“Dr. Johnson at Prayer: Contemplation and Consolation in the Eighteenth Century”

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Colloquium Report, by Marcus Mitchell

Katherine Kickel, Associate Professor of English, Miami University

Friday, March 28, 2014

At the March 28th colloquium, Professor Katherine Kickel (Miami University Department of English) discussed the nuances of Samuel Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations (1785). Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations has often been dismissed as less important than his other major works, including his public sermons and essays. As a result, Kickel argued, critics have overlooked the contemplative design of Johnson’s collection and have therefore missed opportunities to examine how that design illuminates Johnson’s unconventional approach to prayer and meditation.

According to Kickel, two concerns often arise in studies of Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations: (1) the question of intentionality and (2) the arrangement or presentation of Johnson’s writing. Focusing on the Yale edition of Johnson’s collection, Kickel argued that editorial decisions about Johnson’s work eclipse Johnson’s literary design. Through a brief survey of selections from Johnson’s collection, Kickel not only demonstrated that Johnson’s prayers are often “married” to reflections on self-care, but also showed that the prayers and meditations blend both Catholic and Protestant traditions. Furthermore, Kickel argued that a critical analysis of Johnson’s experiments with non-traditional meditative methods reveals previously unrecognized layers to Johnson’s devotional practices. Kickel acknowledged that critics have written at length about Johnson’s theological leanings. An extended examination of Prayers and Meditations, however, uncovers a wealth of rhetorical maneuvers in Johnson’s work that cement Johnson’s position as a major religious figure in the eighteenth century.

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