Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson

Robert Hughes

Right on the heels of Gore Vidal’s passing comes word of the death of another protean, two-fisted talent: Robert Hughes, whose deeply informed, bluntly opinionated writing on art is a model for all would-be critics; and whose deceptively informal, elegantly crafted prose is an example all writers should study.

In the Seventies, when newsmagazines still felt obliged to be comprehensive in their coverage of world news and culture, Hughes stood out  in Time magazine like a Hell’s Angel gunning his Harley in the middle of a daycare center. But Hughes was an intellectual biker, one who had seen, studied, and thought deeply about everything in modern and classical art. His 1991 collecti0n Nothing If Not Critical is a showcase for his range: short takes on masters new and old, with room even for a guarded appreciation for Norman Rockwell. He was adventurous enough to embrace new artists and work of genuine value, but grounded enough to resist the fads that swept the art world.     

This educated independence made him the ideal truth-teller for the Eighties, when investors looking for something to do with their Reagan-fattened bank accounts sent art prices into orbit, and the graffiti scribblings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the crockery-encrusted wall hangings of Julian Schnabel were the toast of SoHo. (When Schnabel made his filmmaking debut with a hagiography of Basquiat, Hughes called it “a film about our worst dead artist, made by our worst living one.”) He called Jeff Koons “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.” Nothing If Not Critical ends with a long satirical poem about the art scene, modeled on Samuel Johnson’s London, that pulls off the dual feat of honoring its model while devastating its targets.

A native of Australia, Hughes moved to Italy in 1964 and then settled in London, where he apparently did his share of swinging. (In his 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know, Hughes claimed to have caught the clap from Jimi Hendrix through a shared bedmate.) He relocated to New York for his Time magazine gig and made the city his home base for the rest of his life.

Hughes became something of an international celebrity in 1980 when the BBC series aired The Shock of the New, his magisterial history of the rise of modern art; he administered a shock of his own in 1987 with The Fatal Shore, a breathtakingly readable history of the United Kingdom’s colonization of Australia. It shouldn’t have been a surprise: any good art critic (any good critic, for that matter) is partly a historian. He combined the two skills again in Barcelona (1992), which like all great cities is as much an art object as a metropolis, and his book-length study of Francisco Goya (2004), an artist who opened his work to unfolding history in ways few others have matched.

Not all of his work was stellar: five-finger exercises like Culture of Complaint and A Jerk on One End felt out of date five minutes after they hit the bookshelves. Hughes narrowly avoided death in a 1999 car crash, but the aftermath left him with lingering health problems that probably contributed to his untimely death. They certainly accounted for the numerous lapses that turned his recent study of Rome into a small publishing scandal, and made the book an unworthy successor to his brilliant study of Barcelona.

Here is a clip of a highly watchable 60 Minutes piece on Hughes from 1997.

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Good neighbor Sam

A correspondent writes:

“I took my copy of We All Fall Down to Poet’s Corner yesterday, and laid it on the black slab above Dr Johnson’s grave to let him the know the boy had made good, as requested. They don’t allow picture taking inside Westminster, or I would send along a picture of it. There were two docents and one priest all looking at me. I got my eldest to block the docents’ view, but the guy in the dog collar wasn’t going anywhere. Westminster is pretty inspiring.”

I blush to admit that I actually asked the guy to do this. It is the first and no doubt the last time my novel will be connected with Samuel Johnson. Though I hope to get back and have my picture taken with Hodge for my next author photo.

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Friday finds


Are you ready for Emoji Dick?

Time-suck alert: The New Yorker has a new blog devoted to churning its vast catalogue of back issues. It’s a simple but valuable idea: Go back into the magazine’s 80-year archive and find articles that reflect some of the writing in the current issue.

Here’s your shot at winning a coffee date with a real live Pulitzer-winning novelist. Having spoken with him myself, I can confirm he’ll be worth the bid.

Medievalists thrill to the tale of the Staffordshire Hoard! But the finder doesn’t have all that much to cheer about.

Want to make bagpipes from PVC tubing? How about trying to build an upright bass with an old washtub? Dennis Havlena has plenty of others.

Who do you like for the next Nobel Prize in Literature? The betting site Ladbrokes has four-to-one odds for Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Farewell to Jim Carroll, poet, novelist, punk rocker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought there are no second acts in American lives. Just try telling that to this guy.

Writing advice from Frederik Pohl.

Krutt, anti-krutt, and the world of Icelandic pop music.

Am I the only one who finds the slang use of “cougar” really unattractive and more than a little insulting to the women it purports to describe? Do we really want to compare Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, and Pamela Anderson to a predatory beast known to leap on people’s backs, crush their spinal cords with a bite to the neck, then eat their faces and internal organs? Last time I saw a photo of Ashton Kutcher, he was looking pretty happy, so what gives with “cougar”? Not that “Milf” is much better. Whatever happened to “Yummy Mummy”? Or “Mrs. Robinson”? They’re dated, obviously, but either is preferable to “cougar.”

“In his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson does not yet recognize the power of ‘nice’ as the catch-all term for British near-approval, but he Doc Johnsonproduces one of his little gems in defining the word: ‘It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.’ It may be time to observe that Dr. Johnson, neither by his own definition nor by ours, could ever properly have been described as nice. He lacked culpable delicacy to the exact same degree that he lacked good manners, an easy disposition, a sunny outlook, a helpful quality, an open spirit, a selfless gene, a handsome gait, or a general willingness to put his best foot forward in greeting others. If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.”

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Friday finds


Get ready for Charles Darwin: A Graphic Biography. Every time you buy a copy, you’ll make a creationist cry.

How about that — a place in the universe where Samuel Johnson’s admirers can intersect with Harry Potter fans. The item in question plays a small but significant role in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The oldest library in America may have to close. Want to help out?

John Mortimer is dead at age 85. As a novelist he created Horace Rumpole, and provided a career-mortimerdefining TV role for actor Leo McKern (pictured at left, in his wig, with Mortimer), who owned Rumpole the way Helen Mirren owns Jane Tennison. As a barrister, Mortimer defended Linda Lovelace and the Sex Pistols, reflecting his taste fior cases that were, as he put it, “testing the frontiers of tolerance.” To distinguish oneself in a single field is hard enough, but to claim such dual achievements . . . how very cool.

Another tribute to the late Thomas Disch, this one from John Crowley, another genre heavyweight.

You wanna know what “snarge” is? Of course you do — especially if you’re a pilot.

You’ve heard of sword and sorcery? Get ready for sword and soul.

A new Bob Dylan studio album? Bring it on, baby. I just hope it’s not another snifter of chloroform like Modern Times.

Patton Oswalt, my current favorite stand-up comedian, talks about Blue Collar, a largely overlooked Paul Schrader drama from the Seventies that offers one of Richard Pryor’s best straight performances.

Another Stanley Milgram research study bites the dust. Apparently all that business about six degrees of separation is bunk. I still like the movie and the Kevin Bacon game, though. Thanks to Bernie Madoff, looks like there will soon be fresh material for “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

Unless you’re a Geek of A Certain Age, the name Charles H. Schneer probably doesn’t ring any bells. All right, how about Ray Harryhausen — does that name work? Well then let the Geek’s Geek tell you about one of the unique creative partnerships in American filmmaking.

Kanawha — the only state to successfully secede from the United States.

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Beware of authors

In “The Boarding House,” one of his Rambler essays, Samuel Johnson talks about his search for affordable quarters:

When I first cheapened my lodging, the landlady told me, that she hoped I was not an author, for the lodgers on the first floor had stipulated that the upper rooms should not be occupied by a noisy trade. I very readily promised to give no disturbance to her family, and soon dispatched a bargain on the usual terms.

After a short time as a tenant, Johnson becomes curious about the previous lodgers. He learns of the tailor who complained about the lack of light and skipped out owing a few weeks’ rent; the young woman from the country who paid her rent promptly but had to be dismissed because of frequent visits from a male “cousin”; and a pleasant gentleman who turned out to be a counterfeiter, and who narrowly avoided capture by creeping out the window and across the roof as the local constable thundered at the front door.

At last, a short meagre man, in a tarnish’d waistcoat, desired to see the garret, and when he had stipulated for two long shelves and a larger table, hired it at a low rate. When the affair was completed, he looked round him with great satisfaction, and repeated some words which the woman did not understand. In two days he brought a great box of books, took possession of his room, and lived very inoffensively, except that he frequently disturbed the inhabitants of the next floor by unseasonable noises. He was generally in bed at noon, but from evening to midnight he sometimes talked aloud with great vehemence, sometimes stamped as in rage, sometimes threw down his poker then clattered his chairs, then sat down again in deep thought, and again burst out into loud vociferations; sometimes he would sigh as oppressed with misery, and sometimes shake with convulsive laughter. Whern he encountered any of the family he gave way or bowed, but rarely spoke, except that as he went up the stairs he often repeated,

This habitant th’ aerial regions boast.

hard words, to which his neighbors listened so often, that they learned them without understanding them. What was his employment she did not venture to ask him, but at last heard a printer’s boy inquire for the author.

My landlady was very often advised to beware of this strange man, who, tho’ he was quiet for the present, might perhaps become outrageous in the hot months; but as she was punctually paid, she could not find any sufficient reasons for dismissing him, till one night he convinced her by setting fire to his curtains, that it was not safe to have an author for her inmate.

A bad bunch, those author types.

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We’re all on Grub Street now


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.

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Late night thoughts

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft just landed in my in-box, and with it news of two major book awards for biographies. I was in no danger of getting either: The Last Three Miles contains a lot of biographical material (mostly about Hudson County political boss Frank Hague), but it’s not a biography as such. I’m intrigued by one of the winners: Michael Bundock’s In Search of Francis Barber, which is about a Jamaican slave who became a valet and assistant to Samuel Johnson, and ended up inheriting a good portion of his estate. I’m definitely going to have to read that one.

During the Biographers Club award ceremony, the attendees heard some remarks from Simon Callow, a well-known character actor who has also written well-regarded biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles. Let James McGrath Morris describe the scene for you:

As an actor and as a biographer, [Simon] said, one has to embrace “thinking other people’s thoughts.”
The most revealing sources, Callow said, are not the grand passions or family members who may well resort to cover-up. Rather they are the secretaries, stage managers and commissaries, the people who observe with a sharp eye and recall with balanced hindsight. And what we as biographers choose to leave out, such as the nasty gossip and grubbier rumors, is as important as what we choose to submit to the page.

As it turned out, one of the most revealing anecdotes I heard about Frank Hague came from his daughter, who recalled her father’s last years in luxurious exile in Manhattan — a river and a world away from Jersey City, which he had ruled for some thirty years.

As a political boss whose reach extended all the way to the White House, Hague dealt harshly, sometimes brutally, with his opponents, and he left ruined careers and tainted lives in his wake. After losing his grip on power, Hague had plenty of time to travel and enjoy his accumulated wealth, but there were nights when he couldn’t sleep and sometimes spent the dark hours looking up old enemies he had crushed or driven out of New Jersey. Many times the enemies were long dead and Hague ended up talking with their sons or daughters.

Hague would try to make things right by offering some kind of financial help, and in every instance the offer was refused. Historian Thomas Fleming, some of whose relatives were Hague minions, described it as a classic instance of “Irish Alzheimer’s — you forget everything except your grudges.”

Even tough guys have their regrets.

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