Research for the Book

I am carrying out research for the book in some of the same ways that any researcher or scholar would. In addition to the primary sources, there are several full, authoritative, scholarly biographies of Johnson that have been published over the years, as well of course as a small mountain of articles and other smaller pieces. Many books on specific aspects of Johnson’s writings or of his life have also been published. And there have even been some very short biographies and other books, aimed more at a popular readership (like my own), and some heavy with illustrations and photos, that have also been published, especially in the last couple of decades. The quality and dependability of this giant corpus are variable.

I am also supplementing my standard research with other sources that are traditionally not used in scholarly books. I spent part of May 2019 in London, where I carried out in-person interviews with scholars who live in the city (and in Oxford). These were really excellent, and I had the opportunity to carry on a conversation with them as scholars and Johnson enthusiasts, which can be a nice change of pace from simply reading articles. I was very appreciative that these scholars took the time to meet with me and share their knowledge. One of them, for example, is an expert in theatre buildings and management from the late 16th century onwards, and was able to provide me with insights into the relationship between Johnson and his friend (and later actor and theatre manager) David Garrick.

I am still chiefly in the research phase of the book, but I have done some writing, and established roughly the chronology of Johnson’s life. Part of the latter entails selecting the aspects of Johnson’s person and the incidents in his life that I want to focus on, given my hoped-for readership.

It continues …

Wayne Jones on a book entitled My Sam Johnson

I first met Samuel Johnson during one of the courses I took at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as part of my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) studies. It was likely the 18th-century survey course, 404A or 404B, “British Literature, 1700-1784,” which I took in the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1981. I see from my transcript that I got a 75 in the fall and an 80 in the winter, so though I wasn’t a stellar student at least I did learn something and improve.

The professor was Patrick O’Flaherty and he was passionate about the 18th century and about Johnson in particular. An article that O’Flaherty published in 1978 influenced me in my choice of topic for my master’s thesis at the University of Toronto during 1981-1982. In the article he argued that there is a “lack of any readily perceived symmetry” in a series of essays which Johnson published in 1750-1752 called The Rambler, and that assertion always stuck with me – because I disagreed with it strongly. I took “symmetry” to mean “organization,” and I knew even then that though the rhetorical method in Johnson’s Rambler essays was not neat and orderly – not symmetrical – yet they were very well organized. I argued in my thesis that there is always a “coherent organization”:

A Rambler essay is not logically or symetrically structured around some central thesis. Rather, it progresses from paragraph to paragraph, from idea to idea, from event to event in a manner which may sometimes be abrupt but is always coherent.

And so I am writing this book. Yes, it’s another biography of Johnson, about whom at least three full scholarly biographies were published around 2009, the tercentenary of his birth. I intend this one to be different though — not scholarly, in fact, though authoritative; personal in the sense that it will include my thoughts about how Johnson’s life relates to me, how he has affected and influenced me; and written in a style and with content that will appeal to the general reader.