The Real and the Unrevealed: Biography, Truth, and Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson was knowledgeable about the purpose and value of biography partly because he wrote a lot of it himself during the course of a life during which he wrote in many different genres. Perhaps his two most notable, or at least famous, biographical works provide an interesting contrast because one was about a friend of his who had recently died, and the other was a series of biographies of poets and other writers whom he had never met. The one about his friend (the fascinating poet Richard Savage) was also written when Sam was in his mid-30s and still struggling to make a life for himself as a writer, but the series was written near the end of his life, when he was in his late 60s, and well established as the central literary figure in England. A group of publishers was putting together a collection of poems by 52 poets and they asked Sam to write the biographical prefaces.

Sam also wrote about the art of biography in one of the issues of The Rambler, a series of essays that he wrote twice a week for two years. Rambler no. 60 was published on October 13, 1750, and in it Sam reveals his knowledge and his biases about biography as a literary form. The main point was that he saw its value for readers: “no species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful.” He echoes there an unconscious bias of his, but a common one of the era, which many readers might not agree with today. I myself don’t read biographies for how useful they might be to me — that is, I am not looking for life lessons as they are revealed in the activity of someone else who has already gone through them. I lean more to the “delightful” side. I read biographies that are well written about people whom I am interested in for one reason or another.

Sam goes on to make three additional, more specific points in the Rambler essay:

  • Human nature is demonstrated in the life of any person. Everyone (literally) leads a unique life, but when you set aside the different circumstances and details, you discover the same basics at the core. “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
  • Biographers often don’t know what they’re doing. Sam’s reasoning is that many biographers concentrate on the public facts of a person’s life and feel that they have done their job if they just arrange those in order. “They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments.” Sam disdains the biographer who produces such a “formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.”
  • The real truth about a person is revealed in the private details. He felt that “the business of a biographer” is not to overly focus on the exterior life of the person, but “to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life.” Sam felt that it was how the person behaved that was important, the smaller events in their life. Unfortunately those are fleeting and known by few people: “the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition.”

Near the end of the essay, Sam talks about the special case of when the biographer actually knows the person they’re writing about (as he did Richard Savage, for example). The danger is that the biographer may write a little too glowingly about the friend or family member, not only hiding “faults or failings” but even in some cases making things up. Those biographies all end up looking like the same great person, except for the external details. The whole thing reminds me of eulogies, or the hasty interviews that journalists do at the scene of a tragedy, or the statements people make about a dead relative. She “always had a smile on her face.” He “would give you the shirt off his back.” That kind of thing. Especially as I’ve gotten older, I squirm and have less respect for that kind of panegyric assessment.

One of my uncles died last week and when I found out the news my first reaction was indifference, but I found that the more I thought about it, the more angry I was. Not because he had died. But because he managed to make it to the grave without seeing justice for some of the truly evil and morally bankrupt things he did. The culture of silence around him when he was alive was such that everyone in the extended family knew what he had done, but nobody talked about those details that Sam Johnson knew were extremely important to knowing the real man.

He was the “inspiration,” if I can put it weirdly like that, of the first short story which I ever managed to get published, 27 years ago now (it’s less than 300 words long and you can read it here). He was not a good man. He attempted to sexually assault all of his daughters and did so successfully with one of his granddaughters. He made the same attempts with both of his sisters-in-law, one of whom is my mother. He left his wife for a while so that he could go live with a younger woman. My memory is faulty, but I think that lasted about a year.

As for me, a quiet, obedient boy growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I escaped the worst because his penchant was for females only. But he still managed to do one thing that an uncle shouldn’t do to a nephew about 10 years old. It happened on one of our regular family visits to his house (he was married to one of my mother’s sisters, and my mother would take my brother and me to visit them in order to stay in touch, as they lived about 35 km from where we did). Again, my memory of most of the details is gone now, but I certainly remember in pretty vivid detail being alone with him in his basement, my mother and the others all oblivious upstairs, while he showed me a reel-to-reel film of violent pornography. I’m not talking about “rough sex” or the huge menu of offerings one can partake of on the open internet these days. The detail I remember was a woman being bound up and a man using a knife to cut around her nipple.

I was 10, for fuck sake.

Sam Johnson wrote that a biography could be written about any man’s life. I doubt whether anyone will write about my uncle, but I know that in the death announcement and during the burial, none of the facts I’ve mentioned here will be evoked. Sam also wrote that although you generally “owe regard to the memory of the dead,” you should have even more respect for knowledge and truth.

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