My tastes in literature and my opinions about it developed in a series of working class houses headed by my mother, a single mom who worked as a waitress and sometimes the bakery salesperson at Woolworth’s. She exercised absolutely no checks or restrictions on what I read. This doesn’t mean that I spent my time rifling through Playboy nor reading Plato. But the freedom was wonderful, though of course I didn’t realize that at the time as a pre-teen and teen growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in a small city in Newfoundland. I read average stuff which had at least the benefit of helping me develop a habit of reading and a familiarity with and interest in words. Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, Book of the Month Club, the Hardy Boys. But there were much more significant events, too, like my exposure to Nabokov’s Lolita when I was, I think, in my late teens, and had never read or been affected before by a book like that.
The freedom to read also led to efforts at doing my own writing, and that was also encouraged by my mother. She didn’t read or critique anything I wrote, but she bought me a blue manual typewriter and a typing table, thus facilitating anything I might want to type on paper. It still pains me a little today that in the zealous throes of minimalist cleansing about 30 years ago, I donated that typewriter and its carrying case to a thrift shop.
I finished high school and then went to university to study English literature, where my great influence was the great scholar and general man of letters, Patrick O’Flaherty, in whose class I was first introduced to Samuel Johnson. I graduated with a BA(Hons) and gradually lost contact with Patrick, except for an idea about Johnson that I took with me when I headed to grad school for my MA: his contention that Johnson’s Rambler essays were disorganized, which I didn’t agree with at all. That became the main idea I based my thesis on. I reconnected with Patrick several years ago, and even had lunch with him in St. John’s when I was visiting family, and he was still exuberant about Johnson and in addition still also keen to help me with the biography of Johnson that I am writing. (Tragically, Patrick died from drowning three years ago this month.)
At grad school I was studying mostly Johnson, Swift, and textual (and other) bibliography, and though I was young (a mere 20 when I started) and lacked confidence, I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly. I also took a class given by the great literary critic Northrop Frye and his ideas about literature — about it being a structure of words, about offensive literature not being “wrong” but simply what satirists sometimes do, and his grand division in Anatomy of Criticism of essentially all of Western literature into broad categories — all these have continued with me.
I don’t know whether I have become frozen in time, but the literary ideas of Frye and the writing of Nabokov continue today (when I am a less mere 60) and are probably the greatest influences on what I feel and believe about literature. Frye once said “everybody has a certain number of ideas built in, like eggs in a female,” so maybe it’s natural for any person to fixate or not be able to shake the hold that certain ideas have on them. Though I still feel a bit sheepish when I bring up either writer yet again when I am talking to friends and others about writing.
Ever since I finished my thesis on the Rambler and received my MA nearly 40 years ago now, I have to one or extent or another been studying and reading Johnson and about Johnson. After I finished co-writing a biography of standup comedian Greg Giraldo last year, I had learned enough from that excellent experience to change (or sharpen) the focus of my book about Johnson a bit. I don’t remember my original concept and work on it — which the Giraldo book effectively put a “pause” on for about four years — but now I see it pretty clearly. It was never to be a scholarly biography but now I’ve gone even further away from that and am even more intent on producing a very “user-friendly” biography of Johnson, solidly based in others’ scholarship, but thinking even more about the general reader — both the one who knows about Johnson a bit, and the one who has to be convinced that a bio of a writer who lived three centuries ago is worth reading at all. I had an exchange with two folks on Twitter last week who were talking about the difference between a thesis and a book. Kristen Alexander said that “a thesis proves how clever you are to a few equally clever readers & a book entertains/informs a non-specialist reader.” Katie Barclay’s variant was that “a thesis is an exam where you have to show your working, but with a book we trust you’ve done the work so you can contentrate on the narrative.” I tweeted back that both of their takes reflect what I am trying to do with My Sam Johnson.