I just received this great, nicely specific book in the mail a couple of days ago, and am hopeful it will provide fairly up-to-date information (it was originally published in 1991) all in one place about Sam’s various ailments. I haven’t started reading yet, but the first chapter is “Johnson’s Medical History: Facts and Mysteries.” There’s also a chapter about (Dr.) Robert Levet, who lived within Sam’s home for many years, and who some considered a doctor, and some considered a quack. Finally, there’s a chapter on “The Practice of Physic” (physic = medicine), which also sounds promising.
It comes at the same time as I am in the middle of reading another pretty specific book, which a well-known Johnsonian scholar, O M Brack — yes, those are his names: the O and M are not abbreviations of something else — has edited in a beautiful edition of only 250 copies (one of which I own!) published by the Windhover Press in Iowa City. The full title is Journal Relative to Doctor Johnson’s Last Illness Three Weeks Before His Death, Kept by John Hoole, MDCCLXXXIV. You can see that the title refers to the year Sam died, M(1)DCC(7)LXXX(8)IV(4), and the last three weeks would have been November 20 through December 13.
The facts are that though he was a big and in many ways robust man through his life, in addition to suffering from depression and anxiety (mental illnesses), he also suffered from physical ailments from birth, in addition to major ones as his body deteriorated in his latter years.
I’m interested in the details of Sam’s death partly for myself, but also because I am anticipating that it will be something that readers of my book will be interested in as well. As in everything in a biography, there has to be a balance, and that balance is subjective. Another writer might see the death as the end of a great life and might not want to dwell on this sadness for too long, and so Sam might be dispatched in half a page. But even from what I’ve read so far about his death, I know I don’t want to be so succinct. Balance. You don’t necessarily want to dwell on all the details, but there are selected ones that can really evoke the deathbed and show the reader something about how Sam’s mind was, how he “handled” dying, what he said, what his last words were, and so on. I don’t feel any need to defend myself about this. If you’re writing a biography, any- and everything that happens in the person’s life has potential for inclusion.
Whether something is included, and the extent to which it is, is a common thing that not only any biographer deals with, but anyone who writes a book — or creates any kind of work — about anything faces. We are used to it in movies, for example. In a single movie, 30 seconds of screen time can cover a decade, and yet 5 minutes might be devoted to, say, a single interaction between two characters in a key scene.
In my podcast this week, I just have a few things to say about Sam’s health and death, but mostly I focus on something I’ve touched on before but have not discussed in much detail. It also has to to with selection, with what to leave in and what to leave out, but applied to my whole book. So: I talk about how one organizes (or at least how I organize) the mass of information about Sam Johnson in order to produce a readable book of a sensible length for the general reader. Want to listen … ?