Sam and Wayne, Friends and Followers

Friendship was one of the most important things that Sam valued in life. He complained about many things, and many things gave him pain, but he constantly reiterated the value of having friends

And, as this quote illustrates, he knew that those friendships had to be tended to as well. You couldn’t just assume that they would carry on by momentum alone. They needed to be nurtured, talked about, repaired when necessary, because the end result—a continued friendship which has had its challenges, but whose challenges have been confronted and resolved—that friendship can be even stronger than it was originally.

Sam had a variety of friends in his life. He let a motley crew (not this one with too many umlauts) of friends, acquaintances, and various hangers-on live in his own house. He had Boswell, whom he really loved, but in a sense not as an equal. Boswell needed Sam as what we would call his “mentor” today, and Sam did good by him. His more equal friendships were with some of the men and women who were either members of the literary clubs he was part of during his life, or writers in the broader literary community in London.

The two friendships I always think of when I think of Sam, though, are the ones he had with Hester Thrale and with Richard Savage. Savage was a character, part poet, part profligate, part obsessive, and part madman. Throughout his life he claimed to be the illegitimate child of Lady Macclesfield, a claim she vehemently denied. Even that notwithstanding, Savage led a messy life of poverty and drinking and squandering the goodwill of many of his friends and supporters. Oh, and he once killed a man in a bar fight. Sam loved him though, and after his death wrote his biography (1744). (There’s also a modern account of their relationship, Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, by Richard Holmes.)

His friendship with Hester Thrale was one of equals. She had wealth and a comfortable estate outside of London, where Sam spent much time during the last 20 years of his life. Their friendship was solid and good, with Sam being thankful for the respites from busy London, and Hester being happy to have a famous literary man in her home, but also putting up with many of Sam’s idiosyncracies. And apart from those external things, the friendship was true. It ended sadly, just months before Sam’s death, when she happened to marry a man she loved but of whom Sam did not approve (partly because the new husband was Catholic). Sam was wrong, and Hester wrote a gracious final letter to him which effectively ended the long friendship.

I know that some of the people who have subscribed to my blog have been my actual friends, but I am also thankful to those who subscribed to follow my musings even without knowing me. This is the last of my blog postings and podcasts about My Sam Johnson. Everything has its time, and this feels like a good time for me to end off. One practical advantage is that I will have more time to write the actual book! So, that’s a good thing. Thank you so much for following me: I hope you fill in the gap in time you now have by reading some of Sam. Also: I’ve made a note of your email addresses, and when the book is published—I am aiming for 2022—I will contact you to offer you a free signed copy.

Thank you!

Sam Prays

Sam not only prayed frequently but also wrote his own prayers, sometimes tailored for a specific occasion, and sometimes simply composing something original instead of mouthing a well-known prayer, a passage from the Bible, or something like that. When he was nearly 60 (in the year 1768) he in fact transcribed many of his prayers, and made notes about when they were composed. They were later published the year after his death as Prayers and Meditations.

Of the one below, which has the great phrase “vain scruples” in it, Sam writes that it was transcribed on June 26, 1768, but that it is undated, “nor can I conjecture when it was composed.”

O Lord, who wouldst that all men should be saved, and who knowest that without thy grace we can do nothing acceptable to thee, have mercy upon me. Enable me to break the chain of my sins, to reject sensuality in thought, and to overcome and suppress vain scruples; and to use such diligence in lawful employment as may enable me to support myself and do good to others. O Lord, forgive me the time lost in idleness; pardon the sins which I have committed, and grant that I may redeem the time mispent, and be reconciled to thee by true repentance, that I may live and die in peace, and be received to everlasting happiness. Take not from me, O Lord, thy holy spirit, but let me have support and comfort for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

You see here some of the topics and self-criticisms that come up in a lot of his prayers. Wasting time is the one that I notice coming up over and over again, either castigating himself for having done it, or asking God to give him the diligence to avoid it in the future. I don’t think any man ever accomplished so much while at the same time berating himself about never getting anything done.

As for “vain scruples,” the latter word is actually defined in Sam’s dictionary:

Doubt; difficulty of determination; perplexity: generally about minute things.

So, again, it’s related to action and therefore to the fear of inaction: he’s asking God to give him the strength not to be held back by doubt and hesitation from getting things done. Sam’s practice was to provide quotations from other writers to illustrate the defined words (ahem) in action. One of those quoted for scruple is the 17th-century writer Jeremy Taylor:

For the matter of your confession, let it be severe and serious; but yet so as it may be without any inordinate anxiety, and unnecessary scruples, which only intangle the soul.

play

Image credit: AbeBooks.com

In my own life, there used to be a time when I was a very good boy, and actually knelt by the side of my bed and “said my prayers,” as my mother would put it. Maybe there are other lapsed theists out there who also remember the kind of jingle of a prayer that I recited:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

And if I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take

It’s a pretty stark thing for a child to be saying every night before he goes to bed. If I should die before I wake??

I went to a Catholic school because my mother thought I would get a better education there than in the public school system, but I wasn’t and have never been Catholic. A kind nun, Sister Ruth O’Reilly, allowed me and my younger brother to attend the school with the great name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My mother was a single mom (a lot rarer and more demonized in the mid-1960’s than it is now) and this was a great help to her as she trudged off to work as a waitress at Woolworth’s.

I “saw the light,” so to speak, when I was in about Grade 10, and during one of the Pentecostal services which my mother attended irregularly, I was, as they call it, “saved.” That lasted for about a year, and was sincere while I was in the throes of it, but I eventually stopped going to any church. Over the course of time my belief in God disappeared and I turned into a self-righteous but lovable atheist, which I am still today. Oh. I’m also a “backslider,” which is what the Pentecostals call anyone who has been saved, but has now slid in the wrong direction—back, of course, and in their view there’s no chance that I’ll ever be going up.

More about Sam and me in this week’s podcast. Please suppress the vain scruples which prevent you from listening.

Details from Sam’s Biographers: Who Thinks What Is Important

I own about 15 modern biographies of Sam Johnson as well as another 15 written by his contemporaries. Some are long; some are short. Some are scholarly; some are not. Some are comprehensive; some cover an aspect or a period of Sam’s life. I thought it would be interesting to pick a single incident from his life and see how each biographer covers it. The incident is a simple and famous one that you likely know if you’ve read Boswell’s biography or almost any other one frankly. As a man in his early 20’s and still living with his parents in his birthplace, Lichfield, Sam refused one day to man the bookseller stall that his father would regularly set up in the market town of Uttoxeter, about 30 km north. About 50 years later, in 1781 during a visit to his home town, Sam takes the time to travel to Uttoxeter to do something to make up for his lazy teenaged disobedience. He feels some sympathy for the father whom he reluctantly helped most of the time, but not always. And so he just stands in the rain right at the spot where his father used to set up his stall.

Here’s how four biographers cover it, with some comments by me:

James Boswell (1791)

To Mr. Henry White, a young clergyman, with whom he now formed an intimacy, so as to talk to him with great freedom, he mentioned that he could not in general accuse himself of having been an undutiful son. ‘Once, indeed, (said he,) I was disobedient; I refused to attend my father to Uttoxeter-market. Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.’

  • Boswell is the original source of the story, doing his research as usual by talking and listening to people, and then writing down what he heard.
  • A little surprising that Boswell doesn’t make any comment beyond recording the quote. He was an admirer of Sam’s character and this was a good opportunity to praise him.

Christopher Hibbert (1971)

  • I find this treatment very odd: basically relegating the story to an endnote. Yes, it’s true that Sam’s refusal itself is something significant, but the fact that he remembered and felt guilty about it all those years is pretty significant too.
  • Interesting that there is more than one contemporary source for the story.
  • I have to admit that I had to look up the word contumacy. According to Merriam-Webster online, it means: “stubborn resistance to authority” or “refusal to comply.” It reminded me of a similar-sounding word from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy: “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?” (Hamlet, III.i). It turns out though that these two words are not related and have different etymologies. Contumely means (Merriam again): “rude language or treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt.”

John Wain (1975)

The business in Market Street was not doing well. In spite of his energy, in spite of the diversification of his trade and the long miles he rode for orders, Michael Johnson was losing ground. It would have been only natural for the sorely tried man to imagine that with two sons growing up he might look forward to the day when they would take his business off his hands and, by working hard in co-operation, make it prosper at last. But Sam was obviously not cut out to be a tradesman; though he grudgingly went along with it, learning the elements of the business and becoming a tolerable hand at the practical skill of bookbinding, his resentment at the menial life of trade was always smouldering just below the surface. One day there was a nasty scene when he refused point blank to go to Uttoxeter Market, some ten miles away, and take charge of the stall which Michael regularly set up there. Michael was forced to capitulate: Sam just would not go, and other arrangements had to be made.

[…]

One memory in particular filled him with remorse—his point-blank refusal to go and take care of the stall in Uttoxeter. One day when he was on a visit to Lichfield—the date is unknown, but it was in his late middle age—he got up and, without telling anyone where he was going, made his way to Uttoxeter. It was raining; he uncovered his head and stood for what he recalled as “a considerable time” in the market-place, oblivious of the staring citizens and the pelting weather: an outward and viable sign of his deep wish to be at peace with the spirit of his father.

  • A kind of matter-of-fact way of dealing with it, neither ignoring it, but not going on too long either about its significance.

David Nokes (2010)

But for Samuel, newly returned from Oxford, these were signs of shame. He had as little as possible to do with bookselling, despite the fact that both his parents, and even Nathaniel [Sam’s brother], were keen for him to take it up. It seemed an obvious occupation for a young man who was so evidently fond of books; yet Johnson, more as a mark of independence than for any practical reason, refused to consider it. One day, towards the end of his life, Michael asked that he might accompany him to Uttoxeter market but Samuel adamantly refused. Years later this disobedience still haunted him. ‘Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful.’ He attempted to atone for the fault: ‘I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.’ This act of expiation, while no doubt genuine, is a public act, an example of Johnson using Boswell, who recorded the act, to turn a personal sense of guilt into a public spectacle of contrition.

  • Very concise.
  • Definitely not overstating it, but at the same time putting the incident into the broader context of Sam bristling against the career that his father might have wanted for him.

In my podcast this week, I talk about the process of writing a biography, where often you have to gather all the information you can find about the person, but then cannot use all that information because it wouldn’t make for a readable biography. You know you want to listen …

Sam’s Signature

Thousands of letters that Sam sent during his lifetime, from his early 20s to his mid-70s, have survived to this day (and mostly, fortunately, are in the care of large academic libraries), and so his signature is a pretty familiar sight to anyone who studies, reads about, or just keeps up with all-things-Sam. Here it is:

It’s pretty legible as both modern and 18th-century signatures go, but note two things:

  • I have been calling him Sam all throughout this blog and in my podcast, and intend to call him that in the title of the book when it’s published, but scholars of course refer to him as Johnson, or, as necessary, Samuel Johnson. I use Sam because it fits with the tone and style I intend for the writing, and for the eventual general readership, and so it’s interesting that in virtually all the signatures on his letters he refers to himself as Sam, too. Note though: not only Sam, but Sam followed by a colon or at least two dots, to indicate the abbreviation. I did some research at one point in writing the book to see if this colon was a common way to abbreviate and I never really came up with anything definitive. I may still do a little poking around, but I’ve heard from at least one scholar/editor that using a colon was a fairly common way to abbreviate. (But why? And how did it come about?)

    At one point in my research on the book I was curious enough about Sam’s signatures in his letters, that I went through the entire authoritative edition of those letters, and determined how he signed each of them. Of all the letters in the nearly-2,000-page, 5-volume edition of Sam’s letters, there are only six letters which are not signed as above. The variations are:

Saml: Johnson: two letters

S.J.: one letter

Samuel Johnson: three letters

  • Note that the signature has what looks more like an “f” than an “s” in Johnson. You may or may not know that this is not just a quirk of Sam’s style. It is what is referred to as “the long s.” It was used routinely throughout the 18th century and eventually died out in the 19th century. In print, it basically looks like an “f” with the righthand side of the crossbar missing—and in some printed books from the 18th century, even the lefthand side is barely visible, perhaps from the printing press just not picking up enough ink for such a small bit of a letter.

One interesting aspect of it is that it was used only within or at the beginning of a word, never at the end (there were a few other rules for its use as well). You can see it in Sam’s Rasselas (published 1759) on the right. Note that the capital (uppercase) S’s are all modern S’s as we see today. Below in the text, though, you can see several examples of the (lowercase) long s.

In my podcast for this week, I’ll talk a little more about the long s (internet, be prepared to be broken!), as well as Sam’s letters generally, and some specific examples. Hey, have a listen …

Sam Takes a Long Trip to Scotland

Sam is 63 years old when he meets up with Boswell in Edinburgh and they both set out on what will be a three-month trip around Scotland. Specifically, the main focus of their road trip is what are generally called the Hebrides, an archipelago of about 500 islands in the Atlantic Ocean on the western side of the northerly tip of mainland Scotland. Some of the islands are still uninhabited even today (oh, to have a [well-insulated] cottage on one of them!).

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to map out their exact route. It’s actually pretty well known what places they visited because both Sam and Boswell later wrote books about their travels:

  • A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Sam, published in 1775
  • The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by Boswell, not published until 1785 (the year after Sam’s death)

I was playing around with Google Maps, trying to get an estimate of the total distance, but also of course to get a visual view of the itinerary. I want to include both these pieces of information in my book. I’ve found that in the biographies I’ve read of Johnson, this trip is of course discussed, but for someone (like me) who has not yet visited Scotland, it was hard to get a sense of distance and direction, and also of where the land ended and the ocean began.

This is the draft map I came up with.

So, the basic trip was that they

started in Edinburgh and travelled north along the eastern coast of Scotland

then travelled west along the northern coast

then south to the Hebrides islands that were the focus of the trip

then went back to the mainland to Glasgow

then south to Boswell’s family’s estate in the county of Ayrshire

and that’s where they parted ways, with Sam heading back to London

(Note that this itinerary is from one of Johnson’s modern biographers. Wikipedia presents a slightly different one. Hmmm.)

The trip was not only long, but dangerous at times. One now-famous incident is when they were both on the water in the Hebrides and there was a serious storm.

I was just doing the roughest of work with Google Maps, but I’d estimate that in total they travelled about 1,200 km during the whole trip. And of course they weren’t in an air-conditioned or, as needed, heated car as they made their way. When they were on land, they travelled by carriage (wagon) or simply on horseback.

I’ve taken several long roadtrips myself, notably one with my youngest brother Dave, and at least three that I can remember with my friend Oscar. In my podcast, I’ll relate some memories about those latter three. Have a listen …

What Was Sam Up to as a Gen Z?

Sam was born in 1709 and so if we were to overlay our current generational alphabet diagram onto the 18th century, he would be a Gen Z. Different researchers and groups disagree on the exact demarcations between, for example, Gen Z and millennials, but everyone agrees that Generation Z folks were born about the mid-1990’s. Sam was in his early 20’s in the early 1730’s, so that anachronistic label fits.

The early 1730’s were started as a slow and transitional period for Sam. He did ultimately succeed in publishing one major work, A Voyage to Abyssinia, which was his translation from French of the original work by Jerónimo Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who had lived in the 17th century. (Abyssinia is the older name for what is now Ethiopia. Lobo’s original work was not published during his lifetime.) This was Sam’s first book and, as biographer David Nokes points out, the title page says it was published in London in 1735, but it was actually published in Birmingham in December 1734. “London” gave the book more cachet.

Sam’s home was still in his birthplace, in Lichfield, but he was in Birmingham – a big city about 25 km south – visiting his friend Edmund Hector, who was lodging with a bookseller named Thomas Warren. Both Hector and Warren were the ones who encouraged Sam to write the book, and it was slow going at first – he procrastinated because he didn’t have a hard deadline. Hector tried to prod and encourage him by saying that the poor printer and his family were suffering because the printer couldn’t take on another job until the translation was finished. This finally got Sam moving: “He lay in bed with the book, which was a quarto, before him, and dictated while Hector wrote. Mr. Hector carried the sheets to the press, and corrected almost all the proof sheets, very few of which were even seen by Johnson” (quoting Boswell). His persistence pays off and the book is finished. He was paid £5.

The other important thing that happened to Sam on this trip to Birmingham was that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Porter. She was recently widowed and though she was more than 20 years older than Sam, there was a spark between them. Sam returned to Lichfield in February 1735, in love and with a book to his credit, and he and “Tetty” were married by July.

And then he started looking for a job …

Credit: Heritage Auctions.


Sam’s Selfies

Not really, of course. There were no smartphones in the 18th century, and though I can’t imagine Sam taking lots of selfies even if there had been, I can certainly imagine Boswell taking all kinds of pics when he was in Sam’s company. And, frankly, given Boswell’s ceaseless examination of himself as well, I can imagine him taking selfies for sure.

What I’d like to do this week is present a few of the famous and not-so-famous portraits of Sam that still exist. I asked my friend Shabnam Dastoornejad, who is an artist and art teacher, to give me her brief thoughts on each of them. Overall, she thought that all the paintings (perhaps with the exception of Hero Ter Weidje’s) portray him as a deep thinker, but she has some specific comments on each one.

The pose is elegant, kind of relaxed and satisfied, perhaps after he’s done some writing — one hand on the paper and the other holding the quill. The chair stands out: with its checked pattern, it seems more modern than classical. Sam seems to be thinking about something, perhaps a joke in his mind, because there is a bit of a smile on his face. He is pale but overall seems in a good mood, in contrast to some of the other portraits.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1756-1757. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

Sam wears no wig and has short hair. His jacket is a brownish-red, similar to but lighter than the colour of his hair. It seems very modern. His eyes are half-closed, as though he is having trouble reading something or focusing.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1769. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

The backgrounds of all the classical portraits are kind of dark, and his face is the focal point. What I see is him as a thinker, not a common ordinary person. He is focused on something and is about to speak. He is in a relaxed position. The composition of the work is two-thirds the subject and one-third background, which is conventional. This is a formal pose, including the presentation of the hand. Both the face and the hand are in effect “posed” and both are angled.

William Doughty, ca. 1772-1778 (after Reynolds). Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

This is “Blinking Sam.” He seems to have a hard time reading, as if he needed glasses. Again, this is classical, with the emphasis on his face and on part of his body. And he seems to be wearing his wig again.

Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1783 (after Reynolds). Credit: Harvard University Library.

It is interesting that at that time there was a specific kind of travelling clothing. His hand seems to be saying goodbye to people, even though he seems to be in the middle of nowhere! I am not sure what the small person in the background is doing there, why he was put there. Sam’s proportion to the background is really odd. Note that he takes up nearly the whole portrait, in contrast to most of the others. He is the focal point.

Thomas Trotter, 1786. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

Sam is again in formal clothing and very focused, in deep thinking, wondering. Note that it is a book on which he puts his hands in order to support his face. Dark background but formal lighting. Very unlike the other portraits.

George Zobel, 1854 (possibly after Reynolds). Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

The background is a reddish-brown dark colour and the shirt is ultramarine blue, which makes for a contrast of hues. The colours in his face (the focal point) make Sam look really pale, similar to the Reynolds portrait on which it is based. The work overall seems in the style of Expressionism and Cubism together. I see a little of Georges Braque in the artist’s style. The lines are mostly angles and there are no curves: everything is done with angled lines. His hands imply that he is thinking about something. It’s interesting that the artist was intent on showing both hands, which meant that the top of the head is cut off.

Anna Bernhardt, 2013 (after Reynolds). Credit: Wayne Jones (commissioned).

The background is kind of dark, but he is holding a candle and there is a lightbulb above his head, both of which give the only colour. I see them both as representing clarity. Or as representations of woman and man. His clothing in this portrait is not formal. If it’s a bathrobe he’s wearing, it’s odd to see it with a pointed collar. Do men really wear those at night?! Some of my students thought that someone must have stolen most of his books! The other thing is that, to me, he seems to be lost.

Hero Ter Weidje, ca. 2019. Credit: Wayne Jones (commissioned).


Now that you’ve seen all those portraits, you need Wayne’s soothing mellifluous voice to take even more of your troubles away …

Sam and Universities

Peter Boghossian. Credit: Bari Weiss.

You may have heard that a philosophy prof at Portland State University in Oregon resigned September 8, and gave his reasons in an articulate and scathing open letter to the university’s provost. The letter addresses some pretty serious issues — and some pretty lacklustre responses by the university. The main issue is freedom of thought and expression, an issue that is important never to get tired of responding to, but it also reminded me a bit of Sam.

Sam Johnson. White male writer who has been dead for almost 237 years. Many instances of opinions and writing which would be considered offensively incorrect to some people (a growing mob of them, it seems) these days. Wrote poetry that rhymed. Wrote essays that can be hard to understand for many reasons, but partly his style and partly the fact that a few centuries are a long enough time for the English language to have changed so that some words don’t mean now what they meant then. Compiled a dictionary that was innovative for his time, but which, in itself, is not really useable today because we have modern, up-to-date alternatives, and because — surprisingly to me given all the scholarly work done on Sam — there still does not exist a full, online, database-backed version of his dictionary, though there are efforts underway.

During all of the three times that I have had a Twitter presence* in order to keep up with the 18th century and to try to promote my book-in-progress, the professors whom I followed and interacted with often commented about the huge discrepancy that exists in (as they call it) “the academy.” There are tenured professors who make very high salaries and also have the protection of tenure itself in order to say what they think. That, in fact, is one of the main purposes of tenure: to enable those below to speak the truth without fear for the loss of their livelihood.

Then there are the untenured who are no longer just starting out in their academic careers. These are people in their 30s and 40s (and probably older) who have never gotten a tenure-track position and, given the academic job market, likely never will. Many of them were either at a semi-comfortable place in their lives where they had more or less accepted that fact — perhap like that philosophy prof who was only an assistant professor without tenure, but still getting the chance to research and teach. Others, though, were at a very uncomfortable place in their lives where they basically worked on contracts (they’re often called adjunct or sessional teachers) and they generally have no job security nor benefits such as pensions. On top of that, the pay for these highly educated folks was low, to the extent that many had to take on two or three courses in order to contribute to their household incomes (say, about $8,000 to $10,000 per term for each course).

The other thing that many of the profs I followed (mostly scholars of 18th-century English literature) was the fate of their faculties or departments. English departments closing down or being downsized. Faculties of arts and social sciences not being supported by some universities to the same extent that they supported business, science, engineering, and other faculties. So I sometimes wonder about the possible demise of the study of Sam in all of this. He was by most accounts the premier literary figure in 18th-century England (like Shakespeare to the 16th, say, or Jane Austen or the Brontës to the 19th), but if there is no one to teach him, or no will by the faculty or university to replace a Johnson scholar with another one when they retired, then, well, it will have been a fun time while it lasted, but anything can come to an end. (That reminds me: I have a book to finish!)

*****

The letter from assistant professor Peter Boghossian (full text here) is worth reading if you are interested in some of the reasons other than money and budgets for which faculty members become disenchanted with their employers. This, again, is a story of woke culture, or as one of the commenters puts it, “a post-modern secular religion/cult.” What can I say except that is a narrow-minded and dangerous belief system and movement which has no tolerance for dissent. Some telling quotations from Mr. Boghossian in case you don’t want to go through the whole thing:

The university … has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.

I noticed signs of the illiberalism that has now fully swallowed the academy quite early during my time at Portland State. I witnessed students refusing to engage with different points of view. Questions from faculty at diversity trainings that challenged approved narratives were instantly dismissed. Those who asked for evidence to justify new institutional policies were accused of microaggressions. And professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.

Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.

There’s lots more in the letter, and it’s actually not that long (and is articulately written). I liked also some of the actions he took to prove his points during his time at the university. In order to illustrate the slackness of the peer-review process in academic journal publishing, he co-wrote an article in 2017 called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” and got it published. The article argued “that penises were products of the human mind and responsible for climate change.” It illustrates his point, and is funny, but the issues which led him to write such an article, and ultimately to resign from a good position at a university, are dead serious.


* These have all been over the last three or four years. I dropped out partly because I could feel it becoming a time sink (all that scrolling through irrelevant tweets and comments), and because of the sometimes toxic ethos of Twitter — frankly, having to do with some of the issues which the philosophy prof deals with in his letter. I’ve been the subject (object!) of one pile-on by commenters who disagreed with me and whose comments deteriorated to, among other things, calling me a “random pensioner” (funny but not so funny). And I’ve been characterized as a stereotypical male (and we all know how bad those guys are) by two persons based on no evidence other than a complete distortion of another comment I made. My first exit from Twitter was kind of fun and felt like a nice purge. I made a comment (that I wouldn’t want to repeat in the polite, august company that reads this blog) about Donald Trump, and “journalist” Lou Dobbs complained and got me suspended from Twitter until I removed the comment. I thought about it for a while, but instead just shut down my entire account. It was satisfying.

Sam Johnson, Blockhead

My title refers to one of the best-known quotations from Sam, which Boswell reported in his biography:

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

As usual in most things in life, Sam’s or anyone else’s, context is everything. If this is the only quotation that someone knows from Sam, then that person has a bit of a skewed view of what Sam thought of writing and why he did it. Or, at least, not the full view.

The literal context of the quote — the words before and after in Boswell — even the simplicity of those surrounding words provides a more accurate picture:

When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, ‘I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.’ This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

It’s the last sentence of course that is the kicker. There are lots of examples of writers who wrote (and write) for reasons other than money, and frankly you could make a good case that Sam was one of them, at least some of the time. When he was doing hack work for The Gentleman’s Magazine in his 20’s, yes, it was likely for money only. And of course writing for money doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing terrible writing, though if that is your only purpose then: (1) it’s likely your writing is going to be more terrible than literary; and (2) if your writing is good, experimental, different from the chaff that most writers are heaving out, then you are probably not making much money. Alas, innovative or aesthetic talent is often not recognized in its time.

One of the people that my co-author Matt Balaker and I interviewed for our biography of stand-up comedian Greg Giraldo was the great Jamie Masada, who founded the Laugh Factory comedy club in 1979 on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Jamie loves comedy and when he saw talented comedians either depressed — or, tragically worse, commiting suicide — he established a resident psychologist in his club. He would get pitched by a lot of comedians, and he told us in the interview that he always knew that the ones that were getting into comedy for the money were either not going to be funny or were not going to make it — or both. His rationale was that if money was your focus, then the comedy would not be.

Credit: Detail from portrait
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
National Portrait Gallery

And it turns out that it works both ways. There are some wealthy comedians who are not (or are no longer) funny, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Carrot Top. There are some who are both wealthy and still funny, like Chris Rock. Conversely, there are some very funny comedians who are not well known and who, presumably, are not wealthy (e.g., Matt Braunger, Tommy Johnigan, Liza Treyger). And, alas, there are those who have no money, nor are they funny (I’m not telling).

I suppose the main point I am making about Sam and about writing is not a terribly profound one. It’s that if writing is your talent and you have to practice it in order to make a living, then, ignoring all other reasons and rationales, you could say truthfully that you write for money, and that you would be blockheadish to write anything for free, especially if your career is not lucrative. There are likely many people who feel that way about their jobs. They do them to support a family, sometimes it’s a grind, and you’d be reluctant to do even more work, for free, if there were the chance. And, yes, there are people who hate their jobs to the core and would do anything to be out of them, but there are those, too, who do them to make a living but actually enjoy them as well. I know that personally I can say that about my library career.

There were occasions during Sam’s life when he did writing without getting or expecting financial compensation. He helped his friend Robert Chambers, who was appointed to the plum post of Vinerian Professor of Law at Oxford University, but then was so nervous about it that he didn’t write any lectures for one of the terms. He was fined. Sam stepped in to help and together they co-wrote lectures which Chambers could give.

Another example I really like is not so much a case of writing but of literary evaluation. And it comes with a great story and even a painting. Here’s the story, as reported by (who else?) Boswell, quoting Sam, and the painting (credit: Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum):

I received one morning a message from poor [Oliver] Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was drest, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion. I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill.

Maybe not such a blockhead after all.

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And, please check out my podcast below. The main topic is why people write and what are the most important things in writing. Go on, listen. You know you want to …