Sam Johnson: Rambler, Adventurer, Idler

Sam was all of these in person, but those are also the names of three separate periodicals/magazines that he contributed to in the 1750s, when he was mostly in his forties. Here are the basic facts about the extent of his writing for them, so that you can get a sense of perspective on his level of commitment and dedication:

The Rambler, 1750-52

Sam wrote all but 7 of the 208 twice-weekly essays

The Adventurer, 1753-54

Sam wrote only 29 of the twice-weekly essays

The Idler, 1758-60

Sam wrote all but 12 of the 103 weekly essays

One of my favourite anecdotes about The Rambler is that, apart from the money that he would be paid for writing them,* his stated reason for beginning the series was as a break from the dictionary of the English language that he happened to be compiling at the same time. Some people take a jaunt to the coast when they have a quarterly report due next week, and some people start working on their annual report, I guess.

*”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Sam Johnson, 1776, quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin Random House, 2008), p. 591.

from The Beauties of Johnson: Consisting of Maxims and Observations, Moral, Critical, and Miscellaneous,
by Dr. Samuel Johnson (London: G. Kearsly, 1781)

These three series of essays are really good illustrations of Sam’s ability to adapt the style of his writing to the purpose and the readership he was addressing. The main point is that I see a decrease in the density and complexity of the style and diction from the Rambler in the early 1750s to the Idler in the late 1750s. How much more difficult is it to understand this, from the Rambler:

The resentment produced by sincerity, whatever be its immediate cause, is so certain, and generally so keen, that very few have magnanimity sufficient for the practice of a duty, which, above most others, exposes its votaries to hardships and persecutions; yet friendship without it is of a very little value, since the great use of so close an intimacy is that our virtues may be guarded and encour∣aged, and our vices repressed in their first appearance by timely detection, and salutary remonstrances.

No. 40 (August 4, 1750)

than this, from the Idler:

Men complain of nothing more frequently than of deficient memory; and, indeed, every one finds that many of the ideas which he desired to retain have slipped irretrievably away; that the acquisitions of the mind are sometimes equally fugitive with the gifts of fortune; and that a short intermission of attention more certainly lessens knowledge than impairs an estate.

No. 72 (September 1, 1759)

I talk about the differences in style and tone among the three sets of essays, and also call on modern examples of writing and film to illustrate the point, in my latest podcast. Surely you have three thirty-four more minutes … ?

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