One of the challenges and pleasures of writing a biography of a person about whom so much has already been written by so many other people is this: did I miss anything? You don’t want to be the proud author of a new biography of, say, Shakespeare for example, and when the thing is published you settle back in your favourite chair with a fresh copy from the publisher and realize you forgot to mention Hamlet.

That’s not to say of course that any biography of anyone could or even should include everything in the subject’s life. That would be not only impossible, but would probably end up being unreadable if it were.

On Friday, March 26, 2021, Wayne got up on the left side of his queen-sized bed, and then sat on the edge of the mattress for about one or two seconds before taking his BlackBerry KEY2 cellphone with its relatively new leather case made by StilGut and walking to his ensuite bathroom. He turned on the ventilating fan and the dimmer of the two lights, and laid the phone down on the counter. He always liked to have the phone nearby in case there was a call about a delivery – the directory buzzer in his west-end Ottawa condo building was set up to ring his phone if anyone buzzed him at the door – or of course any other call: from his 82-year-old mother or 44-year-old brother; from one of his close friends in Ottawa, Burnaby, Guelph, or Kingston; or any other call that was not expected but which it would be good to take now and not see it go to voicemail. After his micturition …

You see what I mean.

Writing a biography does require you to be organized though. You can’t have bits and pieces, anecdotes and tidbits, all over the place and expect to marshall the whole mess into a book that someone would want to read. As a practical matter for my own book, I have felt that I wanted a straight-up chronology or timeline of Sam’s life. There are two main purposes. First is that I want a quick and authoritative source that I can consult when I want to write about or confirm an incident or fact that I am working on. What was the exact date when he signed the contract to write the dictionary? When did he first meet Hester Thrale? That sort of thing.

The second purpose is that I want a list (or two) that I can consult when I am at the later stages of the writing of the book, so that I can double-check facts of any kind. I don’t want my work to be marred by very avoidable errors that would not only hurt me to see in the end product, but would contribute to the biography not being considered authoritative.

Fortunately for anyone writing about Sam, there’s a book called A Dr Johnson Chronology by Norman Page, published by Macmillan in 1990. It is simple and compact, progressing from year to year, and giving the main germane facts for each year. Here’s the full entry for 1757:

(courtesy of access to the Hathi Trust copy through Carleton University)

I also have a double-double-check (or is it a triple-check?) which I commissioned myself. I contracted with a freelance editor to go through the three scholarly biographies of Sam that were published in 2008 and 2009 (by Peter Martin, Jeffrey Meyers, and David Nokes) and to produce a list for me of anything mentioned that had a month & year, or a day & month & year, associated with it. That resulted in a 51-page Word document which does similarly as the above Chronology does:

Again, very useful, and also with the possible advantage that perhaps there were a few things that scholars didn’t know in 1990 that they had found out by 2008. Another way to keep myself organized.

1 reply
  1. allison
    allison says:

    As well as appreciating the adroit leap from laying down the cellphone to “after his micturition,” this reader considers the ellipsis a blessing.

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