The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Rasselas

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RASSELAS, the name usually given to a moral story with an Oriental setting written by the famous lexicographer and essayist, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and published in the spring of 1759, in two volumes, under the title of ‘The Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale.’ It reached a second edition the same year, and has since been often reprinted and translated, maintaining its rank as a notable if somewhat old-fashioned English classic. There is uncertainty as to just when and why and in how short a space of time it was written, but it seems clear that Johnson composed it rapidly at the period of his mother's death in January 1759, and that he probably used some of the money it brought him for flial purposes connected with that event

Scholars have exercised themselves over the sources and the materials of the story, and have shown that Johnson did not invent his happy valley, his Abyssinian paradise; but they have taken away none of the credit due him for selecting an impressive theme — the vain search of youth after happiness — and for treating it with adequate weight of thought, soundness of feeling and dignity of style. The book plainly belongs with the grave, solid, somewhat magniloquent essays of his middle period rather than with the less stilted biographies of his old age, and it holds by his early years in owing something to his translation of the French version of Lobo's 'Voyage to Abyssinia.' Everyone of its 49 short chapters, however little calculated to arouse the interest of the experienced reader of modern novels, is thoroughly representative of Johnson himself — of his sturdy morality, his common sense, his wide knowledge of men and books, his sombre but far from cowardly and depressing views of life.

The plot is simple in the extreme. Rasselas, shut up in a beautiful valley, “till the order of succession should call him to the throne,” grows weary of the factitious entertainments of the place, and after much brooding escapes with his sister Nekavah, her attendant Pekuah and his poet-friend Imlac. They are to see the world and search for happiness, but after some sojourn in Egypt, where they frequent various classes of society and undergo a few mild adventures, they perceive the futility of their search and abruptly return to Abyssinia. That the plot should be so simple, that local color should be almost nonexistent, that episodic elements, e.g., the story of Imlac and that of the mad astronomer, should abound, is not surprising when one considers what didactic purposes the Oriental tale of 18th century western Europe was intended to serve and remembers that Johnson was a moralist and essayist, not a novelist. What does surprise is that with so little of incident, with no love-making, with few endeavors to charm the fancy, with but slight recognition of the claims of sentiment, ‘Rasselas’ is none the less a story that deserves its fame. It does this, not so much because it is, like ‘Candide,’ but in a very different way, an effective protest against shallow optimism, whether of deist or of “hustler,” but because it contains not a little of the courageous philosophy of life which a great, unique personality had formed for himself at the height of a literary career full of moving vicissitudes. Consult the editions of G. Birkbeck Hill and of O. F. Emerson.

William P. Trent.