If you look at even just a stripped-down listing of Samuel Johnson’s publications when he was in his early 30’s, it might seem as though he were fallow, with no books or translations or even single poems coming out. The fact is that the period from 1738 to 1745 he was extraordinarily busy, basically writing and editing for a living, but virtually all of it anonymous. He was working for the Gentleman’s Magazine, a general monthly with highly varied content, that had been established by the savvy Edward Cave in 1731. It was well established by the time Johnson came to work there.

One of the useful things the magazine provided was reports on the goings-on in government. Technically, it was illegal at the time to write directly about the proceedings in the House of Commons, and so Cave’s method of getting around that restriction was instead to publish “Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia,” with a nod to the kingdom of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The names of the real parliamentarians were barely disguised in the reports from the fictional Lilliputia (for example, Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole was Sir Rub. Walelop or Sir Retrob Walelop). At first, Johnson’s job was to simply edit the debates as written by the current editor, William Guthrie, but over time Johnson’s skill was recognized, and in the summer of 1741 Cave made him the sole editor of the debates. (Nikki Hessell has written a book about parliamentary reporters over the years, Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters, where she discusses not only Johnson, but also Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Dickens.)

This was a period when Johnson established himself in London, having given up his dream of being a school headmaster, and concentrating on being a working writer.

(Source: Hathi Trust)

The whole concept of biography, that is, the writing of the story of one person’s life by some other person, is inextricably tied up in the very name of Samuel Johnson. A sizeable portion of the writing that Johnson did during his own life was biography. One of his earliest published works was biographical in nature — not a full biography but the partial story of a man’s life: a translation of Jeronimo Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, which is an account of Lobo’s travels in Ethiopia. Johnson published that when he was 26. Later in life he went on to write a biography of his friend Richard Savage (a fascinating but troubled poet who claimed he was born of nobility) in 1744, and finally his monumental Lives of the Poets, which he wrote when he was in his early 70s.

Johnson also wrote about the value of biography as a genre in one of the issues of The Rambler, a twice-weekly essay series that he published 1750-1752. The one on biography is number 60 (October 13, 1750), and he has some interesting observations:

  • Johnson sees a practical use for biography in that it provides the story of a single person’s life that the reader can — as we might put it today — “relate to.” He contrasts this with history (“the downfall of kingdoms, and revolutions of empires, are read with great tranquillity”). It is only in biography, Johnson says, that emotion is activated: “Our passions are therefore more strongly moved, in proportion as we can more readily adopt the pains or pleasures proposed to our minds, by recognising them as once our own, or considering them as naturally incident to our state of life.”
  • He thought that nearly anyone’s life could be the subject of a biography: “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful … We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
  • He knew well that the story of a person’s life was not just a chronology of facts: “But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.”

I had the experience over the past three and a half years of co-authoring a biography of a standup comedian named Greg Giraldo. I learned some valuable lessons from that experience that I will depend on to help me with the writing of my bio of Johnson. His last point there, about chronology vs. character, may seem trite and obvious, and perhaps it is to more experienced biographers. I remember an early draft of the comedian book in which the text was written very mechanically: fact, quote to back it up, fact, quote to back it up, and so on. It was authoritative and accurate, but it didn’t really capture the essence of the man. That came only when we starting mining the interviews of people who knew Giraldo, weaving a story, and always being aware of how a single anecdote could in some cases tell you everything you wanted to know about this or that aspect of his character.

Part of the additional challenge with Johnson is that he is long dead, his writing is in a dense style that takes a little effort to discern — and, well, he lived three hundred years ago, and modern, non-scholarly readers will need some demonstration of relevancy before they decide they can finish off 200-plus pages, no matter how fascinating I find the man.

I was at a car show recently where one of the extras I paid for was the opportunity to be in the passenger seat of a powerful car (I always think of poor Kinbote and his “powerful Kramler” in Pale Fire when that word comes up automotively) as it raced down the runway at a small airport in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada. My driver had a brilliant yellow Audi TT and we reached a top speed of 230 kph.

It was a fun half-minute, and like a practical librarian I was as much impressed by the brakes as I was by the speed that got us to the end so quickly.

That was August 10, 2019.

Johnson and Boswell took a trip together in Scotland that lasted more than three months over the summer and fall of 1773. Each of them ended up publishing a book about it. The trip was to the “western islands of Scotland” or to “the Hebrides” as they styled it, respectively. The archipelago of some 500 islands off the western mainland of Scotland (not all of them inhabited) are today generally divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides, that is, the ones closest to and farthest from the mainland shore. Johnson was 63 years old and Boswell was 32 when they started – both celebrated birthdays during the trip. The total distance was about 1,000 km, and of course there was no high-powered sports car. They both survived (though there were some dicey moments on the water), as did their friendship, and the two very different books they wrote about the experience are often compared and contrasted still today.

It’s an ironic fact that a man who is now often referred to as “Dr. Johnson” never actually graduated from university. He was awarded three honorary degrees during his lifetime: from Oxford University in 1755 (just in time so that he could style himself “A.M.” – master of arts – on the title page of his dictionary); a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1765; and another doctorate, again from Oxford, in 1775. But he never graduated from any university with any degree.

Johnson attended Oxford University, residing at Pembroke College, for about 13 months, from late October 1728 to mid-December 1729. He was 19 years old when he and his father set out on horseback from Lichfield, a distance of about 135 km south and east. It was the death of one of his mother’s cousins, who bequeathed her £40, that had enabled the family to have enough money to send him to university at all, and it was when the money ran out that his stay was shortened. Johnson never graduated, but there were several key incidents that took place at Oxford which defined or illustrate his character, and that estabish his short time as a student as an important part of his development.

There was a conference that was held at Pembroke College on the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth in 2009. I attended that and, as with other attendees — Johnson scholars, many pre-eminent, from around the world — I stayed in one of the rooms in the college. It was fantastic and an honour, and I experienced at times the same sense of reverence and awe I do when I’ve held a first edition of his Dictionary or his Rambler.

One of my favourite literary terms that I learned when I was studying English at university in the 1970s and 1980s was hapax legomenon, which in literary studies generally refers to the literally unique use of a word in a particular context, oeuvre, corpus, and so on. I first came upon it in Shakespeare studies: scholars would refer to a word as being “hapax legonemon in Shakespeare.” Sometimes they are blatantly esoteric words which you may never have heard of — like honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V, i). And sometimes they are just words which we may recognize as common now but which were evidentally rarer 400 years ago, or just not words which Shakespeare happened to use in his writing. For example, the use of predict as a noun meaning prediction is not only a hapax in Shakespeare, but doesn’t appear much (or at all) elsewhere in any other writer (it’s in Sonnet 14), according to the OED.

It may be stretching the meaning of hapax legomena a bit, but one of my favourite ones in Johnson is in the specific corpus of his letters. As anyone knows who has read just even a couple of them, or seen his signature elsewhere, the vast majority of his signatures are “Sam: Johnson”. In fact, using Bruce Redford’s edition of several hundred surviving letters, there are only six of the entire total that are signed in some other way:

  • Saml: Johnson : July 9, 1752 (vol. 1, pp. 62-64); uncertain date (vol. 5, pp. 19-21)
  • S.J. : Feb. 7, 1755 (vol. 1, pp. 94-97; the letter to Chesterfield)
  • Samuel Johnson : Feb. 12, 1767 (vol. 1, pp. 278-279); July 22, 1782 (vol. 4, p. 61); April 19, 1783 (vol. 3, pp. 129-131)

It’s interesting to note that the letter signed with the least amount of information and the least indication of personal engagement – just a spare “S.J.” – is the now-infamous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which Johnson is tersely venting his dislike and disrespect for the Lord’s actions (or, more accurately, inactions).

Ergo, “S.J.” is hapax legonemon as a signature in the letters of Johnson.