The whole concept of biography, that is, the writing of the story of one person’s life by some other person, is inextricably tied up in the very name of Samuel Johnson. A sizeable portion of the writing that Johnson did during his own life was biography. One of his earliest published works was biographical in nature — not a full biography but the partial story of a man’s life: a translation of Jeronimo Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, which is an account of Lobo’s travels in Ethiopia. Johnson published that when he was 26. Later in life he went on to write a biography of his friend Richard Savage (a fascinating but troubled poet who claimed he was born of nobility) in 1744, and finally his monumental Lives of the Poets, which he wrote when he was in his early 70s.

Johnson also wrote about the value of biography as a genre in one of the issues of The Rambler, a twice-weekly essay series that he published 1750-1752. The one on biography is number 60 (October 13, 1750), and he has some interesting observations:

  • Johnson sees a practical use for biography in that it provides the story of a single person’s life that the reader can — as we might put it today — “relate to.” He contrasts this with history (“the downfall of kingdoms, and revolutions of empires, are read with great tranquillity”). It is only in biography, Johnson says, that emotion is activated: “Our passions are therefore more strongly moved, in proportion as we can more readily adopt the pains or pleasures proposed to our minds, by recognising them as once our own, or considering them as naturally incident to our state of life.”
  • He thought that nearly anyone’s life could be the subject of a biography: “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful … 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.”
  • He knew well that the story of a person’s life was not just a chronology of facts: “But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.”

I had the experience over the past three and a half years of co-authoring a biography of a standup comedian named Greg Giraldo. I learned some valuable lessons from that experience that I will depend on to help me with the writing of my bio of Johnson. His last point there, about chronology vs. character, may seem trite and obvious, and perhaps it is to more experienced biographers. I remember an early draft of the comedian book in which the text was written very mechanically: fact, quote to back it up, fact, quote to back it up, and so on. It was authoritative and accurate, but it didn’t really capture the essence of the man. That came only when we starting mining the interviews of people who knew Giraldo, weaving a story, and always being aware of how a single anecdote could in some cases tell you everything you wanted to know about this or that aspect of his character.

Part of the additional challenge with Johnson is that he is long dead, his writing is in a dense style that takes a little effort to discern — and, well, he lived three hundred years ago, and modern, non-scholarly readers will need some demonstration of relevancy before they decide they can finish off 200-plus pages, no matter how fascinating I find the man.

I was at a car show recently where one of the extras I paid for was the opportunity to be in the passenger seat of a powerful car (I always think of poor Kinbote and his “powerful Kramler” in Pale Fire when that word comes up automotively) as it raced down the runway at a small airport in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada. My driver had a brilliant yellow Audi TT and we reached a top speed of 230 kph.

It was a fun half-minute, and like a practical librarian I was as much impressed by the brakes as I was by the speed that got us to the end so quickly.

That was August 10, 2019.

Johnson and Boswell took a trip together in Scotland that lasted more than three months over the summer and fall of 1773. Each of them ended up publishing a book about it. The trip was to the “western islands of Scotland” or to “the Hebrides” as they styled it, respectively. The archipelago of some 500 islands off the western mainland of Scotland (not all of them inhabited) are today generally divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides, that is, the ones closest to and farthest from the mainland shore. Johnson was 63 years old and Boswell was 32 when they started – both celebrated birthdays during the trip. The total distance was about 1,000 km, and of course there was no high-powered sports car. They both survived (though there were some dicey moments on the water), as did their friendship, and the two very different books they wrote about the experience are often compared and contrasted still today.

It’s an ironic fact that a man who is now often referred to as “Dr. Johnson” never actually graduated from university. He was awarded three honorary degrees during his lifetime: from Oxford University in 1755 (just in time so that he could style himself “A.M.” – master of arts – on the title page of his dictionary); a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1765; and another doctorate, again from Oxford, in 1775. But he never graduated from any university with any degree.

Johnson attended Oxford University, residing at Pembroke College, for about 13 months, from late October 1728 to mid-December 1729. He was 19 years old when he and his father set out on horseback from Lichfield, a distance of about 135 km south and east. It was the death of one of his mother’s cousins, who bequeathed her £40, that had enabled the family to have enough money to send him to university at all, and it was when the money ran out that his stay was shortened. Johnson never graduated, but there were several key incidents that took place at Oxford which defined or illustrate his character, and that estabish his short time as a student as an important part of his development.

There was a conference that was held at Pembroke College on the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth in 2009. I attended that and, as with other attendees — Johnson scholars, many pre-eminent, from around the world — I stayed in one of the rooms in the college. It was fantastic and an honour, and I experienced at times the same sense of reverence and awe I do when I’ve held a first edition of his Dictionary or his Rambler.

One of my favouritie literary terms that I learned when I was studying English at university in the 1970s and 1980s was hapax legomenon, which in literary studies generally refers to the literally unique use of a word in a particular context, oeuvre, corpus, and so on. I first came upon it in Shakespeare studies: scholars would refer to a word as being “hapax legonemon in Shakespeare.” Sometimes they are blatantly esoteric words which you may never have heard of — like honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V, i). And sometimes they are just words which we may recognize as common now but which were evidentally rarer 400 years ago, or just not words which Shakespeare happened to use in his writing. For example, the use of predict as a noun meaning prediction is not only a hapax in Shakespeare, but doesn’t appear much (or at all) elsewhere in any other writer (it’s in Sonnet 14), according to the OED.

It may be stretching the meaning of hapax legomena a bit, but one of my favourite ones in Johnson is in the specific corpus of his letters. As anyone knows who has read just even a couple of them, or seen his signature elsewhere, the vast majority of his signatures are “Sam: Johnson”. In fact, using Bruce Redford’s edition of several hundred surviving letters, there are only six of the entire total that are signed in some other way:

  • Saml: Johnson : July 9, 1752 (vol. 1, pp. 62-64); uncertain date (vol. 5, pp. 19-21)
  • S.J. : Feb. 7, 1755 (vol. 1, pp. 94-97; the letter to Chesterfield)
  • Samuel Johnson : Feb. 12, 1767 (vol. 1, pp. 278-279); July 22, 1782 (vol. 4, p. 61); April 19, 1783 (vol. 3, pp. 129-131)

It’s interesting to note that the letter signed with the least amount of information and the least indication of personal engagement – just a spare “S.J.” – is the now-infamous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which Johnson is tersely venting his dislike and disrespect for the Lord’s actions (or, more accurately, inactions).

Ergo, “S.J.” is hapax legonemon as a signature in the letters of Johnson.

One of the surprising and pleasing things I’ve discovered so far in the course of my research for the book is that one of my favourite 20th-century authors was also a fan of Johnson. Or perhaps not a fan – especially when you are talking about Vladimir Nabokov and his attitude toward literature, you shouldn’t make any facile conclusions or assumptions. The fact is though that in Pale Fire, Nabokov makes extensive allusions to Johnson and his work, even to the extent of using a quote from Johnson (via Boswell) for the epigraph:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Jeffrey Meyers has written about these allusions in “Shade’s Shadow,” The New Criterion, 24:9 (May 2006), p. 31-35.

One further thing about Nabokov, Johnson, and me. Again, there are nuances about the issue, which I will cover in my book, but neither of the authors was a particular fan of music. Nabokov famously said in Strong Opinions that “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.” And Johnson is quoted as saying, perhaps less famously and, some scholars assert, less categorically than it would appear: “All animated nature loves music – except myself,” and: music “excites in my mind no ideas, and hinders me from contemplating my own.” (I’m also not much of a fan of music.)

I used to write fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s — short stories at first, and then novels. Some of the stories were published in literary journals, and one even won an erotic fiction contest (yes, even though I am a librarian). I published two of the novels myself. You can see them all here. I switched to non-fiction about a decade ago. Certainly in the fiction, and importantly in the non-fiction as well, I’ve always strived not to be self-indulgent. That is, not to write things just because they are of interest to me or because I happen to know something about something or because I want to make a point about something else. The last one is particularly one of the tenets that I hold strongly for fiction: didacticism has no place. If it’s fiction, it’s the words that matter, not the content.

I am also careful about the My Sam Johnson book as well. The baseline story is the biography of Johnson, and so I will have to be careful as I weave in comments about myself. Will the reader want to hear that? Will my own lived experienced next to Johnson’s tend to bolster or sully the point, or seem irrelevant — or self-indulgent. Most of the biographies, by far, of Johnson don’t do this kind of thing. The closest I know — and I have only just started reading it, on the recommendation of Johnson scholar Jack Lynch — is Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr Johnson. It’s an interesting read so far, but I have found that the text gets mired in academic lingo that can be hard to discern:

Here Johnsonian authority plays itself out in a joke that reverses the standard formula: the joke’s usual object is also its originator, at once excluded from the proper linguistic register and able to turn that register to improper use in an admission of her own lack. In this gendered scene of absence both canonical and physical, professional power is embodied, reinforced, and threatened, rehearsing, on a comic scale, the drama of disavowal of their hero’s death that Johnsonians perform as they gaze upon the author’s body in an attempt to keep him forever whole, alive, and before their eyes.

I will persist with the book, as there are many good things I have already discovered there, too.

The excision of self-indulgent passages is part of the editing process, and the whole purpose of course is to make a product that a reader will enjoy (and understand), not one where she or he feels that the writer is “going off” on something — a tangent or a favourite target. And in the case of my own book, it all has to relate to Johnson and not overly interfere with that main narrative.

I am carrying out research for the book in some of the same ways that any researcher or scholar would. In addition to the primary sources, there are several full, authoritative, scholarly biographies of Johnson that have been published over the years, as well of course as a small mountain of articles and other smaller pieces. Many books on specific aspects of Johnson’s writings or of his life have also been published. And there have even been some very short biographies and other books, aimed more at a popular readership (like my own), and some heavy with illustrations and photos, that have also been published, especially in the last couple of decades. The quality and dependability of this giant corpus are variable.

I am also supplementing my standard research with other sources that are traditionally not used in scholarly books. I spent part of May 2019 in London, where I carried out in-person interviews with scholars who live in the city (and in Oxford). These were really excellent, and I had the opportunity to carry on a conversation with them as scholars and Johnson enthusiasts, which can be a nice change of pace from simply reading articles. I was very appreciative that these scholars took the time to meet with me and share their knowledge. One of them, for example, is an expert in theatre buildings and management from the late 16th century onwards, and was able to provide me with insights into the relationship between Johnson and his friend (and later actor and theatre manager) David Garrick.

I am still chiefly in the research phase of the book, but I have done some writing, and established roughly the chronology of Johnson’s life. Part of the latter entails selecting the aspects of Johnson’s person and the incidents in his life that I want to focus on, given my hoped-for readership.

It continues …

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.