I was at a car show recently where one of the extras I paid for was the opportunity to be in the passenger seat of a powerful car (I always think of poor Kinbote and his “powerful Kramler” in Pale Fire when that word comes up automotively) as it raced down the runway at a small airport in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada. My driver had a brilliant yellow Audi TT and we reached a top speed of 230 kph.

It was a fun half-minute, and like a practical librarian I was as much impressed by the brakes as I was by the speed that got us to the end so quickly.

That was August 10, 2019.

Johnson and Boswell took a trip together in Scotland that lasted more than three months over the summer and fall of 1773. Each of them ended up publishing a book about it. The trip was to the “western islands of Scotland” or to “the Hebrides” as they styled it, respectively. The archipelago of some 500 islands off the western mainland of Scotland (not all of them inhabited) are today generally divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides, that is, the ones closest to and farthest from the mainland shore. Johnson was 63 years old and Boswell was 32 when they started – both celebrated birthdays during the trip. The total distance was about 1,000 km, and of course there was no high-powered sports car. They both survived (though there were some dicey moments on the water), as did their friendship, and the two very different books they wrote about the experience are often compared and contrasted still today.

It’s an ironic fact that a man who is now often referred to as “Dr. Johnson” never actually graduated from university. He was awarded three honorary degrees during his lifetime: from Oxford University in 1755 (just in time so that he could style himself “A.M.” – master of arts – on the title page of his dictionary); a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1765; and another doctorate, again from Oxford, in 1775. But he never graduated from any university with any degree.

Johnson attended Oxford University, residing at Pembroke College, for about 13 months, from late October 1728 to mid-December 1729. He was 19 years old when he and his father set out on horseback from Lichfield, a distance of about 135 km south and east. It was the death of one of his mother’s cousins, who bequeathed her £40, that had enabled the family to have enough money to send him to university at all, and it was when the money ran out that his stay was shortened. Johnson never graduated, but there were several key incidents that took place at Oxford which defined or illustrate his character, and that estabish his short time as a student as an important part of his development.

There was a conference that was held at Pembroke College on the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth in 2009. I attended that and, as with other attendees — Johnson scholars, many pre-eminent, from around the world — I stayed in one of the rooms in the college. It was fantastic and an honour, and I experienced at times the same sense of reverence and awe I do when I’ve held a first edition of his Dictionary or his Rambler.

One of my favourite literary terms that I learned when I was studying English at university in the 1970s and 1980s was hapax legomenon, which in literary studies generally refers to the literally unique use of a word in a particular context, oeuvre, corpus, and so on. I first came upon it in Shakespeare studies: scholars would refer to a word as being “hapax legonemon in Shakespeare.” Sometimes they are blatantly esoteric words which you may never have heard of — like honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V, i). And sometimes they are just words which we may recognize as common now but which were evidentally rarer 400 years ago, or just not words which Shakespeare happened to use in his writing. For example, the use of predict as a noun meaning prediction is not only a hapax in Shakespeare, but doesn’t appear much (or at all) elsewhere in any other writer (it’s in Sonnet 14), according to the OED.

It may be stretching the meaning of hapax legomena a bit, but one of my favourite ones in Johnson is in the specific corpus of his letters. As anyone knows who has read just even a couple of them, or seen his signature elsewhere, the vast majority of his signatures are “Sam: Johnson”. In fact, using Bruce Redford’s edition of several hundred surviving letters, there are only six of the entire total that are signed in some other way:

  • Saml: Johnson : July 9, 1752 (vol. 1, pp. 62-64); uncertain date (vol. 5, pp. 19-21)
  • S.J. : Feb. 7, 1755 (vol. 1, pp. 94-97; the letter to Chesterfield)
  • Samuel Johnson : Feb. 12, 1767 (vol. 1, pp. 278-279); July 22, 1782 (vol. 4, p. 61); April 19, 1783 (vol. 3, pp. 129-131)

It’s interesting to note that the letter signed with the least amount of information and the least indication of personal engagement – just a spare “S.J.” – is the now-infamous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which Johnson is tersely venting his dislike and disrespect for the Lord’s actions (or, more accurately, inactions).

Ergo, “S.J.” is hapax legonemon as a signature in the letters of Johnson.

One of the surprising and pleasing things I’ve discovered so far in the course of my research for the book is that one of my favourite 20th-century authors was also a fan of Johnson. Or perhaps not a fan – especially when you are talking about Vladimir Nabokov and his attitude toward literature, you shouldn’t make any facile conclusions or assumptions. The fact is though that in Pale Fire, Nabokov makes extensive allusions to Johnson and his work, even to the extent of using a quote from Johnson (via Boswell) for the epigraph:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Jeffrey Meyers has written about these allusions in “Shade’s Shadow,” The New Criterion, 24:9 (May 2006), p. 31-35.

One further thing about Nabokov, Johnson, and me. Again, there are nuances about the issue, which I will cover in my book, but neither of the authors was a particular fan of music. Nabokov famously said in Strong Opinions that “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.” And Johnson is quoted as saying, perhaps less famously and, some scholars assert, less categorically than it would appear: “All animated nature loves music – except myself,” and: music “excites in my mind no ideas, and hinders me from contemplating my own.” (I’m also not much of a fan of music.)

I used to write fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s — short stories at first, and then novels. Some of the stories were published in literary journals, and one even won an erotic fiction contest (yes, even though I am a librarian). I published two of the novels myself. You can see them all here. I switched to non-fiction about a decade ago. Certainly in the fiction, and importantly in the non-fiction as well, I’ve always strived not to be self-indulgent. That is, not to write things just because they are of interest to me or because I happen to know something about something or because I want to make a point about something else. The last one is particularly one of the tenets that I hold strongly for fiction: didacticism has no place. If it’s fiction, it’s the words that matter, not the content.

I am also careful about the My Sam Johnson book as well. The baseline story is the biography of Johnson, and so I will have to be careful as I weave in comments about myself. Will the reader want to hear that? Will my own lived experienced next to Johnson’s tend to bolster or sully the point, or seem irrelevant — or self-indulgent. Most of the biographies, by far, of Johnson don’t do this kind of thing. The closest I know — and I have only just started reading it, on the recommendation of Johnson scholar Jack Lynch — is Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr Johnson. It’s an interesting read so far, but I have found that the text gets mired in academic lingo that can be hard to discern:

Here Johnsonian authority plays itself out in a joke that reverses the standard formula: the joke’s usual object is also its originator, at once excluded from the proper linguistic register and able to turn that register to improper use in an admission of her own lack. In this gendered scene of absence both canonical and physical, professional power is embodied, reinforced, and threatened, rehearsing, on a comic scale, the drama of disavowal of their hero’s death that Johnsonians perform as they gaze upon the author’s body in an attempt to keep him forever whole, alive, and before their eyes.

I will persist with the book, as there are many good things I have already discovered there, too.

The excision of self-indulgent passages is part of the editing process, and the whole purpose of course is to make a product that a reader will enjoy (and understand), not one where she or he feels that the writer is “going off” on something — a tangent or a favourite target. And in the case of my own book, it all has to relate to Johnson and not overly interfere with that main narrative.