In the course of reviewing two new biographies of Samuel Johnson, Adam Gopnik finds history repeating itself in more ways than one:
Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven . . . Johnson had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments. In his first years, he wrote translations from the French and from the classics, brief popular lives of military men, and pamphlets mocking the government. Then he found work as an all-purpose rewrite man at the Gentleman’s Magazine. He always remembered how grateful he was to find an inn where he could get a decent meal for half a shilling. (The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.) He left a wife behind in his native town of Lichfield, a widow who was considerably older, and whom he had once imagined wowing with his London triumphs.
Not a happy comparison these days, with mass layoffs in the publishing industry and whole imprints suddenly evaporating. This is going to be a lost year for a lot of writers, and few of them can afford that kind of writeoff.
One of the ways Johnson supported himself before the Dictionary made his name was to write essays for a circle of subscribers. I have been known to liken bloggers to Johnson’s Idler and Rambler, not entirely seriously, but I think the comparison can be made to stick.
I like Gopnik’s description of Johnson’s criticism:
No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.