My Sam Johnson: December 31, 2019, 9:07 a.m., London, England

I have a lot of bits and pieces, and some of them some big bits or pieces, done for the biography about Samuel Johnson that I am writing. Some sections or scenes or passages have been fully written in advanced first draft, where when I go back to look at them, there likely won’t be much to change. I have also pretty well already set down a basic chronology of the events from Johnson’s life that I want to cover. There are a good half dozen or more authoritative, scholarly biographies of Johnson out there, many of them pretty recent — as well as books about aspects of his life, such as Leo Damrosch’s The Club — so the narrative is well known among those who are interested in it.

Part of the purpose of my book is to engender interest in those who don’t happen to be all that interested or who haven’t heard of Johnson. (I’m reminded of a great line from a now-dead uncle of mine, when he heard about a line of fishing rods made with the brand name Shakespeare: “Hey, isn’t that the guy that wrote the book?”) There’s a challenge here, if I may humbly say, because I want to present the full life of Johnson without just concentrating on the gnarly or sexy or loud bits, which would skew the life of a man whose legacy and life I respect, and whom I’ve studied since the early 1980s. (I hasten to add: not studied as a scholar, but as a well-informed amateur. I’ve been a librarian for most of my life.)

This, BTW, is my last official day as University Librarian at Carleton University in Canada’s capital. What a great time I had there and what great things my team and staff and I accomplished while I was there, if I may say so. I feel that I may say so because the work accomplished in any large organization is not done by “the boss,” but often by the boss getting out of the way and letting the senior team decide or letting the qualified and enthusiastic staff get their work done. I’m proud to have worked there.

The other part of the Johnson bio that I have to handle with care is the “personal” elements. I plan to incorporate sections on how Johnson’s thought or writing or life experiences have influenced or touched me. This is dangerous, not for what it might reveal about me — at the age of 60, I don’t worry about such stuff any more — but because it might become self-serving and — damn, what’s the word! — [after 10 seconds] self-indulgent. This is not a bio of me.

I’ve been so appreciative of those scholars and others who over the past several months have agreed to be interviewed by me (mostly by phone) about topics which were also aspects of Johnson’s life. It will all be covered in the final List of Sources in the book, but they have been so far (apologies if I have missed a name):

  • Annette Rubery
  • Colleen Cotter
  • Frans de Bruyn
  • Helen Williams
  • Jonathan Hyde
  • Judith Hawley
  • Kathy Lubey
  • Katie Barclay
  • Laura Rosenthal
  • Marjorie Doyle
  • Patrick O’Flaherty
  • Rebecca Shapiro
  • Robert Saint-Louis
  • Steph Clayton
  • Tiffany Stern
  • Tony Thorne
  • William Savage

These were short and pointed interviews, often just 20 to 45 minutes, but I am so so appreciative of the knowledge that the more-informed-than-I agreed to impart.

Of course the book contains traditional research in other secondary sources as well, and a limited amount in primary sources. Also, given the intended readership, I intend on including lots of photos, and/or linking to a page where I will post lots of photos. That is part of the reason I am in London: to get photos of Johnson’s haunts. One of the first stops will be the Turk’s Head Tavern. Sounds like a good place for a pint later in the day …

9:39 a.m.

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