The Perpetual Club

Such were the deep currents of literary life in 18th-century England that a group of friends meeting weekly in a London tavern included men as monumental as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon. Even those members who are lesser known today—Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan—were enormously famous in their time. Leo Damrosch, author of superb biographies of Jonathan Swift, William Blake, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dives deep to show what happened when the paths of these major figures crossed.

“The Club”—a disappointingly unoriginal name for a group of great minds—was formed by Reynolds, one of the age’s greatest portrait painters, for Johnson’s benefit. Johnson suffered from severe melancholy and it was thought that the regular society of friends would help him. So in 1764, at Turk’s Head Tavern off the Strand, the first members got together for drinks and discussion. Membership was limited initially to nine agreeable men chosen by unanimous election, but it wasn’t long before the rules were broken and the group swelled in number. Agreeability even took a back seat in the case of a few inductees.

The Club’s first 20 years saw such lesser lights as James Boswell, Charles James Fox, and Earl Spencer (Viscount Althorp) admitted. Even though Johnson died in 1784, The Club continued admitting new...

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