Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author

Written by Wendy Laura Belcher
Oxford University Press
May 2012. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-19-979321-1.
Buy here!

Download the introduction, with the argument about “discursive possession.” 

As a young man, Samuel Johnson, one of the most celebrated English authors of the eighteenth century, translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jeronimo Lobo, a tome by a Portuguese missionary about the country now known as Ethiopia. Far from being a potboiler, this translation left an indelible imprint on Johnson. Demonstrating its importance through a range of research and attentive close readings, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson highlights the lasting influence of an African people on Johnson’s oeuvre.

Wendy Laura Belcher uncovers traces of African discourse in Johnson’s only work conceived for the stage, Irene; several of his short stories; and, of course, his most famous fiction, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Throughout, Belcher provides a much needed perspective on the power of the discourse of the other to infuse European texts. Most pointedly, she illuminates how the Western literary canon is globally produced, developing the powerful metaphor of spirit possession to suggest that some texts in the European canon are best understood as energumens—texts that are spoken through. Her model of discursive possession offers a new way of theorizing transcultural intertextuality, in particular how Europe’s others have co-constituted European representations. Drawing on sources in English, French, Portuguese, and Gəʿəz, this study challenges the conventional wisdom on Johnson’s work, from the inspiration for the name Rasselas and the nature of Johnson’s religious beliefs to what makes Rasselas so strange.

A rich monograph that fuses eighteenth-century studies, comparative literature, and postcolonial theory, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson adds a fresh perspective on and a wealth of insights into the great, enigmatic man of letters.


“The most original and provocative book on Samuel Johnson that I have read in a very long time. … A book like this comes around all too infrequently; many readers of Johnson will never read and think about Johnson again without considering Abyssinia as a significant point of reference.—Anthony W. Lee, Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

“This is a highly stimulating, scholarly, and challenging account of Johnson with broad implications for how we read more generally.”—Jonathon Lamb, Studies in English Literature

“Ingenious and original… Belcher’s account radically reframes Johnson’s thought while also offering a new model—‘discursive possession’—for theorizing the relationship between European and non-European cultures that should have wide-ranging resonance beyond Johnsonian and eighteenth-century studies. … Belcher’s compelling reading of the significance of Habesha Christianity for Johnson’s thought offers a wonderful solution to the long-standing debate over the nature of Johnson’s ‘slightly peculiar,’ seemingly crypto-Catholic Anglicanism.”—Jessica Richard, Review in English Studies

“Perceptive … a welcome counter-blast to the drab postcolonial drum. … she brandishes the new term ‘discursive possession’, the illustration of which will doubtless occupy her, and other scholars, for some time to come.” —Robert Fraser, Leeds African Studies Bulletin

“Throughout, the analysis is thorough and compellingly argued. More controversial, perhaps, will be the shift in understandings of imperialism that result from her theoretical argument. … this book is required reading.” —C. S. Vilmar, CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

“This is truly a book for the twenty-first century. We have hitherto resisted seeing African cultural influences on Europeans. Wendy Belcher’s concept of ‘discursive possession’ offers important new gambits in comparative studies. She also introduces us to a Doctor Johnson we never knew before, an African Johnson haunted—and inspired—by spiritual voyages to Abyssinia.”—Margaret Anne Doody, author of Frances Burney: The Life in the Works

“Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson radically revises our understanding of the relationship between English literature and African thought, while unsettling our faith in the agency of England’s most monumental author. With remarkable originality and erudition, Belcher challenges received ideas of literary influence and colonial encounter. The English canon will never look the same.”—Helen Deutsch, author of Loving Dr. Johnson

History of the Book

In my second year of graduate school, one day I was discussing my reading with an older Ethiopian friend and mentioned the eighteenth-century English author Samuel Johnson. My friend lit up and told me that this fellow had written a very good book about Ethiopia, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. When I expressed surprise that he thought highly of a foreign fiction, my friend told me with some satisfaction, “this book, it is very Ethiopian.”

I started to ask how that could be, since Rasselas had been written by an Englishman who had never traveled to Africa. Instead, I suddenly wondered: what if the grammar of my friend’s statement was radical and important? He did not say that Johnson was a great white writer who had managed, where other Europeans had failed, to capture parts of Ethiopian thinking. He did not say that Rasselas was a good representation of Ethiopia. He said that the text Rasselas was Ethiopian. I had a dissertation topic. And eventually, this book.