This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny, that we shall be less happy if we were conquered by the French. The intention of the author is undoubtedly good, but his labour is superfluous at a time when all ranks of people are unanimously zealous and active against our enemies; and when indeed there is no great danger of invasions while we have the sea covered with our ships, and maintain fifty thousand men in arms on our coasts.
— Samuel Johnson, review of An Impartial Account of the Invasion under William Duke of Normandy, and the consequences of it, with proper Remarks (1756), by Charles Parkin, A. M. Rector of Oxburgh in Norfolk. IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 347-348
A reader of this post commented: “I don’t understand the purpose of this post. Can you explain?”
I should have made this more clear.
Samuel Johnson died in 1784. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published in 1791. Because of Boswell — primarily because of him — Johnson has been known mostly for his conversation, not his writings.
The late Donald Greene wrote about Boswell’s Life: “I can think of no other book that … has deterred so many intelligent people from making a firsthand acquaintance with the work of a very great writer and thinker.” A contemporary writer, Stephen Miller, in a 1999 essay wrote: “I know many people who have read — or dipped into — Bowell’s Life but have not read a word of Johnson.”
Therefore, I am trying to get Johnson’s writings in front of persons with a taste for good writing.
Boswell did a great service in preserving so much of Johnson’s conversation. He also wrote one of the great, if not the greatest, biographies of all time. Yet, his Johnson is often a caricature of himself. The supposedly reactionary thinker brilliant in conversation and unsurpassable in repartee known for his ability to get the best of his interlocutor on any conceivable subject.
Johnson was witty and quotable; he had a penetrating intellect. But one gets to know him a lot better from his various and voluminous output as a writer. And, he could be the opposite of mean-spirited. His kindly offices throughout his life to many persons and the help and encouragement he gave to writers, often ones younger and less well known than him, were not negligible and are apparent to serious students of his life and writings.
This brief excerpt, passage, to me illustrates what Johnson could do so well: express points cogently and forcefully with (in this case) the minimum of words required. In just two sentences, Johnson shows why the book under review is not worth reading. Most writers — including myself probably — would struggle to make the same point. I might find myself, if I were the reviewer, writing something like: This book is based upon a flawed premise. Yes, a book has to have point of view, but the author is arguing a point that was already made, and he really has nothing new to say. Many historical works have already gone over the same ground.
And so on.
One can see this facility in Johnson’s conversation. He could get to the point — to the essence of the argument — and unsnarl it much faster than his interlocutors and listeners. While they were still mulling over it, he already had seized upon the essence.
I have been rereading parts of Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. I read it in its entirety once before.
Defoe has always been one of my favorite novelists. As a writer, he was a complete original and stands in a class of his own. I forget which novels of his I read. One certainly was Moll Flanders.
It began in high school when I read A Journal of the Plague Year, in a Signet paperback. It made such an impression on me. I couldn’t put it down.
Defoe is notable in that there is hardly any exposition or authorial intervention. With consummate craftsmanship, he affects a plain recital of the facts as if he were merely a reporter or if he were writing a journal — he builds the narrative from minutely observed and recorded details. Consider, for example, the following passage from Chapter VII of Robinson Crusoe:
The rainy season and the dry season began now to appear regular to me, and I learned to divide them so as to provide for them accordingly; but I bought all my experience before I had it, and this I am going to relate was one of the most discouraging experiments that I made.
I have mentioned that I had saved the few ears of barley and rice, which I had so surprisingly found spring up, as I thought, of themselves, and I believe there were about thirty stalks of rice, and about twenty of barley; and now I thought it a proper time to sow it, after the rains, the sun being in its southern position, going from me. Accordingly, I dug up a piece of ground as well as I could with my wooden spade, and dividing it into two parts, I sowed my grain; but as I was sowing, it casually occurred to my thoughts that I would not sow it all at first, because I did not know when was the proper time for it, so I sowed about two-thirds of the seed, leaving about a handful of each. It was a great comfort to me afterwards that I did so, for not one grain of what I sowed this time came to anything: for the dry months following, the earth having had no rain after the seed was sown, it had no moisture to assist its growth, and never came up at all till the wet season had come again, and then it grew as if it had been but newly sown. Finding my first seed did not grow, which I easily imagined was by the drought, I sought for a moister piece of ground to make another trial in, and I dug up a piece of ground near my new bower, and sowed the rest of my seed in February, a little before the vernal equinox; and this having the rainy months of March and April to water it, sprung up very pleasantly, and yielded a very good crop; but having part of the seed left only, and not daring to sow all that I had, I had but a small quantity at last, my whole crop not amounting to above half a peck of each kind. But by this experiment I was made master of my business, and knew exactly when the proper season was to sow, and that I might expect two seed-times and two harvests every year.
While this corn was growing I made a little discovery, which was of use to me afterwards. As soon as the rains were over, and the weather began to settle, which was about the month of November, I made a visit up the country to my bower, where, though I had not been some months, yet I found all things just as I left them. The circle or double hedge that I had made was not only firm and entire, but the stakes which I had cut out of some trees that grew thereabouts were all shot out and grown with long branches, as much as a willow-tree usually shoots the first year after lopping its head. I could not tell what tree to call it that these stakes were cut from. I was surprised, and yet very well pleased, to see the young trees grow; and I pruned them, and led them up to grow as much alike as I could; and it is scarce credible how beautiful a figure they grew into in three years; so that though the hedge made a circle of about twenty-five yards in diameter, yet the trees, for such I might now call them, soon covered it, and it was a complete shade, sufficient to lodge under all the dry season. This made me resolve to cut some more stakes, and make me a hedge like this, in a semi-circle round my wall (I mean that of my first dwelling), which I did; and placing the trees or stakes in a double row, at about eight yards distance from my first fence, they grew presently, and were at first a fine cover to my habitation, and afterwards served for a defence also, as I shall observe in its order.
I found now that the seasons of the year might generally be divided, not into summer and winter, as in Europe, but into the rainy seasons and the dry seasons, which were generally thus:—The half of February, the whole of March, and the half of April—rainy, the sun being then on or near the equinox.
The half of April, the whole of May, June, and July, and the half of August—dry, the sun being then to the north of the line.
The half of August, the whole of September, and the half of October—rainy, the sun being then come back.
The half of October, the whole of November, December, and January, and the half of February—dry, the sun being then to the south of the line.
The rainy seasons sometimes held longer or shorter as the winds happened to blow, but this was the general observation I made. After I had found by experience the ill consequences of being abroad in the rain, I took care to furnish myself with provisions beforehand, that I might not be obliged to go out, and I sat within doors as much as possible during the wet months. This time I found much employment, and very suitable also to the time, for I found great occasion for many things which I had no way to furnish myself with but by hard labour and constant application; particularly I tried many ways to make myself a basket, but all the twigs I could get for the purpose proved so brittle that they would do nothing. It proved of excellent advantage to me now, that when I was a boy, I used to take great delight in standing at a basket-maker’s, in the town where my father lived, to see them make their wicker-ware; and being, as boys usually are, very officious to help, and a great observer of the manner in which they worked those things, and sometimes lending a hand, I had by these means full knowledge of the methods of it, and I wanted nothing but the materials, when it came into my mind that the twigs of that tree from whence I cut my stakes that grew might possibly be as tough as the sallows, willows, and osiers in England, and I resolved to try. Accordingly, the next day I went to my country house, as I called it, and cutting some of the smaller twigs, I found them to my purpose as much as I could desire; whereupon I came the next time prepared with a hatchet to cut down a quantity, which I soon found, for there was great plenty of them. These I set up to dry within my circle or hedge, and when they were fit for use I carried them to my cave; and here, during the next season, I employed myself in making, as well as I could, a great many baskets, both to carry earth or to carry or lay up anything, as I had occasion; and though I did not finish them very handsomely, yet I made them sufficiently serviceable for my purpose; thus, afterwards, I took care never to be without them; and as my wicker-ware decayed, I made more, especially strong, deep baskets to place my corn in, instead of sacks, when I should come to have any quantity of it.
Having mastered this difficulty, and employed a world of time about it, I bestirred myself to see, if possible, how to supply two wants. I had no vessels to hold anything that was liquid, except two runlets, which were almost full of rum, and some glass bottles—some of the common size, and others which were case bottles, square, for the holding of water, spirits, &c. I had not so much as a pot to boil anything, except a great kettle, which I saved out of the ship, and which was too big for such as I desired it—viz. to make broth, and stew a bit of meat by itself. The second thing I fain would have had was a tobacco-pipe, but it was impossible to me to make one; however, I found a contrivance for that, too, at last. I employed myself in planting my second rows of stakes or piles, and in this wicker-working all the summer or dry season, when another business took me up more time than it could be imagined I could spare.
It takes great skill to do this. To make the dramatic immediacy of the narrative predominate and keep the author “behind the curtains,” out of sight, so to speak.
“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”
— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12
A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.
And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.
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
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.
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.
I suffered a near loss of vision. It was terrifying, but treatment seems to have restored my sight to its former state, or near to it.
I temporarily lost the ability to read. To celebrate my recovery, I have begun reading Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets, a work I have been intending to read.
I think reading gives me the greatest pleasure of all. Here is Johnson on the metaphysical poets:
Their attempts were always analytick; they broke every image into fragments and could no more represent by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature or the scenes of life than he, who dissects a sun-beam with a prism, can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.” — “Cowley”
Like a biologist or physician examining a tissue under a microscope, I can detect great writing (and tell good from mediocre or bad); can recognize, appreciate, and delight in power and subtlety of exposition, when happily seen, from a sentence or two.
Reading gives me the greatest pleasure imaginable. The above sentence shows why Samuel Johnson is so admired and why he has few rivals as a writer of expository prose.
An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.
A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.
I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.
The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:
Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …
Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.
“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”
“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”
Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.
I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.
A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.
Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.
The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.
The Times obituary states:
Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.
“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.
This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.
“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”
Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.