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 …

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