On December 13 last year I interviewed Kathleen Lubey by phone as part of the research I am doing for this book about Samuel Johnson. The book will include a background chapter about various aspects of social life in London and England in the 18th century, and I was (and am) interested to include information about pornography and prostitution as well.

The audio link below (it’s about 7 minutes long) is a segment of the longer interview, in which Prof. Lubey discusses those topics and provides information about other works, both primary and secondary, as well.


Kathleen Lubey is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Centre at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She is the author of Excitable Imaginations: Eroticism and Reading in Britain, 1660-1760, published in 2012, and one of her current projects is a book in progress called Pornography’s Discontents: Sex and Social Protest. The excerpt from my interview is used with her permission.

The Samuel Johnson Society in Lichfield, England (Johnson’s birthplace), recently started what promises to be an excellent Twitter account (@SamJohnsonSoc), where they are posting details and facts — no fake news here! — about Johnson, Lichfield, and … well, we shall see, as it has only just started a couple of weeks ago. The purpose of the society, which was founded 110 years ago, is, as they state in the profile on their Twitter page, “to advance the education of the public in the life, works and times of Dr Samuel Johnson and to help with the preservation of @SamuelJohnsonBM [i.e., the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum].”

Part of the goal I have for this biography of Johnson that I am writing overlaps with part of the mission of the society. I want to promote a man and an author whom perhaps fewer and fewer people know about, and who is maybe even becoming less of a subject of study among scholars (no matter how long the 18th century is 🎈 ).

I had a brief exchange with the society on Twitter last week (here, here, here) in which I suggested that a line of greeting cards might be appropriate. I’m thinking not cards for people who already know about Johnson, but for those who don’t and are introduced to him accidentally, like a parent or doctor mashing cauliflower into your potatoes in order to ensure that you get more variety in your vegetables. I imagine cards with quotations on the front from Johnson which could be applicable to other life situations — a card that a person would buy not first because it commemorates Johnson, but because the quote is funny or quirky and they could see giving it to a friend or relative as a shared joke or accompanying a gift. The trick would be in finding quotes from Johnson that could be “leveraged” — I’m already thinking in business terms — for that purpose and that would attract the interest of someone browsing the shelves in a card store or looking at some site online.

Fortunately, Johnson was endlessly articulate, sarcastic, caustic, and funny, and Boswell and others have preserved many of his quips and comments. Some are of course too specific to the circumstances to translate well as a card for your boyfriend, but there are many that are not. I just thought of this idea recently, so I haven’t had much time to come up with a list of any size, but here are some possibilities:

  • “Frank, a clean shirt!”
  • “I refute it thus!”

I wouldn’t assert that those are the best or most obvious ones, but after some time to think I am sure I could come up with dozens that would work for the purpose. Take the first example. Maybe you have a friend who wears the same T-shirt all the time, or another friend who is meticulous about his appearance and seems to have a newly drycleaned shirt on every time you meet him. That would be the hook, the appeal, even for someone who knows nothing about Johnson. I also picture the cards (sorry for the pun) with an illustration on the front, in order to enhance the drawing power (pun unavoidable) of the quote.


The quote would be on the front page of the card with an illustration. The verso of the front page, and the third page, would be blank so that the giver could write their own comments. And on the back of the card there would be a sparely written explanation of the source of the quote. You see this kind of thing on some greeting cards that feature, for example, photography or a reproduction of an artist’s painting — it’s the front content that draws the buyer in, and then there’s an explanation on the back of the card (for me, the best ones don’t overdo it with the explanation).

I got a printer to do a card with the first sentiment. The illustration is not what I would want personally — I’d prefer something less representational, more minimal, fewer lines but definitely suggesting a shirt — and the explanation of the origin on the back is too long, but anyhoo perhaps you get the idea:

What do you think?

I’m referring of course to his writing style. His sartorial style was rarely a priority for him, though one of my favourite slices of an anecdote about Johnson involves an elaborate scheme his friends concocted to bring him together at a dinner with John Wilkes, who had been critical of Johnson’s dictionary but who also, as a Member of Parliament, held views with which Johnson strongly disagreed. Johnson ended up being seated next to Wilkes at a dinner, but what I like and remember is his quick decision to attend in the first place, saying to his servant: “Frank, a clean shirt!”

I am working on the section of my book dealing with Johnson’s writing style (or styles), and so supplementing my own thoughts with some secondary research. The classic, and now nearly 80-year-old text on the subject, is W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.’s The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (Yale University Press, 1941). Still, it sets down some of the basics of Johnson’s style which readers can readily recognize, many of them reflected in his chapter titles: parallelism, antithesis, personal style of diction, sentence length, and so on. It’s a good basic start to anyone interested in the topic. A few years later, Wimsatt published another book about Johnson’s style, but this time concentrating on two works: Philosophic Words: A Study of
Style and Meaning in the Rambler and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson
(Yale, 1948).

A book which I am finding more interesting and insightful on the topic, though, is William Vesterman’s The Stylistic Life of Samuel Johnson (Rutgers University Press, 1977). This book feels more nuanced to me, and also is based on an important premise that has been ignored by some critics: the cross-over that is often made between Johnson’s style — which, yes, often tends to generalization in some of his works — and his life. Vesterman’s idea is that since a lot of Johnson’s writing already deals in abstractions, readers and critics are forced to deal with his life (“the concrete”) in any analysis of his style. He uses this example:

Faced with Johnson’s habit of writing in the largest abstractions, his commentators are left no way to connect his terms save to use them. To oversimplify: if a usual critical tendency of explication is to move to greater abstraction, to say Moby-Dick is not about a whale hunt but about Life and Truth, what then is there to say about a writer whose acknowledged subject is “the choice of Life” and who constantly uses the term, “Truth”? Having preempted the highest level of abstraction, Johnson’s writing tends to seem explainable only by reference to the concrete. (p. 11)

Vesterman’s first chapter after his introduction deals with Johnson’s Life of Savage, so I am re-reading that work before I read Vesterman’s comments. (For those who haven’t read Johnson — or anyone — on Savage, it’s quite a story, and so always fun and instructive to read again.) There is of course other critical literature on Johnson’s style — some of it in the many scholarly biographies — and I will get to that in due course.

Vesterman also makes the good case that Johnson’s style changed over time. The Johnson who wrote the dense essays in The Rambler, for example, is not the same Johnson who was, to a certain extent, more direct and clear in his conversation and in his later works.

En passant, whenever I think of writers and style, I always think of the great Vladimir Nabokov. In apologizing for his editing of the transcript of an interview, Nabokov, often cited as one of the best English prose stylists of the 20th (or any) century, said in a letter to Robert Hughes, an interviewer for National Educational Television: “I am terribly sorry if my extensive cuts are causing you any disappointment, but I am sure you will understand that after all I am almost exclusively a writer, and my style is all I have.” (letter to Hughes, Nov. 9, 1965, in Selected Letters 1940-1977 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 381)

Definitely the 21st Century

One of the things I’ve been gathering a lot of information about is about what I might call generically “life in the 18th century.” Given that the book is aimed at a general readership, I think it’s important to give people an idea of what it was like to live during that century. I don’t mean that I will be concentrating on wars and political events and that sort of thing. I won’t be. I mean: what was it like to live your daily life? How did you wake up in the morning? What jobs did people do? What condition were the streets in? Was the mail service reliable? How did people dress and where did they buy their clothes? Was there any such thing as “off the rack” or was everything made by tailors? What did homes look like? Did people generally own them or rent them? And how much did everything cost? What was significantly cheaper than it is now, and what was more expensive?

And so on like that. Medicine, poverty, publishing, religion, sex, style, watches — and much more. One could write a whole book about all that, of course — and several people have! — but my plan is to try to compact it into a readable chapter or two. The focus of the book is Samuel Johnson, not life in London in the 18th century, but I do feel that people need a taste of the latter before they can savour the former. I’ve found much information in books and journals, of course, but I’ve also interviewed experts who have given me details that are just invaluable.

The whole thing also sometimes makes me think about what it would be like if Johnson were living in the 21st century. His Rambler essays, for example, would make a nice blog — and at twice a week and kept up for two solid years, much more successful than most blogs are. I myself manage to do these fairly short blog postings about once or twice a month. This one will have about 500 words in it — pretty modest. Each of Johnson’s twice-weekly essays was well over a thousand words on average.

I’ll end with a plea … if there’s an aspect of 18th-century living, especially in London, that you know a lot about, please contact me any time. I’d love to hear from you.

Please take a look at my guest posting on the blog of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum here. Includes an image of a painting I commissioned in 2014 for what turned out to be a bright, cubist take on one of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of Johnson.