I had an epiphany this week, and definitely a secular one in which neither Jesus nor the Magi played any role. Or at least as far as I know.

As I’ve said over and over again here in these blog postings, I continue to write this bio of Johnson, continue to do research, continue to interview scholars to glean detailed knowledge, and also continue to mull over (or, more accurately, re-mull) just exactly how to put the whole thing together. I had already worked out a structure, but it suddenly came to me how I should make a couple of major changes in the whole of the book that would make it a better thing in the end (I’m not going to reveal those here!). My own experience with writing is often like this. I get a substantial portion done, but then I go through a period where I seem to be languishing, can’t sit down to write because something is gnawing at me telling me that there’s something wrong — and then, well, you know.

It’s a good thing. It certainly doesn’t mean that I have to start over (Jesus and the Magi forbid!), but that some rearrangements have to be made and some rewriting needs to be done.1

I’ve done some reading in the past couple of weeks as well. A little bit was in W. Jackson Bate’s seminal biography of Johnson published in 1975. The other half dozen or so biographies of Johnson that I have at hand are all on my Kindle, but for this one I have to rely on the print copy I bought (gulp) 34 years ago. The other thing which I didn’t really read in-depth, but which I glanced through the pages of as I scanned it

and ultimately posted it online, was the MA thesis I did on Johnson’s Rambler back in 1982 (re-gulp). I of course remembered the two main things I studied in that thesis — the watermarks and countermarks of the first edition issues, which I was able to get luxurious access to at the University of Toronto; and the rhetoric and organization of the essays — but I’d forgotten about other things I’d included, such as a detailed categorization of the Rambler essays, as well as an analysis of the textual differences among the original folio issues, the edition published in 1752, the revised edition published in 1756, and the Yale edition. BTW if you are interested in reading the thesis in all its glory, you can now find it here.

On a smaller scale, as regards the people and the intensity, my unsettled mind as I wanted to write but couldn’t, and then felt bad that I wasn’t writing — it reminds me of the hell that Johnson put himself through as he looked back on a productive year and instead of recalling the accomplishments, focused on all the time he had “wasted.” Ah, Sam — you produced some great work, and I just wish that you had been able to realize that a bit more and been kinder to yourself.


  1. The vagueness and generality here have the tone of how organized crime members communicate their intentions: “I know some people who know some people.”

I am writing my biography of Samuel Johnson at the same time as I ponder between sittings how I should write it. I keep thinking of how to arrange the information, how to incorporate the personal aspects I have planned for the book, and how I write it all for the general reader. I do have the basic structure of the book figured out, I’ve done research, and I’ve done writing, so I do feel that there is a momentum heading forward. I’m often thinking about the book though, which I don’t mean in a bad way — I don’t mean that I’m haunted by it or stressed or blocked.

April 10 was my father’s birthday, but he is dead. I had been estranged from him for over 25 years, but on that day, as I thought about his messy life, and Samuel Johnson’s messy life, and my own work in progress, I wrote the following essay in about a half-hour. The urge to write it was strange and a surprise to me. His birthday usually passes and I may or may not even remember it. This time I did though:

On My Father

As I write this, today would have been my father’s 84th birthday. He spent his work life mostly as a trucker and woodsman and in construction. His marriage to my mother produced three children, my two brothers and me, but it didn’t last long. A couple of years in he chose to leave my mother at Christmas so that he could travel elsewhere in Newfoundland to spend time with his pregnant girlfriend. I was too young to remember the details of how that holiday season transpired for a now single mom with (then) two babies in the early 1960s, but we apparently managed. My mother dashed across the highway that we lived on to get a Christmas tree for us, but was ever vigilant also that we were staying at the living room window watching her and not getting into mischief in the house.

I said that this would have been my father’s birthday because three years ago he committed suicide. By hanging. These are not details that get reported when a person dies like this, or they are alluded to only, with euphemisms such as “died suddenly.” The latter is often code language for suicide, especially when no cause of death is given or speculated on, and you are left scouring the obituary to try to find the cause. If the person is just a slight acquaintance, a name you know – “Oh, my, look, Cliff Jones just died” – you’ll note the age of death given as 81 and be satisfied that it was natural causes, or as they say in Newfoundland, “old age.”

There are still obits and other details about my father online and his life story is sanitized. I particularly bristled at him being “always there to lend a helping hand, whether it was financially or just to give a word of advice. He was someone you could always depend on.” My mother felt differently as she tried to raise children on her own in an era when there were not even the limited social supports that we have in our society now. She had to work but she depended on the $250 a month that he was mandated to give for child support, and when a month or two went by and there was no cheque forthcoming, the 99 cents an hour she made as a waitress at Woolworth’s just didn’t cut it. She had to anxiously contact my father’s brothers and sisters in an effort to prod him to send money which she desperately needed. The so-called helping hand was not always voluntary or dependable.

My father evidently went through some lean times in his own life as well. In the 1980s I was employed full-time as a librarian and I lent him $700. That was a lot of money for me at the time, but he never paid it back either. The last time I talked to him was in the early 1990s and I don’t remember what the reason was for the call, but he or someone else on the line hung up on me.

I took the news of his suicide passively as if I were being told that a distant cousin had died. I had a twinge of sadness later, temporary only, about the sad circumstance of anyone committing suicide. They were suffering from something and either kept it to themselves or nobody noticed.

This isolation and solitude I now experience due to the COVID-19 restrictions have made me more clear-eyed about what is important in life, but also have made me less tolerant of euphemism and the dirty facts that are missing. That’s all. I value possessions and kempt hair less, but I speak up more about the full truth.

On December 13 last year I interviewed Kathleen Lubey by phone as part of the research I am doing for this book about Samuel Johnson. The book will include a background chapter about various aspects of social life in London and England in the 18th century, and I was (and am) interested to include information about pornography and prostitution as well.

The audio link below (it’s about 7 minutes long) is a segment of the longer interview, in which Prof. Lubey discusses those topics and provides information about other works, both primary and secondary, as well.

play

Kathleen Lubey is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Centre at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She is the author of Excitable Imaginations: Eroticism and Reading in Britain, 1660-1760, published in 2012, and one of her current projects is a book in progress called Pornography’s Discontents: Sex and Social Protest. The excerpt from my interview is used with her permission.

The Samuel Johnson Society in Lichfield, England (Johnson’s birthplace), recently started what promises to be an excellent Twitter account (@SamJohnsonSoc), where they are posting details and facts — no fake news here! — about Johnson, Lichfield, and … well, we shall see, as it has only just started a couple of weeks ago. The purpose of the society, which was founded 110 years ago, is, as they state in the profile on their Twitter page, “to advance the education of the public in the life, works and times of Dr Samuel Johnson and to help with the preservation of @SamuelJohnsonBM [i.e., the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum].”

Part of the goal I have for this biography of Johnson that I am writing overlaps with part of the mission of the society. I want to promote a man and an author whom perhaps fewer and fewer people know about, and who is maybe even becoming less of a subject of study among scholars (no matter how long the 18th century is 🎈 ).

I had a brief exchange with the society on Twitter last week (here, here, here) in which I suggested that a line of greeting cards might be appropriate. I’m thinking not cards for people who already know about Johnson, but for those who don’t and are introduced to him accidentally, like a parent or doctor mashing cauliflower into your potatoes in order to ensure that you get more variety in your vegetables. I imagine cards with quotations on the front from Johnson which could be applicable to other life situations — a card that a person would buy not first because it commemorates Johnson, but because the quote is funny or quirky and they could see giving it to a friend or relative as a shared joke or accompanying a gift. The trick would be in finding quotes from Johnson that could be “leveraged” — I’m already thinking in business terms — for that purpose and that would attract the interest of someone browsing the shelves in a card store or looking at some site online.

Fortunately, Johnson was endlessly articulate, sarcastic, caustic, and funny, and Boswell and others have preserved many of his quips and comments. Some are of course too specific to the circumstances to translate well as a card for your boyfriend, but there are many that are not. I just thought of this idea recently, so I haven’t had much time to come up with a list of any size, but here are some possibilities:

  • “Frank, a clean shirt!”
  • “I refute it thus!”

I wouldn’t assert that those are the best or most obvious ones, but after some time to think I am sure I could come up with dozens that would work for the purpose. Take the first example. Maybe you have a friend who wears the same T-shirt all the time, or another friend who is meticulous about his appearance and seems to have a newly drycleaned shirt on every time you meet him. That would be the hook, the appeal, even for someone who knows nothing about Johnson. I also picture the cards (sorry for the pun) with an illustration on the front, in order to enhance the drawing power (pun unavoidable) of the quote.

So.

The quote would be on the front page of the card with an illustration. The verso of the front page, and the third page, would be blank so that the giver could write their own comments. And on the back of the card there would be a sparely written explanation of the source of the quote. You see this kind of thing on some greeting cards that feature, for example, photography or a reproduction of an artist’s painting — it’s the front content that draws the buyer in, and then there’s an explanation on the back of the card (for me, the best ones don’t overdo it with the explanation).

I got a printer to do a card with the first sentiment. The illustration is not what I would want personally — I’d prefer something less representational, more minimal, fewer lines but definitely suggesting a shirt — and the explanation of the origin on the back is too long, but anyhoo perhaps you get the idea:

What do you think?

I’m referring of course to his writing style. His sartorial style was rarely a priority for him, though one of my favourite slices of an anecdote about Johnson involves an elaborate scheme his friends concocted to bring him together at a dinner with John Wilkes, who had been critical of Johnson’s dictionary but who also, as a Member of Parliament, held views with which Johnson strongly disagreed. Johnson ended up being seated next to Wilkes at a dinner, but what I like and remember is his quick decision to attend in the first place, saying to his servant: “Frank, a clean shirt!”

I am working on the section of my book dealing with Johnson’s writing style (or styles), and so supplementing my own thoughts with some secondary research. The classic, and now nearly 80-year-old text on the subject, is W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.’s The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (Yale University Press, 1941). Still, it sets down some of the basics of Johnson’s style which readers can readily recognize, many of them reflected in his chapter titles: parallelism, antithesis, personal style of diction, sentence length, and so on. It’s a good basic start to anyone interested in the topic. A few years later, Wimsatt published another book about Johnson’s style, but this time concentrating on two works: Philosophic Words: A Study of
Style and Meaning in the Rambler and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson
(Yale, 1948).

A book which I am finding more interesting and insightful on the topic, though, is William Vesterman’s The Stylistic Life of Samuel Johnson (Rutgers University Press, 1977). This book feels more nuanced to me, and also is based on an important premise that has been ignored by some critics: the cross-over that is often made between Johnson’s style — which, yes, often tends to generalization in some of his works — and his life. Vesterman’s idea is that since a lot of Johnson’s writing already deals in abstractions, readers and critics are forced to deal with his life (“the concrete”) in any analysis of his style. He uses this example:

Faced with Johnson’s habit of writing in the largest abstractions, his commentators are left no way to connect his terms save to use them. To oversimplify: if a usual critical tendency of explication is to move to greater abstraction, to say Moby-Dick is not about a whale hunt but about Life and Truth, what then is there to say about a writer whose acknowledged subject is “the choice of Life” and who constantly uses the term, “Truth”? Having preempted the highest level of abstraction, Johnson’s writing tends to seem explainable only by reference to the concrete. (p. 11)

Vesterman’s first chapter after his introduction deals with Johnson’s Life of Savage, so I am re-reading that work before I read Vesterman’s comments. (For those who haven’t read Johnson — or anyone — on Savage, it’s quite a story, and so always fun and instructive to read again.) There is of course other critical literature on Johnson’s style — some of it in the many scholarly biographies — and I will get to that in due course.

Vesterman also makes the good case that Johnson’s style changed over time. The Johnson who wrote the dense essays in The Rambler, for example, is not the same Johnson who was, to a certain extent, more direct and clear in his conversation and in his later works.


En passant, whenever I think of writers and style, I always think of the great Vladimir Nabokov. In apologizing for his editing of the transcript of an interview, Nabokov, often cited as one of the best English prose stylists of the 20th (or any) century, said in a letter to Robert Hughes, an interviewer for National Educational Television: “I am terribly sorry if my extensive cuts are causing you any disappointment, but I am sure you will understand that after all I am almost exclusively a writer, and my style is all I have.” (letter to Hughes, Nov. 9, 1965, in Selected Letters 1940-1977 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 381)