Me, Sam, Writing, and Memory

Memory is the primary and fundamental power, without which there could be no other intellectual operation.

Sam Johnson, Idler 44 (Saturday, February 17, 1759)

I had a great chat this past Sunday with my condo neighbour Shelley, who is also a Sam Johnson enthusiast. In fact he had been kind enough to agree to be the first interviewee for my podcast, 3 More Minutes about Sam, a link to which now appears at the end of all my blog posts. We covered a wide range of topics, and it wasn’t really an interview so much as a chat, with Shelley perhaps asking me as many questions as I asked him. Here are some things we discussed:

  • Sam’s writing. Shelley described it (I think I am getting the quote write) as “hard to discern but a joy to read.” All those subordinate clauses, you know.
  • Sam’s writing 2. Shelley is a fan of John Wain’s biography and also of Sam’s letters. I had given him an extra copy I had of a selection of the letters and he was happy to have a book that you could open up at any point and find pleasure in the reading. Sam’s character comes through as well, including his warmth, politeness, and civility.
  • Sam’s living arrangement. In the last 20 years or so of his life, Sam was fortunate to be able to spend as much time as he wanted at his friend Hester Thrale’s estate (called Streatham), where there was luxury and solitude and good company. He wasn’t there all the time though, and so he would return from Streatham and be at his regular house at Gough Square in London, or elsewhere, where there was little solitude and a lot of disagreement. Sam had a few people who lived there permanently with him (a blind poet, a servant, a doctor who might not have been a doctor), but he also hauled in people from the streets for the night as well. The occasional prostitute was temporarily rescued for at least a night in this way. As Shelley described the motley crew, “everyone seemed to be arguing with everyone else.” The common theme for Sam though is people. He was no introvert and was most comfortable when people, whatever people, were around him.
  • The famous letter to Lord Chesterfield. I told Shelley this is one of my favourite things of anything Sam ever wrote. Controlled, firm, brutally honest, and not caring that it was a Lord who would be the recipient.
  • Sam’s self-criticism. We both agreed that this was surprising and distressing to read from a man who accomplished far more than most people did and do.

If you do click the link to the podcast at the end, you’ll notice that my conversation with Shelley is not what you hear. That’s because I spoke to him on the phone, made sure that the mic was plugged into the phone, saw that the app which records phone calls was working, and had earbuds in so that I could hear Shelley and also so that my voice would be as clear as his on the recording. And then I forgot to turn on the mic.

Ah, memory.

The Subject of Biography

This past Monday I attended three of the sessions that were offered by the Boswell Book Festival, an annual event for which people generally gather in one city to attend, but of course which was held by videoconference this year. All three sessions were in fact very good, which I say not just as a throwaway truism or to be falsely polite. Many conferences of any kind often have so little to offer, and sometimes what is offered is either presented poorly or is a little thin on content, that even a happy optimist sometimes despairs.

The ones I attended were:

  • an interview of Andrew Marr about “Boswell the Man” (here)
  • an interview of Jane Ridley on “How to Do Biography” (here)
  • an interview of Ned Sedgewick on “Why & How to Become a Podcaster” (here)

I learned a little or a lot from each of them.

Boswell, for those who don’t know, was not the first and certainly not the last biographer of Sam Johnson, but his diligent following of his subject, and his writing up of detailed notes about Sam’s conversations and other activities — as well as a trip to the Scottish Hebrides they took together, lasting about three months — all that and more enabled Boswell to publish a stunning and even revolutionary biography in 1791. The book has its faults (what doesn’t?), it’s a bit on the longish side (hence the numerous modern abridged versions), but it’s generally a real pleasure to read. You learn almost as much about James and you do about Sam. Of the faults, some scholars have pointed out that Boswell only met Sam in 1763 when Sam was 53 years old. And you notice that in Boswell’s biography, the fifty-three years before their meeting taking up only about 20% of the book and the remaining twenty-one years taking up about 80%.

That first meeting itself is now famous in Johnson lore, as Boswell was nervous and Sam was his regular blunt and crusty self. They met in the back of Thomas Davies’s bookshop, and Boswell was anxious that Davies not tell Johnson where he came from, as Sam had a habit of joking about the Scottish (“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”). Alas, Davies let the Scot out of the bagpipe, so to speak, which led to this exchange:

Boswell: Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.

Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.

Sam didn’t actively dislike the Scots. I think of it more, to put it in modern comedy terms, as a “running gag” he had, a good repeated “bit” that he could drag out any time he wanted to be outrageous in company — or, in this case, to tease and silence a young Scot who was (or had been 🙂 ) eager to meet him. I’m not the first person to point out that though he defines oats in his Dictionary as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” yet all except one of the six men Sam hired as his assistants for that same dictionary were Scots.

That quip in the bookstore didn’t keep Boswell from his lifelong goal of writing Johnson’s biography, and nor did it keep the two men from becoming good friends. Sam was interested in Boswell’s life, and Boswell looked up to Johnson, depended on his wisdom, read his works for life advice. It’s a bit facile to put it this way, but Johnson filled in for the loving father which Boswell didn’t have. Boswell’s father was continually critical of and disappointed in his son (often with good reason), but Johnson always encouraged him.

The whole thing made me wonder about why biographers choose the subjects they do choose for their biographies. I explore that a little further in my podcast, if you’d like to hear 3 More Minutes about Sam.

A Couple of Books and Surprises

I received this past week two books that I’d ordered and am really thrilled to have.

This one is the 5-volume set of the complete (and now considered standard and authoritative) letters of Sam Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford. I happened to be able to buy a completely new copy, still in the publisher’s plastic wrapping, even though it was published in 1992 (thank you, AbeBooks). There’s a nice surprise with this scholarly edition that I think is very imaginative and practical, and with a kind of accompanying “in-joke.” Notice that the 5th volume contains no letters but just appendices and an index, and so the spine is much narrower than the spines of the other 4 volumes. I like the solution a lot: get rid of the The in the title, hyphenate John-son, but most coolly abbreviate Samuel to Sam: — and with the colon. The inclusion of the colon is a nice nod to reality, because (according to my first calculations) of the 1,611 pages of letters dating from 1731 (when Sam was 22) to 1784 (the year of his death), extremely few have a signature that is other than Sam: Johnson.

So the spine of the 5th volume pays a little tribute to that.

The other book I received was this one by a well-known Johnson and literary scholar from the mid-20th century, W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. The surprise here of course is that the copy is actually inscribed by Wimsatt himself and is a gift to John Pope (whose identity I haven’t been able to track down yet, but who may be related to the Michael John Pope, who was born in Lichfield (Sam’s birthplace as well), and in whose memory a sketch of Lichfield Cathedral was donated to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (see here).

There’s been so much scholarly work done on Johnson that on one hand it’s heartening to have so much authoritative information to draw on — but it can be daunting. Not even an active scholar can have read all of it, and I certainly haven’t. But with the combination of my Kindle, the internet, and now a few more books on my shelves, I’m overall very happy to have so much to work with. The letters, by the way, make great reading, and I like that Redford has arrangement them chronologically instead of by theme or recipient or something like that. I imagine myself reading all of them in order some time later in my life, daily, like some Christians read their Bible. If I read just 4 or 5 pages a day, I could be through the whole set easily in a year.

In this week’s episode of my podcast, I’ll read a few of the letters for you. They provide an excellent indication of his style. You have 3 minutes or so, right?

Sam’s Tetty

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon with my friends Mary and Robert, socially distanced in the back yard but maskless because each of us has had the first shot of a COVID vaccine. It was wonderful — the first time I have done that for almost two years.

One of the things we talked about was my Sam Johnson biography, and specifically about the dissipation of Sam’s wife, Tetty, and their married life in general. I am writing the book in focused “chunks,” so even though I’ve written about their marriage, I haven’t gotten to writing the details of their life together (and apart) yet. As I mentioned in last week’s post, they were married in 1735 when he was 25 and she was 46, and the marriage lasted till her death in 1752.

TettyThe Rambler

Images from the Donald & Mary Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Note that the portrait of Tetty was done around the year that she and Sam were married, and that her copy of the Rambler was signed the day after the last essay was published and two days before she died.

I know what Sam was up to for those 17 years, and I know the general sweep of Tetty’s life during the same period, but after my garden get-together I consulted some of the standard biographies to glean a preliminary sense of some of the details of what Tetty was doing.

A few facts about her to keep in mind:

1. Tetty and Sam lived apart in different cities and towns during the whole course of their marriage, even from early on. Nine months in 1737. Over a year between 1738 and 1740. Long periods during 1746-1752.

2. Tetty was born into wealth, her first husband had money, and she was used to a more genteel life than a struggling writer, and then an erratic icon, could offer her.

3. Speculation on my part, but I don’t think she liked to be alone. When she was away from Sam, she often lived with her daughter Lucy.

4. As much as one can determine 300 years later through the lenses (and covers) of others’ observations, and my own, I see her as a sincere and honest person. She wasn’t hesitant to give praise. She said of her young suitor Sam before they were married that he was “the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life.” And her assessment of The Rambler, Sam’s twice-weekly essays published in the two years before her death, “I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this.”

5. As for the criticisms and mean-spirited assessments of her (many from men and many about her looks and body) … hey, everyone has their own taste, and sometimes what a body does at it ages is less and less out of our full control.

6. Sam called it a “love-marriage” on both sides, and other biographers have noted that both of them had healthy sexual appetites. That may not always lead to the best results long-term, but it’s a pretty good place to start a romantic partnership together.

One biographer, David Nokes, writes of their days living together in London: “We know little of how she filled her days while Johnson worked; she corresponded with her daughter Lucy in Lichfield and argued daily with the servant she considered absolutely essential. In the warmer months she sauntered the streets of the metropolis, gazing in shop windows, feeding her imagination with all the things she saw in newspapers that would soon be theirs, once Samuel’s play was the great success he promised.”

It was the draft of a play called Irene that he had in his pocket when he left Lichfield in 1737 for London, and it did ultimately get produced and staged in 1749 and was a commercial success (nine nights). But many scholars today view it as one of his weaker works, and, tellingly perhaps, he never wrote another one. A tragic circumstance is that Tetty was ill at the time and did not get to attend any performances of the play she had so much hoped to see from her husband.

It was during the 1740s that Tetty’s health began to slowly decline. She injured her tendon, which became the source of much pain and several letters of condolence from Sam. And it was also during this time that she started taking opium. As Nokes notes, opium “was available at a price and without criminal associations, for ills of every kind.” She may also have taken a combination of opium and alcohol called laudanum. But ultimately she was, frankly, taking opium and also drinking, and this whole combination of circumstances led to a much reduced (what we would call today) “quality of life” during her last few years. One doctor who was a friend of Sam put it pretty harshly to a mutual friend: she “was always drunk & reading Romances in her Bed, where she killed herself by taking Opium.”

Tetty died on March 17, 1752, at the age of 63.

For my 3 More Minutes about Sam podcast this week, I’ll recount some happier and funnier stories about Sam and Tetty. (One even involves sex.)

Sam Johnson, Married and Widowed

Sam Johnson got married in 1735 to Elizabeth Porter. He was 25 and she was 46; in addition, they had met only about a year or so before and she had been widowed just over 10 months when the wedding took place. Sam was a bit younger than the average age at the time for a man to get married, which was 29. As for Tetty, she was one of only about 8 percent of widows to get remarried during that era (see Sally Holloway’s great book, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions, and Material Culture). This was a very narrow possibility-window

from the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, England

for Sam and Tetty then. She was unlikely to get married again at all, and she was also marrying a man who was both 21 years younger than her but also 4 years younger than the average man getting married at all. And the dollop on top was that the families on both sides vehemently opposed it.

Hey, perhaps, all the theories aside, they were in love. Imagine that.

They remained married for 17 years, until she died in 1752. It would be fascinating to read in detail about only that period in both their lives. I may be wrong, but as far as I know there is no full published book which focuses on the marriage only. It is written about in all the biographies of Sam, of course, and it was a good and bad journey. They disagreed and had arguments as all couples do, but they also spent frequent and long periods not even living in the same city. She was home and Sam was a working writer in London, which is basically where he lived from 1737 — less than two years after their marriage — until his own death in 1784. Sam is often remembered for his famous quip about getting remarried as “the triumph of hope over experience,” but his other expressed thoughts about marriage were often more positive and practical.

Sam was bereft and inconsolable at the death of Tetty. He couldn’t even attend her funeral. Instead, he wrote prayers over the course of four days in late April and early May 1752 which demonstrate the extent of his grief. As was usual for him in prayers of many kinds, he prostrates himself at the mercy of the God he believed in, and asks for strength in getting through it all.

I have to say that his characterizing her death in the first prayer as “the affliction which it has pleased Thee to bring upon me” is more deference than I would have been able to muster to a putatively benevolent God. It ends with Sam imagining his own death (“when it shall please Thee to call me from this mortal state”) and hoping to “finally obtain mercy and everlasting happiness.” The “finally” is very telling, of course, as it betrays his anticipation that he won’t be able to be happy while he’s still alive.

The last of this series of prayers, on May 6, is in effect his call to himself to get on with his life as a widower:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, without whom all purposes are frustrate, all efforts are vain, grant me the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, that I may not sorrow as one without hope, but may now return to the duties of my present state with humble confidence in thy protection … I used this service … as preparatory to my return to life to-morrow.

He did ultimately get on with life, of course, and published several significant works afterwards, as well as living well and fully. He continued with the habit of prayer, and many of his annual resolutions were written on the anniversary of Tetty’s death.

In this week’s 3 More Minutes about Sam, I’ll recite the first and last of those prayers. Please listen …

Clean Linen: Sam, Sheets, and Personal Hygiene in the 18th Century

One of Sam’s more memorable quotes concerns the brilliant and eccentric poet Christopher Smart, who was born in 1722 and so was about 13 years younger than Sam himself. Smart showed early promise and in fact did well for himself, both literarily and financially, in the early part of his career. However, when he was about 33 he suffered “a fit” that set him on a destructive path. About a year and a half later he was confined to a mental asylum with the charming name of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. It was always dubious whether he was mentally ill at all. He was bounced between different asylums but continued to write poetry during his confinements, and was finally released in 1763 after nearly six years of mental institutionalization.

Sam supported and defended him during the period, famously saying:

I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (Penguin, 2008), 273.

William Savage, whom I interviewed in 2019 about cleanliness and personal hygiene in the 18th century, says that “it’s a myth that people liked to go dirty.” (Savage, by the way, maintains an excellent and information-packed blog about the century called Pen and Pension, which I highly recommend.) As with many things in life, then and now, much depended on how much money you had/have. The rich were cleaner than the poor: “Generally speaking, people tried to be reasonably clean. Some people were more conscientious about it than others, but generally speaking they liked to be as clean as they could. If they were dirty, and by our standards they were dirty, it was by necessity … The poorer you were, the dirtier you got.”

The rich had options. It was a big job to wash clothes and bed linens, and so they employed “washing women” for the task:

You only [did] a wash every so often, because it was so difficult to wash and it was so difficult to dry things. So the washing women would come in and they’d spend probably two days washing everything and hanging it out to dry, etc., and then all of that would be available once again for the next month or the next six weeks or the same week or whatever it was … The clothes [were] steeped in a vat, a pot of urine to whiten them, and then the urine washed off. They would use ashes; that’s another source of cleaning agent … It was a very complicated business. Wash day was a major activity.

a clean shirt

Sam was not a “fashion plate” — do people still use that term?! — and one of his biographers says that he “refused to conform to the respectable norms of hygiene and dress, [and] looked like a tramp or a beggar … Johnson rarely had a clean shirt.*

He lacked similar finesse in his eating habits, sort of like Homer Simpson (if Homer had three honorary degrees, had compiled a dictionary, and edited Shakespeare’s plays). His famous biographer James Boswell said that he “never knew any man who relished good eating more than [Johnson] did.” He goes on to describe some of the mechanics — “his appetite … was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible” — but then, being the prim man of polite society that he was, says that for “those whose sensations were delicate, this could not but be disgusting; and it was doubtless not very suitable to the character of a philosopher, who should be distinguished by self-command.”** (Note that Boswell is likely using disgusting here in an 18th-century sense, equivalent to distasteful today.)

One of my favourite anecdotes about Sam concerns a meeting at a dinner that Boswell was trying to get Sam to attend, without telling him that Member of Parliament John Wilkes, whose political views Sam opposed, would also be there. He jumped at the opportunity (a free meal!) and said to his servant, “Frank, a clean shirt!” And in fact it turned out that the two men got along just fine at the dinner. That was Wednesday, May 15, 1776. Sam was 66 and a well-established writer by then.

Want to hear 3 more minutes about some other details about Sam’s eating and appearance … ?

* Jeffrey Meyers, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Basic Books, 2008), 74, 101.
** James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (Penguin, 2008), 308.

General: “Publick; Comprising the Whole”

My biography of Sam Johnson is being written, as you know if you’ve followed this blog or looked at the website, for the general reader. The concept is simple. Most comprehensive and authoritative modern biographies of Johnson published, well, ever, are really aimed at scholars. They are written by scholars for scholars, and though that doesn’t mean that a general reader couldn’t understand them, it does mean that in various aspects of the book, from the style of the writing to the marketing of the final product, it’s not general readers who are viewed by the biographer as the people who will be excited by the publication of another hefty tome (or large Kindle file) that hits the shelves (or is delivered to the Kindle). I don’t mean to say that scholarly biographers or general readers are wrong or perverse in their tastes or habits — it’s just that there is often not much overlap between the two groups.

There are exceptions, as there are with any broad statement such as this. I, for example, am neither a scholar nor a general reader, but I love the scholarly biographies and I have read all of them. But I’m a writer who has abandoned fiction-writing, has already co-written one biography, and I’ve been following from my non-ivory tower the works that have been published about Johnson for the past 40 years or so. Some other non-scholars who might like nothing better than curling up with a scholarly bio with 37 pages of endnotes, a 15-page index, and a solid 357 pages of text might be:

  • readers who love biographies of all kinds
  • readers who got hooked on the ground-breaking style and narrative skill of James Boswell’s biography of the man he followed around for 21 years
  • readers who love the messy and noisy 18th century — a sort of transition from “older times” to more modern ones — and so want to read everything about it that they can get their hands on

Without giving away all my secrets and plans, I would say that these are the main things I keep in mind as I write, in order to have my book be something that a general reader would like to read:

  1. The writing style has to be clear and simple, almost conversational, so that it resembles any other well-written book that is published in 2022 (that’s the date I’m aiming for), except the subject matter is a man who has been dead for nearly 237 years, and not some current celebrity or a well-known public figure who has died relatively recently. My book won’t include (as one of the most recent bios of Sam does):
  • the words “impecuniosity” or “bibulous”
  • a sequence of sentences like: “Even Johnson nodded in deference to his lordship, an act which only hindsight suggests lacked conviction. Had Shakespeare had the benefit of such a dictionary, which would correctly signify the proper names of plants, he would not so erroneously have intermingled the woodbine with the honeysuckle, the Plan made clear; and an exact taxonomy of reptiles would certainly have prevented Milton from disposing ‘so improperly’ of the ellops and the scorpion. In settling these and many similar errors Johnson arrogated no authority to himself, but threw all such questions back upon the arbitration of Lord Chesterfield, on whose behalf he exercised only ‘a kind of vicarious jurisdiction’.”

    I’m not mocking (and in fact I really like the word bibulous), but this kind of elevated diction is something I plan to avoid. Plain language, dear sirs and madams!

2. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that though my book won’t be scholarly, it will be authoritative. That is, it will rely mostly on secondary sources (books written by others) but facts will be checked and re-checked — and though I do plan to express my thoughts on various aspects of Sam’s life and personality, I won’t be just writing blithely and saying any old thing. If I may say, I have learned a few things and formed a few opinions during these past 40 years.

3. I plan to leave all the documentation at the end, notably (ahem) the notes, which will be endnotes — and endnotes not signalled in the text itself. By that I mean that, say, if I quote someone, there will be no superscript number (like this59) in the text indicating either a footnote or an endnote. My assumption is that most readers won’t want to know or verify the source and so it’s better not to clutter the page with such notation. Instead, I plan to use the format used by a biographer I really like, Sarah Bakewell, who does it like this in her How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

Notice that the quotation doesn’t have any superscript number indicating the source. There is no footnote, but the source is given in a block of endnotes at the end of the book for those hard-core readers who want to consult them. In the meantime, the general reader sees a nice uncluttered page. (The superscript “42” by the way doesn’t appear in the text. These are screenshots from the Kindle ebook version, and the number is necessary to allow the reader to easily go back and forth between the text and the note, if they want to.)

I have a few other things planned, too, which I’ll discuss in future blog posts — or will keep to myself (as a writer, there are some things I don’t want to talk about or reveal).

And so much for my writing, for now. If you have 3 more minutes, listen to a few things about Sam’s style and methods …

Sam’s Thoughts and Prayers

I haven’t done writing so far this week for my Sam book, but I have come across a chapter in a book of selected essays about Sam — as well as a new selection from all of his writings, which I recently bought.

The essay is about the prayers and resolutions that Sam made various times during the year, often either berating himself, promising God to do better, asking for forgiveness, or generally praying for something or someone. I’ve read part of the essay: it’s well written and looks like something that will be useful for the book.

The book of Selected Works was published just this past January, and so it is a fresh look by scholars at what they consider either the best of Sam’s writing, or best representative, or what’s “important” enough that readers should be reading it. That must be a pretty daunting cull to make. There are thousands of individual works in all sorts of genres. What do you pick that will fit into about 800 medium-sized pages? It’s the scholarly equivalent of picking the best 100 films of a decade, or something like that. You’ll be kicked on both sides, for including a piece that someone thinks is minor, and for leaving out another piece that someone else considers essential. I haven’t started it yet but will restrain my kicking when I do.

In passing, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has basically been ruined in our era. It’s a cliché now, a meaningless knee-jerk sentiment that people write or utter blithely and, ironically, without much thought given to it. When people are being proper, the phrase will be included in a sentence something like “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and loved ones of the victim.” But I’ve also seen it stripped down to its most insulting minimal worst. Often it will be a comment online about a story or a post, and all the person writes is “thoughts and prayers.” Argh. Sometimes it’s better just to be silent.

The other offensive thing about the phrase is when it is spoken by a government representative about some tragedy or other. The savvy politician will be careful to actually omit the word “prayers,” out of respect for those of us who don’t believe in any gods. But many of them use the whole phrase, perhaps not even thinking about the words or the meaning or the images really. That’s how verbal clichés work: they’re part of an easily accessible repertoire you can choose from without much deliberation.


More about Sam next week, but right now perhaps you have three more minutes to hear some of his prayers?

The Details Make It Real and Interesting

I am working on the part of the book where Sam has just gotten married in the town of Derby, and now he and his wife, Elizabeth – his beloved “Tetty” – are back in Sam’s home town of Lichfield. They need to find a job for him as a teacher. He is 26, well educated and knowledgeable, but with no experience and no degree, the latter because he had to drop out of Oxford after just over a year because the funds to support him simply ran out. Tetty, née Jervis, by the way, is 46, and one scholar suggests that the reason the wedding wasn’t held in either of their hometowns (hers was Birmingham) was that the families on both sides were adamantly opposed to the marriage for many reasons.

It’s the kind of situation one can easily imagine playing out today as well. Sam is young, without financial prospects, and (unfortunately this was an issue for some people) ungainly and unhandsome. Tetty was recently widowed and at that age where, many would conclude based on stereotypes, her romantic prospects for the future were slender. The thing that often gets forgotten is that they liked each other, they were sexually attracted to each other, and, well, they were in love. So, the families railed, but Sam and Tetty got down to the business of finding an income for their household.

The way I try to write, as much as possible, is to be “finished” with a section or sentence or word before I move on to the next one. I don’t just quickly write just to get the facts down, with the idea that I will be revisiting all this and likely making some major editorial changes. Instead, when I write a sentence it is, at the time, what I think it will look like in the final book. However, the reason I put “finished” in quotation marks is that I know from experience, editing my own writing and that of others, that all writing will be changed to some extent once it gets re-read (and it should be re-read, and more than once). It’s probably true though that my writing will change less than the writing of those who write more in the “just get it all down now” style. No method is better: you have to write in the way that works best for you.


I was writing earlier this week, and I not only came across an ad that Sam had put in a magazine to advertise for a school he would set up and take in students as boarders, but also because of the awesomeness of the internet – notably the various projects going on around the world to digitize older materials, usually universities either alone or in cooperation with projects such as the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust ­– so because of that, I was able to sit here in my chair and read it (digitized) in its original form. Here are what the title page of the issue and Sam’s specific ad look like.

I was about to start writing about this ad when I suddenly realized that it was published in July 1736, and Sam and Tetty had gotten married in 1735. So once I did a little more research I realized that at first Sam just tried to get jobs, and it wasn’t until about a year later that he and Tetty made the decision to rent a building and set up his own school. As you can see from the ad, the school would be in a town called Edial, which is about 5 km west of Lichfield.

What happened after the wedding (five weeks after) is that Sam’s lawyer friend Gilbert Walmesley wrote a letter (a “reference”) in support of Sam’s candidacy for the headmaster position at the school in the town of Solihull, about 40 km south of Lichfield. The reply that came back a couple of weeks later (August 30) was a rejection. Sam wasn’t even interviewed – they simply took “some time to make enquiry of the caracter of Mr. Johnson” – and conclude that though he’s an excellent scholar and the job at Solihull might even be a bit beneath him, he also has some personal and physical faults which make them say no. They are referring here to his sometimes rough manner, his physical appearance (scars on his neck from childhood scrofula), and his tics and gesticulations which some scholars and doctors now think was Tourette syndrome.

So, no job, but if you have three more minutes, I can tell you a bit about his marriage, and what the next big step in his life was …