One of the surprising and pleasing things I’ve discovered so far in the course of my research for the book is that one of my favourite 20th-century authors was also a fan of Johnson. Or perhaps not a fan – especially when you are talking about Vladimir Nabokov and his attitude toward literature, you shouldn’t make any facile conclusions or assumptions. The fact is though that in Pale Fire, Nabokov makes extensive allusions to Johnson and his work, even to the extent of using a quote from Johnson (via Boswell) for the epigraph:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Jeffrey Meyers has written about these allusions in “Shade’s Shadow,” The New Criterion, 24:9 (May 2006), p. 31-35.

One further thing about Nabokov, Johnson, and me. Again, there are nuances about the issue, which I will cover in my book, but neither of the authors was a particular fan of music. Nabokov famously said in Strong Opinions that “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.” And Johnson is quoted as saying, perhaps less famously and, some scholars assert, less categorically than it would appear: “All animated nature loves music – except myself,” and: music “excites in my mind no ideas, and hinders me from contemplating my own.” (I’m also not much of a fan of music.)

I used to write fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s — short stories at first, and then novels. Some of the stories were published in literary journals, and one even won an erotic fiction contest (yes, even though I am a librarian). I published two of the novels myself. You can see them all here. I switched to non-fiction about a decade ago. Certainly in the fiction, and importantly in the non-fiction as well, I’ve always strived not to be self-indulgent. That is, not to write things just because they are of interest to me or because I happen to know something about something or because I want to make a point about something else. The last one is particularly one of the tenets that I hold strongly for fiction: didacticism has no place. If it’s fiction, it’s the words that matter, not the content.

I am also careful about the My Sam Johnson book as well. The baseline story is the biography of Johnson, and so I will have to be careful as I weave in comments about myself. Will the reader want to hear that? Will my own lived experienced next to Johnson’s tend to bolster or sully the point, or seem irrelevant — or self-indulgent. Most of the biographies, by far, of Johnson don’t do this kind of thing. The closest I know — and I have only just started reading it, on the recommendation of Johnson scholar Jack Lynch — is Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr Johnson. It’s an interesting read so far, but I have found that the text gets mired in academic lingo that can be hard to discern:

Here Johnsonian authority plays itself out in a joke that reverses the standard formula: the joke’s usual object is also its originator, at once excluded from the proper linguistic register and able to turn that register to improper use in an admission of her own lack. In this gendered scene of absence both canonical and physical, professional power is embodied, reinforced, and threatened, rehearsing, on a comic scale, the drama of disavowal of their hero’s death that Johnsonians perform as they gaze upon the author’s body in an attempt to keep him forever whole, alive, and before their eyes.

I will persist with the book, as there are many good things I have already discovered there, too.

The excision of self-indulgent passages is part of the editing process, and the whole purpose of course is to make a product that a reader will enjoy (and understand), not one where she or he feels that the writer is “going off” on something — a tangent or a favourite target. And in the case of my own book, it all has to relate to Johnson and not overly interfere with that main narrative.

I am carrying out research for the book in some of the same ways that any researcher or scholar would. In addition to the primary sources, there are several full, authoritative, scholarly biographies of Johnson that have been published over the years, as well of course as a small mountain of articles and other smaller pieces. Many books on specific aspects of Johnson’s writings or of his life have also been published. And there have even been some very short biographies and other books, aimed more at a popular readership (like my own), and some heavy with illustrations and photos, that have also been published, especially in the last couple of decades. The quality and dependability of this giant corpus are variable.

I am also supplementing my standard research with other sources that are traditionally not used in scholarly books. I spent part of May 2019 in London, where I carried out in-person interviews with scholars who live in the city (and in Oxford). These were really excellent, and I had the opportunity to carry on a conversation with them as scholars and Johnson enthusiasts, which can be a nice change of pace from simply reading articles. I was very appreciative that these scholars took the time to meet with me and share their knowledge. One of them, for example, is an expert in theatre buildings and management from the late 16th century onwards, and was able to provide me with insights into the relationship between Johnson and his friend (and later actor and theatre manager) David Garrick.

I am still chiefly in the research phase of the book, but I have done some writing, and established roughly the chronology of Johnson’s life. Part of the latter entails selecting the aspects of Johnson’s person and the incidents in his life that I want to focus on, given my hoped-for readership.

It continues …

I first met Samuel Johnson during one of the courses I took at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as part of my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) studies. It was likely the 18th-century survey course, 404A or 404B, “British Literature, 1700-1784,” which I took in the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1981. I see from my transcript that I got a 75 in the fall and an 80 in the winter, so though I wasn’t a stellar student at least I did learn something and improve.

The professor was Patrick O’Flaherty and he was passionate about the 18th century and about Johnson in particular. An article that O’Flaherty published in 1978 influenced me in my choice of topic for my master’s thesis at the University of Toronto during 1981-1982. In the article he argued that there is a “lack of any readily perceived symmetry” in a series of essays which Johnson published in 1750-1752 called The Rambler, and that assertion always stuck with me – because I disagreed with it strongly. I took “symmetry” to mean “organization,” and I knew even then that though the rhetorical method in Johnson’s Rambler essays was not neat and orderly – not symmetrical – yet they were very well organized. I argued in my thesis that there is always a “coherent organization”:

A Rambler essay is not logically or symetrically structured around some central thesis. Rather, it progresses from paragraph to paragraph, from idea to idea, from event to event in a manner which may sometimes be abrupt but is always coherent.

And so I am writing this book. Yes, it’s another biography of Johnson, about whom at least three full scholarly biographies were published around 2009, the tercentenary of his birth. I intend this one to be different though — not scholarly, in fact, though authoritative; personal in the sense that it will include my thoughts about how Johnson’s life relates to me, how he has affected and influenced me; and written in a style and with content that will appeal to the general reader.