I first met Samuel Johnson during one of the courses I took at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as part of my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) studies. It was likely the 18th-century survey course, 404A or 404B, “British Literature, 1700-1784,” which I took in the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1981. I see from my transcript that I got a 75 in the fall and an 80 in the winter, so though I wasn’t a stellar student at least I did learn something and improve.
The professor was Patrick O’Flaherty and he was passionate about the 18th century and about Johnson in particular. An article that O’Flaherty published in 1978 influenced me in my choice of topic for my master’s thesis at the University of Toronto during 1981-1982. In the article he argued that there is a “lack of any readily perceived symmetry” in a series of essays which Johnson published in 1750-1752 called The Rambler, and that assertion always stuck with me – because I disagreed with it strongly. I took “symmetry” to mean “organization,” and I knew even then that though the rhetorical method in Johnson’s Rambler essays was not neat and orderly – not symmetrical – yet they were very well organized. I argued in my thesis that there is always a “coherent organization”:
A Rambler essay is not logically or symetrically structured around some central thesis. Rather, it progresses from paragraph to paragraph, from idea to idea, from event to event in a manner which may sometimes be abrupt but is always coherent.
And so I am writing this book. Yes, it’s another biography of Johnson, about whom at least three full scholarly biographies were published around 2009, the tercentenary of his birth. I intend this one to be different though — not scholarly, in fact, though authoritative; personal in the sense that it will include my thoughts about how Johnson’s life relates to me, how he has affected and influenced me; and written in a style and with content that will appeal to the general reader.