Johnson as Letter Writer

Johnson was an excellent writer, was able to compose his sentences quickly if necessary, and didn’t hesitate to say exactly what was on his mind. Sometimes the latter manifested in tersely blunt assessments or advice, and sometimes it was couched in language that was no less frank but a bit more diplomatic and respectful. Many of the key events in Johnson’s life are marked (or known about at all) by a letter he wrote about them:

  • the 25-year-old Johnson telling Edward Cave that he, Johnson, could improve Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine (and this was in effect his application for a job there)
  • the letter to James Macpherson, who had written some fake Gaelic poems and tried to pass them off as ancient poetry
  • the letter to Lord Chesterfield’s about the latter’s poor performance as a patron of Johnson’s dictionary

And this is just a tiny selection.

One lesser-known letter was written only about three months before his death in 1784, and it is a nice illustration not only of his style but of the articulate and civilized way he could state some inconvenient truths. First, a little background … Johnson had been awarded annual pension of £300 about twenty years earlier for his literary achievement. By 1784, his friends were trying to get the amount increased, and without his knowledge made a plea to the government for his case. It was refused. As Bruce Redford notes in his edition of Johnson’s letters: “the King had turned down Lord Thurlow’s request that SJ’s pension be increased in order to cover the expenses of a trip to Italy.”

Part of Johnson’s reply to Thurlow (who was Lord High Chancellor) was as follows (this version is from an edition of Boswell’s Life on Project Gutenberg, and differs in some details from Redford’s scholarly version:

After a long and not inattentive observation of mankind, the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude. Bounty, so liberally bestowed, I should gladly receive, if my condition made it necessary; for, to such a mind, who would not be proud to own his obligations? But it has pleased GOD to restore me to so great a measure of health, that if I should now appropriate so much of a fortune destined to do good, I could not escape from myself the charge of advancing a false claim. My journey to the continent, though I once thought it necessary, was never much encouraged by my physicians; and I was very desirous that your Lordship should be told of it by Sir Joshua Reynolds, as an event very uncertain; for if I grew much better, I should not be willing, if much worse, not able, to migrate. Your Lordship was first solicited without my knowledge; but, when I was told that you were pleased to honour me with your patronage, I did not expect to hear of a refusal; yet, as I have had no long time to brood hope, and have not rioted in imaginary opulence, this cold reception has been scarce a disappointment; and, from your Lordship’s kindness, I have received a benefit, which only men like you are able to bestow. I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit. I am, my Lord, your Lordship’s most obliged, most grateful, and most humble servant.

I love the flow of this letter. I like how sometimes I have to pause to figure out if something is a compliment, a criticism, or a simple rhetorical use of language (e.g., ” the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude” [it’s not a criticism]). Here I like especially the ending, where he is essentially saying that even though he has been refused the increase in pension, it’s not disappointing because he does at least get the benefit of men of Thurlow’s stature pleading on his behalf. The “kicker,” so to speak, is the sentence: “I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit.” The Latin means “dearer to me” or “dearer to myself” and so this represents Johnson spinning very positively what might have been viewed by some other man on the cusp of his 75th birthday as a major sleight from the monarchy.

Many of Johnson’s letters repay this reading them closely. Here there’s humour and modesty and civility, but they certainly are not all like that.

Aspects of Sex Work in the 18th and 21st Centuries, Part 1

I’m currently reading Tony Henderson’s excellent book on prostitution in London in the 18th century, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. I’ve only just started but I can see from the table of contents, and from the clear and forthright writing I’ve read so far, that this will provide me with some valuable background information for my own book. Henderson mentions his three main aims early on in the book, two of which are: “to identify the dominant social characteristics and the motives of those who entered prostitution [and] to describe the relative importance of the street and the brothel.”

henderson book

As with many things associated with sex work (or, frankly, with sex generally) there were various demographics and constituencies who for self-serving reasons, or because of a lack of honest analysis, attributed ludicrous reasons to women becoming prostitutes. Early on in his book, Henderson cites these as some of the reasons suggested:

  • “increasing frivolity and indiscipline in the manner in which female children were raised … corrupted by novels and the general luxury and opulence of the nation” (1); the child then considers herself “ripe for Joy,” as Father Poussin puts it in his harsh and weirdly titled book (2)
  • “the ‘ruining’ of the girl by a ‘Rampant rake,’ thus leading her to the streets or to a brothel
  • “innocence, rather than appetites … prostitution [drawing] its recruits … from the respectable families of the impoverished lower middle classes”

In the 18th century as often in our own century, it turns out that the main reason for women entering prostitution was this simple poverty. The women needed money and either because of their upbringing or their lack of success in gaining experience in “respectable” jobs, they had few options for earning enough to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and alive. Selling access to their bodies was at least theoretically an option that was available to any woman. (3)

There are more details to come in the book, as evidenced by the table of contents …

the structure of the trade
sexual practices
disorderly houses in the City
the secular law 1670s-1830
policing in practice
the prostitute as victim

… just to mention a few. But for this post I’d like to concentrate on one of the things that Henderson mentions in passing, and to compare it to sex work in the 21st century: the streets and the brothel. Those may have been the two main modes by which men met, had sex with, and paid prostitutes in the 18th century, and though these still exist today in various countries or parts of countries, there’s been a kind of “fine-tuning” or “granularity” — I’m finding it hard to find a word that’s neither pompous nor mechanistic — that exists today which defies the simplicity of the two modes, and frankly serves the dual purpose of allowing women to carry on this work while at the same time concealing its very existence from the tender eyes of moralistic zealots.

We now have the internet of course, and it has enabled sex work to be practiced more directly and “conveniently” and in effect making it in some cases completely invisible to the general public. I would delineate these methods at a minimum as how the trade is carried on today:

  • stripping
  • pornography
  • streetwalking
  • brothels
  • escorting
  • erotic massage (“spas” or “clubs”)
  • erotic massage (“rub and tug”)
  • sugar-babying
  • webcamming

I make no argument that this is a comprehensive list, but I will discuss the last five from the point of their invisibility to regular society. Escorting has connotations for many people of the very wealthy man who pays a beautiful woman for sex, and often in addition treats her to gifts and dinners in fancy restaurants and the occasional trip to Paris to see the sights and do some shopping. No doubt there are some cases like this, but escorts are also available to the much less wealthy. They sometimes work in their own home, or in an “in-call” location (e.g., a rented suite of rooms), or they do “out-calls” to men in hotels or even at their (the men’s) own homes.

Erotic massage is one of the very hidden modes of sex work. The sex workers (referred to as massage attendants or MA’s) work either in suites of buildings that you may pass every day, or in industrial parks, far from curious prying eyes, the massage rooms themselves with their lights flashing incongruously among the tool-supply shops or wholesale distribution offices.

Sugar-babying is essentially amateur escorting — amateur not in the sense that the women aren’t paid, but that they are not professionals who do mostly escorting for their living. The sugar-babies cover a very wide range of mostly very young women who need money for an ad hoc or ongoing purpose: tuition fees (many are college or university students), debts, even just food.

Webcamming takes full advantage of the internet in order for the women to make money. The men view them online only and either tip them for their performance, or — similar to stripping — move to a “private session” where the man can actually give the woman instructions on what he wants her to do.

In the 18th century, of course, many of these forms of sex work were unavailable or technologically impossible, but one could imagine an equivalent of sugar-babying perhaps (e.g., a man simply having an affair and paying the woman). Brothels and streetwalking were the two main methods in the 18th century, whereas in our own century the former are often illegal except in certain countries, and the latter has to be managed carefully by the woman so that she doesn’t put herself in danger from unpredictable clients or from the police who are trying to, as the parlance has it, “clean up the streets.”

In a future post, I will discuss some of the other aspects of sex work mentioned above for both centuries.

(1) The Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, with an Enquiry into the Causes of Their Present Alarming Increase, and Some Means Recommended for Checking Their Progress (1792)

(2) Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation: Being a View of the Present State of Fornication, Whorecraft, and Adultery … (1734)

(3) A similar argument is made by Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) in the famous scene in Reservoir Dogs about tipping waitresses. “Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job that basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (1992)

Six-Year Gap

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)

Writing Biography

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.

Travelling Fast and Slow

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.

Not a Doctor

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.

Hapax What?

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.

Samuel and Vladimir

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

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

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

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

Me, Sam, and the Reader

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

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

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

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

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