Category Archives: Samuel Johnson

“the business of the biographer”

 

His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets

 

 

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Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

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 public 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.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750

 

 

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In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Samuel Johnson on NOT keeping secrets

 

 

 

The following are excerpts from an essay by Samuel Johnson — one of the greatest essayists of all time — on the keeping (which, in practice, usually means not keeping) of secrets.

Quotes from Johnson are in bold, followed by my explication.

See also downloadable Word documents below.

 

 

—- Roger W. Smith

     April 2017

 

 

Note: The entire essay, Rambler No. 13. “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” is available online at

http://www.johnsonessays.com/the-rambler/no-13-the-duty-of-secrecy-the-invalidity-of-all-excuses-for-betraying-secrets/

 

 

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“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it; for, however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit, yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance, and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity; which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

 

 

 

 

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EXPLICATION

 

“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it”

The minute we are told a secret, it piques our vanity. We feel a sense of pride and importance that the person who told it to us chose us to entrust it to.

 

 

“however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit

If we cannot be trusted to keep the secret, then we were not a good choice to confide in, were we? Since this is true, why are we nevertheless so proud of having been confided in?

 

 

“yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance”

We feel so important in having been confided in — and so fortunate (because now we know something that others don’t and that they would like to) — that we brush off whatever compunction we might have about not keeping the secret confidential.

 

 

“and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity”

If we keep the secret and never tell it, we can say to ourselves, “I kept the secret as promised.” No one is going to give us credit for this, however, because no one knows about the secret (since we kept or lip buttoned). But “at the expense of … probity” (violating our pledge not to tell), we find it hard to resist the temptation to tell the secret to someone else, because that way we will be in the position of having shared something of value with them, which will give us credit in their eyes. We can bestow a “gift” om someone of our choosing at no cost to us.

 

 

“which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.”

Johnson was famous for parallelism. He would repeat himself in eloquent parallel constructions. Here he says what he has already said: if we keep the secret, the only praise we will get is our own self-praise and (possibly, though unlikely) the praise of the person who told us it. We can gain much more praise and credit and tickle our vanity by telling the secret to others. They will value us as being the person who told them something they didn’t know, which, if disclosed, others would be eager to know.

 

 

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“Secrets are very frequently told in the first ardour of kindness, or of love, for the sake of proving, by so important a sacrifice, sincerity or tenderness; but with this motive, though it be strong in itself, vanity concurs, since every man desires to be most esteemed by those whom he loves, or with whom he converses, with whom he passes his hours of pleasure, and to whom he retires from business and from care.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

We bestow secrets on another out of what we conceive, perhaps, to be good motives. We think to ourselves — and say to our confidant, “_______ told me not to tell, but I am going to tell YOU something he (or she) told me.” By doing this, we delude ourselves with the fatuous notion that we are being benevolent. Actually, what we are doing is stroking our vanity, as Johnson points, out, and attempting to curry favor. What really motivates us is not altruistic motives, but, instead, the desire of winning “brownie points” with the person we have confided the secret to. “Yes, I betrayed _______’s confidence, but just think, my stock has increased in value with my respect to _______ [my friend]: he or she will value me more highly.”

 

 

 

Samuel Johnson on secrets (Rambler no. 13)

 

 

explication – Samuel Johnson on secrets

my personal library of books by and about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

 

My Johnson and Boswell books

 

 

The attached downloadable Word document (above) contains an inventory of books by and about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in my personal home library.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Samuel Johnson, portraits at middle age

 

Posted below are copies of:

A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was painted in 1769 when Johnson was age fifty-nine of sixty. It is my favorite portrait of Johnson.

An etching by Mary Palgrave Turner — based on a portrait of Johnson by Ozias Humphry — entitled “Johnson at Sixty.”

Samuel Johnson’s dates were 1709-1784.

 

 

Samuel Johnson, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.jpg

 

 

Samuel Johnson, Selected Essays (book cover).jpg

 

 

'Johnson at Sixty'.jpg

 

 

 

portraits of Samuel Johnson and his circle