A memorial by Bryan Reid
October 9, 2013 will mark the 20th anniversary of the foundation of The Johnson Society of Australia, at the end of a seminar at the Council of Adult Education, Melbourne.
The birth of the JSA was a somewhat prolonged, but enjoyable process. It had begun two years earlier, at a similar CAE seminar when I first met the three who helped provide the impetus for getting an Australian Johnson Society off the ground.
They were the late Dr Rusi Khan, then Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Monash University, Prof Clive Probyn, then Head of English at Monash and Dr John Wiltshire (now Professor Emeritus) then Senior Lecturer in English at Latrobe University.
As a long-time Johnson and Boswell fan, I had already made one abortive attempt to set up a JSA, but was determined to press on, and when I received a totally unexpected invitation to deliver a paper at a CAE seminar celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I seized the opportunity eagerly.
I’d never made any such contribution before, but enjoyed the experience and gained much from those of the other, very professional academic speakers. At lunch, I opened with them the proposition of forming a Johnson society. They were unanimously enthusiastic.
After the seminar, there followed a series of meetings, all at convivial lunches, intermittently over the next couple of years. Our goal was to be savoured in the prospect, as well as the achievement. This came in 1993 when we approached the CAE to set up “The Pleasures of Johnson – a Celebration of the Life and Works of Dr Samuel Johnson and an invitation to help form The Australian Johnson Society.”
In addition to the trio of speakers at the 1991 seminar, we also had a paper from Dr Kevin Hart, then Associate Professor of English at Monash, and an ebullient, enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable visitor from Perth, named John Byrne, who spoke about his lifelong devotion to book collecting, particularly Johnson and Johnsoniana.
After the seminar, we called on the meeting to form The Johnson Society of Australia, which was accomplished on the motion of John Byrne, and resulted in the thirty people at the seminar becoming members.
Clive Probyn was elected President, I became Secretary, John Byrne Treasurer, Kevin Hart Editor, with two committee members, Carla Hawley and Pauline Brasch.
Thanks to John Byrne’s close correspondence with Dr David Fleeman of Pembroke College, Oxford, one of the world’s leading Johnsonian scholars and subsequently author of the great Johnsonian bibliography, he agreed to become our first patron. Sadly, he died only a year later, and Lady Mary Eccles, formerly Mary Hyde of Four Oaks Library fame, became our next Patron.
In honour of the memory of Dr Fleeman, the JSA instituted the annual Fleeman Memorial Lecture, the first of which was given in September 1994, by Profesor Ian Donaldson, whose subject was “The Death of the Author and the Lives of the Poets.”
The first issue of The Southern Johnsonian, edited by me, with production by Don Dunlop, followed soon after the inaugural meeting, and has been published regularly ever since.