New biographies of Samuel Johnson.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 23 2009 7:04 AM

Money Made Him Do It

What Samuel Johnson can teach us about writing.

Samuel Johnson, The Struggle by Jeffrey meyers.

If you get a group of writers together these days, you are guaranteed to hear a lot about death. Not just the deaths of once popular genres, like poetry or the literary novel; those reports have been commonplace for decades, and the practitioners of these arts have more or less gotten used to the obituaries. Now, the worry is that book publishing itself is dying. When a major house like Houghton Mifflin stops buying new manuscripts, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for the whole industry. Even more shocking is the death of the newspaper, which is turning before our eyes from an idle prophecy to an immediate prospect. In the current Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn suggests that the New York Times could go out of business as early as May. That is unimaginable, of course—as unimaginable as the sack of Rome must have been until the Goths came over the horizon.

Samuel Johnson: A biography.

None of these deaths will mean the death of writing. Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes. But something precious may be coming to an end in our lifetimes: the age of the professional writer. For the last three centuries or so, it was possible to make a living, and a name, by writing what the public wanted to read. The novelist, the essayist, the critic, the journalist—all these literary types flourished in that historically brief window, which now appears to be closing. In the future, if fewer people are interested in reading and few of those are willing to pay for what they read, all these kinds of writers may go the way of the troubadour and the scribe.

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It is a nice symbolic irony, then, that this year marks the 300th anniversary of the greatest professional writer in English literature. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," Samuel Johnson used to say. And while James Boswell, his friend and biographer, hurried to point out that "numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature," Johnson's dictum does contain an essential truth about the kind of writer he was.

"His character and manners were aggressive, and he saw life itself as a perpetual contest," writes Jeffrey Meyers in the introduction to his fluent and accessible new biography, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. The other new life of Johnson to appear this season, Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin, is more academic and less literary than Meyers', but it might as well share that combative subtitle. Martin, too, sees Johnson's life as a long "contest" with poverty, sickness, and neurosis—a contest in which Johnson's talent and professionalism allowed him to triumph.

Meyers and Martin tell basically the same story about Johnson's early years. Born in provincial Litchfield, in 1709, he wasn't expected to survive—"I was born almost dead and could not cry for some time," he once said—and he grew up disfigured and nearly blinded by scrofula. He developed violent tics—both Meyers and Martin venture a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome—that made him ridiculous, or even terrifying, in polite company. Novelist Fanny Burney, who became his close friend, remembered her first impression of Johnson: "A Face the most ugly, a Person the most awkward, & manners the most singular, that ever were, or ever can be seen…. He has almost perpetual convulsive motions, either of his Hands, Lips, Feet, Knees, & sometimes all together."

Johnson's father, a bookseller, never made much money, and in time his business failed completely. Johnson got to spend a year at Oxford, after he came into a small legacy, but the money wasn't enough to keep him there until he could earn a degree. He spent his 20s trying, and largely failing, to find work as a schoolteacher. When Johnson got married at age 26 to 46-year-old widow Elizabeth Porter—whom he called Tetty—he used most of her money to start up a school, which attracted exactly three pupils and closed after 15 months. By the time he set out for London in 1737, with no assets except a play he hoped to get produced, it could not but seem, as Meyers writes, that "his life thus far had been catastrophic."

But London proved to be Johnson's salvation. He made a connection with the editor of the popular Gentleman's Magazine and started to earn a living by hackwork. Soon enough his reputation was made by his satirical poem "London"; his heroic labor on the dictionary, which appeared in 1755, made him famous. Working alone, with just a few assistants, he did for the English language what it had taken the whole Academie Francaise 40 years to accomplish for the French. The terms of the book trade, however, were not generous to the author in the 18th century. Johnson spent his fee for the dictionary well before the book was published, and he earned no royalties. This may seem unfair, but as Boswell wrote, "[W]e must, at the same time, congratulate ourselves, when we consider that to this very neglect, operating to rouse the natural indolence of his constitution, we owe many valuable productions, which otherwise, perhaps, might never have appeared."

"Fame is the spur the clear spirit doth raise/(That last infirmity of noble minds)/To scorn delights and live laborious days," said Milton. But while Johnson cared about fame, it was simple need—the need to eat and keep a roof over his head—that made him accomplish so much. Over the course of his career, beyond the dictionary, he produced an edition of the complete plays of Shakespeare; an encyclopedic series of Lives of the English Poets; the poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes," one of the great satires in the language; the moral tale Rasselas, a kind of English Candide (written in one week, Johnson claimed, so that he could pay for his mother's funeral); A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland; and the 208 essays of The Rambler, which for more than 100 years were known to every well-read person in England and America. And that is not to mention the translations, book reviews, lectures, sermons, parliamentary reports, and assorted journalism.

It was a hard life, both personally and professionally. Johnson was horribly afflicted by depression and anxiety, which his Christian faith could only partly relieve. Until he was granted a modest royal pension, at the age of 53, he was never financially secure, and he knew how precarious a writer's life could be: Many of his friends were imprisoned for debt, and a few actually died of poverty and hunger. After Tetty's death he never remarried, and his sexual life, about which both Meyers and Martin speculate, was probably unhappy.

Only one thing allowed Johnson's "struggle" to end in a victory. That was London's thriving print culture, which allowed a man like Johnson—a man without connections, good looks, or money—to make it as a writer. Being a professional writer allowed, and compelled, him to turn his indolence into industry: to read and learn about every subject imaginable, so that he could write about them; to try his hand at any genre that would sell; to find the demand in the market (for a dictionary or a biography or a periodical) and meet it.

This resourcefulness made Johnson self-sufficient in a way few writers had been earlier, when they looked to aristocratic patrons for support, or are today, when the university and the foundation are the writer's patrons of choice. Reading about his life makes clear that Johnson's hard-won independence was something different from the much-celebrated freedom offered by the Internet, which allows any literate person a platform in the form of a Web site or blog. The democracy of the new medium is a good thing, of course, but like our democratic society itself, the Internet tends to encourage amateurism and atomization. It is hard to see how a writer like Johnson could arise in a future when writing is something done casually, in brief blog bursts in one's spare time. And it may not be long before the kind of professional confidence and expertise that Johnson cultivated over a lifetime of paid work will appear as regrettably obsolete as books and newspapers themselves.