Sam Johnson, Blockhead

My title refers to one of the best-known quotations from Sam, which Boswell reported in his biography:

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

As usual in most things in life, Sam’s or anyone else’s, context is everything. If this is the only quotation that someone knows from Sam, then that person has a bit of a skewed view of what Sam thought of writing and why he did it. Or, at least, not the full view.

The literal context of the quote — the words before and after in Boswell — even the simplicity of those surrounding words provides a more accurate picture:

When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, ‘I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.’ This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

It’s the last sentence of course that is the kicker. There are lots of examples of writers who wrote (and write) for reasons other than money, and frankly you could make a good case that Sam was one of them, at least some of the time. When he was doing hack work for The Gentleman’s Magazine in his 20’s, yes, it was likely for money only. And of course writing for money doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing terrible writing, though if that is your only purpose then: (1) it’s likely your writing is going to be more terrible than literary; and (2) if your writing is good, experimental, different from the chaff that most writers are heaving out, then you are probably not making much money. Alas, innovative or aesthetic talent is often not recognized in its time.

One of the people that my co-author Matt Balaker and I interviewed for our biography of stand-up comedian Greg Giraldo was the great Jamie Masada, who founded the Laugh Factory comedy club in 1979 on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Jamie loves comedy and when he saw talented comedians either depressed — or, tragically worse, commiting suicide — he established a resident psychologist in his club. He would get pitched by a lot of comedians, and he told us in the interview that he always knew that the ones that were getting into comedy for the money were either not going to be funny or were not going to make it — or both. His rationale was that if money was your focus, then the comedy would not be.

Credit: Detail from portrait
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
National Portrait Gallery

And it turns out that it works both ways. There are some wealthy comedians who are not (or are no longer) funny, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Carrot Top. There are some who are both wealthy and still funny, like Chris Rock. Conversely, there are some very funny comedians who are not well known and who, presumably, are not wealthy (e.g., Matt Braunger, Tommy Johnigan, Liza Treyger). And, alas, there are those who have no money, nor are they funny (I’m not telling).

I suppose the main point I am making about Sam and about writing is not a terribly profound one. It’s that if writing is your talent and you have to practice it in order to make a living, then, ignoring all other reasons and rationales, you could say truthfully that you write for money, and that you would be blockheadish to write anything for free, especially if your career is not lucrative. There are likely many people who feel that way about their jobs. They do them to support a family, sometimes it’s a grind, and you’d be reluctant to do even more work, for free, if there were the chance. And, yes, there are people who hate their jobs to the core and would do anything to be out of them, but there are those, too, who do them to make a living but actually enjoy them as well. I know that personally I can say that about my library career.

There were occasions during Sam’s life when he did writing without getting or expecting financial compensation. He helped his friend Robert Chambers, who was appointed to the plum post of Vinerian Professor of Law at Oxford University, but then was so nervous about it that he didn’t write any lectures for one of the terms. He was fined. Sam stepped in to help and together they co-wrote lectures which Chambers could give.

Another example I really like is not so much a case of writing but of literary evaluation. And it comes with a great story and even a painting. Here’s the story, as reported by (who else?) Boswell, quoting Sam, and the painting (credit: Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum):

I received one morning a message from poor [Oliver] Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was drest, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion. I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill.

Maybe not such a blockhead after all.


And, please check out my podcast below. The main topic is why people write and what are the most important things in writing. Go on, listen. You know you want to …

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