In Praise of Hodge, Samuel Johnson’s Very Fine Cat Indeed


Samuel Johnson had other cats, sure. But it’s Hodge who’s remembered by readers of James Boswell’s famous biography of the 18th-century literary celebrity.

What was it about Hodge that inspired Dr. Johnson’s devotion? For clues, we can only recall our own good chemistry with any animal whose path we cross. But what Life of Johnson does illustrate for us is Dr. Johnson’s expression of his devotion.

Two details have immortalized the bond shared by Johnson and Hodge. The best known is an often misunderstood gesture: Johnson’s habit of interrupting his work to buy oysters for his cherished cat. The chore does speak for the doctor’s exceptional (his peers might even say eccentric) kindness. The thing is, in the oyster-fetching episode that appears in Life of Johnson, that kindness was directed more toward the doctor’s servants than Hodge.

You see, back in Johnson’s day oysters were numerous enough that they were considered a kind of junk food. A midday oyster run would have been a degrading chore for his servants. So Johnson, looking to appease Hodge, took it upon himself to put down his writing tools and wander out into London, where he’d fetch his favorite cat’s prize.

The other surviving detail that has come to symbolize the affection Johnson felt for Hodge is really just an observation Boswell records in his book. But compared to the oyster story, it’s less weighted by mythology.

In Life of Johnson, Boswell writes: I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

It’s those last words that serve as the inscription on the bronze statue of Hodge outside Johnson’s London home. The statue shows Hodge standing on a copy of Johnson’s dictionary, next to a pair of empty oyster shells. The circumspection on Hodge’s face is very much at odds with how we’ve come to remember Johnson, who Boswell paints as a character with a seemingly boundless generosity and optimism for humankind.

Perhaps the wariness Hodge projected from his perch atop Johnson’s lap helped keep the doctor in check.

Photo courtesy of Ell Brown via Flickr.

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