The 2007 David Fleeman Memorial Lecture was delivered to an enthusiastic audience by Dr Paul Tankard, the JSA’s Editor, and Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Otago, Dunedin. Otago is now able to boast of two Fleeman lecturers among its numbers (Professor Chris Ackerley being the 2006 lecturer). Paul’s subject, clearly a first survey of an ever-expandable work in progress, was entitled “Reference Point: Samuel Johnson and the Encyclopaedias.”
Johnson, of course, was keenly interested in the business of organising knowledge involving what he called that muddling work’, the tasks of searching out and of organising large fields of knowledge which supported the brilliant criticism contained in the Lives of the Poets, or the fundamental research which made possible the astonishingly creative Dictionary— both being outstanding examples of the encyclopaedic instincts of Johnson and also of his age (one thinks of Blair, Reynolds, Burney and others).
Johnson both relied upon and redirected the reference literature of his day. His key sources included D’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751), Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), the Biographica Britannica (1747-66) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (first edition 1768-71, and heavily used for the Lives of the Poets). Paul was able to demonstrate not only Johnson’s use of these vast volumes, but also the extent to which Johnson’s own work was to become the raw material for other encyclopedists as an item of content—as in Andrew Kippis’s revised edition of the Biographica Britannica.
Finally, it was Johnson’s fate to become an authority in such works, a testimony from his peers, a recognition of his scholarship and extraordinary range of interests to which he brought the rare skills of paraphrase, conciseness, an ability to make almost anything that interested him also of interest to his reader. It is to be hoped that Paul’s informative, suggestive, and amusing Fleeman lecture will be published in due course in the JSA papers.