like to take you back nearly 250 years to meet Dr. Johnson and some of the “clubbable” personages of his cozy assembly, early on simply called The Club. We’ll look in on their backgrounds, their foibles, their personalities and relationships. We’ll even sit in on a meeting of their club.

Our silent interlocutor tonight is probably today the best-known of Johnson’s fellow club members, and that is James Boswell, among the most candid and prolific diarists and biographers of all time.

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