Samuel Johnson – writer, essayist, poet, biographer, lexicographer – is the greatest literary man you’ve never heard of.
I’m writing a book about the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson. Not a scholarly biography. Not a critique of his works. Not an abstract theory about his life or literary style. It’s more of an appreciation, a personal take on why Johnson is a writer and a man that more people should know about.He produced the first ever modern dictionary of English, with himself as sole editor and only six assistants.
He worked hard as a practical writer, taking on whatever projects he could find, but always deriving his income from writing and publishing.
He wrote beautifully crafted prose, stately, balanced, always informed by his own training and education.
He believed in his God right to the end, but he feared death, he criticized himself for laziness at the same time as he was extremely productive, he felt guilt, he often worried that he was going mad. But through it all he wrote in a wide range of genres. He discussed and debated and argued in the pubs. And he maintained his sense of humour.
I’m writing it as a book that will appeal to the Johnson scholar to some extent, but mostly to the person who doesn’t know much or anything about Johnson or his work. A biography of Johnson for a popular readership. I’ll give the basic facts of Johnson’s life and recount some of my favourite anecdotes, but I will also give my take on his character, why he’s relevant and important some 300 years after his birth, what makes him fascinating, what makes him funny, what makes him sad and tragic. I will also include some comments and answered questions from other readers of Johnson: again, not esoteric or scholarly, but personal reflections on why they continue to read and respect and maintain their keen interest in the man. I am creating a biography not for scholars, but rather one for those who have some idea of who Johnson is but do not have the inclination to read a full scholarly biography. I also plan on making this a “personal” biography, relating how my study and reading of Johnson over the nearly 40 years since I was first introduced to him have affected me, how aspects of Johnson’s life and writing resonate with me, and so on.
For the cover of the book, I’ve commissioned a painting from a great Vancouver artist named Anna Bernhardt (she goes by the name of Bunny Glue) – her take on a portrait of Johnson. That will provide a beautiful package for a book that I hope you will find fun to read but will also learn a few things from as well.