Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop

Who is Sam: Johnson and why does he stick 

that funny colon in his name?

Samuel Johnson (1709-84) lived London, life, and literature during England’s greatest era of elegance, refinement and culture-- he being anything but elegant, with his massive pockmarked face, ill-fitting frazzled wig too small for his pate, sloppy drab brown broadcloths and grotesque obsessive compulsive seizures.  (This during the Age of Reason, when irrational behavior meant ridicule and maybe Bedlam). In addition the  horror of damnation constantly plagued him. A big man with a big libido, but small chance for romance owing to his ugliness and awkwardness, Johnson at twenty had married a widow, a fading beauty nearly twice his age. She gave him less than half in satisfaction, the two not wholly companionate in minds. He outlived her by nearly thirty years.

Johnson had nearly everything against him. His poverty. His bad health. His ungainly appearance. His convulsive tics.  Everything except his mind.  Except his goodness and the power of his religious faith. Except his pride. 

Johnson remained fiercely proud though poverty depressed much of his life. Poverty expelled him from Oxford after thirteen months. Though even at Oxford pride overcame poverty when a fellow student noticing Johnson’s decaying shoes, left a new pair at Johnson’s door. Needing them desperately, Johnson threw them out.

Immediately after his marriage, with his wife’s small inheritance from her late husband, Johnson opened a private school. It failed. But from it he salvaged his star pupil, David Garrick, who accompanied him to London, where two years later Johnson spent impoverished nights wandering wet squalid streets with Richard Savage, a flamboyant poet who lived a wasted life vainly seeking recognition (and restitution) from the titled lady whose illegitimate son he claimed to be. Garrick went on to become the most successful actor of the age.

Haunted by poverty, Johnson managed to grind out articles for the Gentleman’s Magazine, paraphrasing the political debates he gathered from the galleries of parliament. Other minor literary work began to earn Johnson a name for himself.  So much so that a flock of booksellers (the publishers of the day) clubbed together to hire him to write a dictionary.

It took him seven years.  Depressed by poverty and by the death of his wife, neglected by the elegant Lord Chesterfield (who early on had offered support and patronage – only to withdraw the same till the dictionary was finished and his help no longer needed), and nearly overwhelmed by the drudgery involved, Johnson completed his dictionary, published in 1755.  A tremendous success.  But the biproduct proves more valuable. While at work on the dictionary, in order to “to refrigerate” his brain, Johnson wrote his biweekly periodical essays, The Rambler and The Adventurer. And The Idler, a couple of years later. The real “bark and steel” of his work. People still derive delight and hope from these wonderful essays, especially those treating of anxieties and fears. The reader finds himself no longer alone.  Doctor Johnson felt that way, too. 

Johnson gained his fame by the power of literature, and his friends by the power of his talk. Who were his friends?  Boswell, Goldsmith, Burke, Reynolds, Gibbon, Garrick. The literary, cultural, and politically great.

His poverty ended with a pension for literature from King George and with the friendship of Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and his wife Hester, who gave Johnson respect along with a home in their mansion, made much of him, and planed down some rough edges.

Financially stable at last, Johnson distributed charity and goodness. Not the least of his feats was supporting the menagerie of bickerers he invited to live at his own house (he staying with the Thrales) and with whom he charitably dined every Sunday. One of these inmates, a former streetwalker named Poll Carmichael, he found fainted on the street.  He carried her on his back to his house, reformed her, and invited her permanently to live there.

Why do so many read Johnson’s works today-- London, a Poem. The Vanity of Human Wishes.  Rasselas. The Lives of the Poets (especially “the Life of Richard Savage”). Above all, the Rambler, Idler, Adventurer essays?

Because Johnson’s work abounds in wisdom, or common sense quantified. And irresistible style. The most masculine of authors, Johnson chose the active voice and the vigorous verb. Yet Johnson’s voice goes beyond writing. Most of us squeeze to write our best. Johnson vowed always to talk his best even with an audience of one. For Johnson was the greatest talker of all time.

And for this we go to Boswell. 

When Johnson was fifty-four and internationally famous particularly for his Dictionary and literary essays, a twenty-three year old Scot named James Boswell  happened upon Johnson at the bookseller Tom Davies’ shop on Monday, May 16th, 1763.  Immediately he decided to write Johnson’s biography someday. For the rest of Johnson’s life the two met as often as Boswell could escape from law work in Scotland or Johnson find time in London.  Boswell intended to write a new kind of biography, focusing on the small details, the idiosyncrasies traditionally spurned by biographers as trivial. Boswell actually maneuvered Johnson into dramatic situations in order to have good scenes for the intended book. Boswell’s retentive memory and busy pen hummed even in the wilds of the Hebrides, to get to which-- for the joy of Johnson’s conversation-- he’d managed to pry Johnson loose from his London haunts and comforts. The great work, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791, seven years after Johnson died.

And what a book. Not only Johnson but the eighteenth century breathes, along with dramatis personae as complex as anyone in Richardson or Fielding.  Beneath the fun ferments a world profound and sublime. Curiously, there is more of Johnson in Boswell than in the works of Johnson. For we see him not as he wrote but as he was.  And Johnson’s greatest work is Johnson himself.  That’s what Boswell’s book is all about.

Best of all is Johnson talking.

That’s how we’ll leave him, talking and very much alive, holding forth among his friends at his literary club or speaking tête- à- tête with Boswell.  When Johnson opened his mouth the world listened.  And held its breath.  Let us eavesdrop.

Here is Johnson talking:

“He who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.”

“Let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich.”

“That was a good dinner enough, to be sure; but it was not a dinner to ask a man to.”

“It matters not how a man dies, but how a man lives.”

 “If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.”

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

“Clear your mind of cant.”

“Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.”

 “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

“A book should teach us to enjoy life, or to endure it.”

“The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.”

“Language is the dress of thought.”

”Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

“Fear will find every house haunted.”

 Why the colon?  It’s a little like asking Durante who Mrs. Calabash is.  But I’ll explain.  In the eighteenth century the colon was sometimes used like a period to abbreviate.  There.  Now the world shrinks poorer for one mystery.

There was no hesitation after whom we should name our bookshop.

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