Samuel Johnson: Hack Writer Extraordinaire

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This is the companion piece to JR's "In Defense of the Hack Writer," which I posted here. Both articles were published in my short-lived online zine, The Philosophe, in 2001.

Samuel Johnson: Hack Writer Extraordinaire


By George H. Smith

Jeff Riggenbach quotes a famous line from Samuel Johnson, viz., that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” It might also be said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, if he expects to make money. And no one knew this better than the irascible and witty Samuel Johnson, a quintessential “hack writer” of the 18th Century.

One historian has claimed that Samuel Johnson, despite his enormous literary output, “wrote nothing of first importance in the history of literature, and made no appreciable contribution to the philosophy or sum of knowledge of his age.” Though highly regarded as a poet in his own day, “Johnson’s claim to greatness does not lie in his poetry, but in his conversation.”(Harris, 332, 340) There is a good deal of truth in this latter claim, regardless of how Johnson’s work may be judged in other respects. In 1763, Johnson met a young James Boswell, a Scotsman recently arrived in London who had studied under Adam Smith at the University of Edinburgh. Boswell became a protégé and disciple of Johnson, following him around whenever he could and transcribing the conversations and casual remarks of his hero. Later, after Johnson’s death, Boswell collected his accounts, along with the accounts of others and many of Johnson’s letters – and the result was the most celebrated gossipy biography of all time: the massive Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791. (All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from this book.)

Boswell’s Life is a fascinating book on several levels. Not only do we get to see the formidable Samuel Johnson quip, argue, and pontificate his way through London society, and not only are we provided with valuable glimpses of other literary, political, and philosophic figures of the time, but we are also provided with a detailed record of one of the most able and eccentric professional writers in 18th Century London. Boswell, himself an aspiring writer, engaged Johnson in many conversations about books, writers, and – most significantly for our purpose –about the process of writing itself, and how a free-lance writer managed to survive in a highly competitive world of literary talent.

Samuel Johnson, the son of an impecunious bookseller, was born in Lichfield in 1709. Beginning in 1728, he spent 14 months at Pembroke College, Oxford, until poverty ended his formal education. Shortly thereafter, while staying in the home of a Birmingham bookseller named Mr. Warren, Johnson got one of his first paying jobs in the field of literature. A printer asked Johnson to translate a book (Voyage to Abyssinia) from French into English and offered him five guineas for his work. Johnson agreed and started on the translation, but (in the words of Boswell) “his constitutional indolence soon prevailed, and the work was at a stand.” It was not until a friend intervened and explained to Johnson “that the printer could have no other employment till this undertaking was finished, and that the poor man and his family were suffering” that Johnson “exerted the powers of his mind” and finished the translation. (19) Thus did a humanitarian incentive succeed where a financial incentive had failed.

After two unsuccessful attempts at teaching convinced Johnson that he was not cut out for this profession (the greatest minds, as Boswell defensively noted, often make the worst teachers), Johnson set out for London in 1737. Accompanied by a former pupil, David Garrick (who would later achieve fame as an actor), Johnson arrived in London virtually penniless. And thus began his life-long love affair with this great intellectual and cultural Mecca, which Boswell described as “the great field of genius and exertion, where talents of every kind have the fullest scope, and the highest encouragement” As Johnson himself would later say of London:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolution of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists. (119)

London was not kind to Samuel Johnson, at least not financially. The problem was not with lack of work – for, among other projects, he contributed dozens of essays, poems, Latin verses, biographies, and even parliamentary debates to The Gentleman’s Magazine. Rather, the problem was that hack writing was not a lucrative career, even for an industrious and talented writer like Johnson. Boswell described the condition of Samuel Johnson and his friend Richard Savage as follows:

It is melancholy to reflect, that Johnson and Savage were sometimes in such extreme indigence, that they could not pay for a lodging; so that they had wandered together whole nights in the streets.” (43)

Johnson, as Boswell observed, had “felt the hardships of writing for bread,” so he sought an available position as schoolmaster “so as to have a sure, though moderate income for his life.” This job, however, required the degree of Master of Arts; and although Johnson was well-known as a literary figure by this time, his friends were unable to procure a degree for him from the University of Oxford. As Boswell noted, “though he had made such a figure in the literary world, it was then thought too great a favor to be asked.” (33) But all this turned out for the best, according to Boswell, for despite Johnson’s disappointment, “how much reason has there been, both for himself and his country, to rejoice that it did not succeed, as he might probably have wasted in obscurity those hours in which he afterwards produced his incomparable works.” (34)

Shortly after running into this dead end, Johnson backed up into another, as he made one more “effort to emancipate himself from the drudgery of authorship.” He explored the possibility of practicing law, only to find that “here, also, that want of a degree was an insurmountable bar.” Johnson thus found himself “under the necessity of persevering in that course, into which he had been forced.” (34) His proposal to translate Father Paul Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent was accepted, so Johnson continued on his diverse career as essayist, critic, biographer, reporter, dramatist, poet, lexicographer, and translator.

In 1747, Johnson published his plan for A Dictionary of the English Language, one of the most ambitious works ever undertaken by one person. (More on this later.) Yet despite the demands of this grueling seven-year project, Johnson maintained a brisk writing schedule for other publications. His work load supported his claim that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” (54) Despite his continuous work on his Dictionary, and despite what Boswell called his “constitutional indolence” and “depression of spirits,” Johnson managed to write nearly every article for every issue of The Rambler -- a paper that he published twice a week for two years (1750-52). As Johnson told a friend at the time, “What must be done, Sir, will be done.” Boswell’s description of how Johnson wrote articles for The Rambler fits in perfectly with Jeff Riggenbach’s account of the hack writer:

Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been labored with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed. It can be accounted for only in this way; that by reading and meditation, and a very close inspection of life, he had accumulated a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, which, by a peculiar promptitude of mind [Johnson was reputed to have a photographic memory], was ever ready at his call, and which he had constantly accustomed himself to clothe in the most apt and energetic expression. Sir Joshua Reynolds once asked him by what means he had attained his extraordinary accuracy and flow of language. He told him, that he had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion, and in every company; to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in; and that by constant practice, and never suffering any careless expressions to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him. (55)

Like many writers of his day, Johnson kept a “Common-Place book” – a personal journal, in effect – in which he kept notes about possible topics for articles and how they should be written.

It is a very good custom to keep a journal for a man’s own use; he may write upon a card a day all that is necessary to be written, after he has had experience of life. At first there is a great deal to be written, because there is a great deal of novelty; but when once a man has settled his opinions, there is seldom much to be set down. [500] Here is an excerpt from the entry under “Youth’s Entry, & c.”:
Confidence in himself. Long tract of life before him. – No thought of sickness. – Embarrassment of affairs. – Distraction of family. Public calamities. – No sense of the prevalence of bad habits – Negligent of time – ready to undertake – careless to pursue – all changed by time. (55)
…Hard it would be if men entered life with the same view with which they leave it, or left as they enter it. – No hope – no undertaking – no regard to benevolence – no fear of disgrace, & c.
Youth to be taught the piety of age – age to retain the honor of youth.
This, it will be observed, is the sketch of Number 196 of The Rambler (55-56).

Johnson wrote many of his articles from scratch, without the aid of any “hints” from his notebook: “Indeed, in several instances, he has made a very slender use of them, so that many of them remain still unapplied.” (56) Although many articles in The Rambler display a stern pietism that might not register with modern readers – Johnson belonged to the didactic school of thought, according to which literature should convey clear moral lessons -- they are nonetheless remarkable for their philosophic slant on common character types and everyday events. As Johnson wrote in the concluding issue: “When common words were less pleasing to the ear, or less distinct in their signification, I have familiarized the terms of philosophy, by applying them to popular ideas.” (59) And Boswell, in defending his hero against the charge that he was sometimes verbose, wrote: “Had his conceptions been narrower, his expression would have been easier.” Johnson “writes like a teacher. He dictates as from an academical chair,” and this inspires “awe and admiration in his readers.” His writing is therefore not like that of a light wine that “pleases everybody from the first.” Rather, it is “like a liquor of more body,” one that “seems too strong at first, but, by degrees, is highly relished….”(60-61)

Johnson had an interesting attitude towards some of his pieces, as illustrated by his contributions (1753) to a periodical called The Adventurer, which was published by his friend Dr. Bathurst. Johnson, having signed a number of his articles with the letter “T,” later disavowed his authorship of all articles except one. This denial was “a point of honor” with Johnson. Having been paid two guineas each to write the articles anonymously, Johnson felt that it would violate his agreement with Bathurst to take credit later on.

This kind of ghostwriting, which was common at the time, disturbed Boswell, who said he was “not quite satisfied with the casuistry by which the productions of one person are thus passed upon the world for the productions of another.” Although the knowledge of a great writer, and even some of his “powers and qualities of mind” might be represented as the work of a lesser writer; and even though “an author may give the profits and fame of his composition to another man, he cannot make that other the real author.” (69) Boswell thus compares ghostwriting to the selling of one’s birthright. Although this might be technically possible, the seller will always remain the first-born, no matter what agreement he makes with others – and this sort of transaction invariably has a disreputable air about it.

In February 1755, after Johnson had finally completed his massive and laborious Dictionary, he wrote one of the most celebrated letters in the annals of literature. The circumstances that occasioned this letter (which was addressed to Lord Chesterfield, his supposed patron) were as follows:

In 1747, Johnson published his Plan, or Prospectus, for A Dictionary of the English Language, an ambitious project that would turn out to be the most important and influential English dictionary ever published and Johnson’s chief claim to literary greatness. Johnson may have gotten the idea for this project some years earlier while visiting the bookshop of Robert Dodsley. After Mr. Dodsley casually remarked “that a Dictionary of the English Language would be a work that would be well received by the public,” Johnson initially seemed attracted by this suggestion but then dismissed it with the words, “I believe I shall not undertake it.” But the idea apparently took hold, for, as Johnson later told Boswell, the plan for his Dictionary had “grown up in [my] mind insensibly,” with little conscious effort or attention on his part. (Johnson would later deny this story and claim that he had hit upon the idea for a dictionary several years before this conversation took place.)

A number of London booksellers combined their resources and offered to publish Johnson’s Dictionary. (This was during an age when booksellers frequently doubled as publishers; not until later did these two functions become specialized into separate and distinct occupations.) These backers also offered to pay Johnson 1,575 pounds. Although this sounds like a considerable sum for the time, this was a project that Johnson predicted would take three years. (It took seven years instead -- so much for the ability of even this most professional of writers to predict the most important deadline of his writing career.) Moreover, Johnson had to cover his expenses from this money, and these were considerable. For example, he hired six amanuenses (secretaries, in effect) to do the mechanical part of the work, and he had to pay for paper, which was not inexpensive by the standards of the day.

Although a literate public was emerging in England (and elsewhere in Europe) at this time, and although some writers found it possible to make a living solely by selling their wares to this public rather than by relying on patrons, the patronage system was still an important source of revenue for many writers. Patrons, who were typically monarchs or noblemen with an interest in philosophy, science, and/or literature, would support a writer financially; and the writer would reciprocate by praising his generous patron in the dedication of his magnum opus. (Some of these dedications are so sickeningly deferential as to appear humorous to the modern reader – for example, the writing skills of a patron king might be likened to Cicero – but this was how the game was customarily played.)

Incidentally, it was a growing concern with the effects of patronage that often gave “hack” writers (or Grub Street writers, as they were sometimes called in London) a bad name. The derogatory label of “hack” sometimes denoted more than a writer for hire; it could also refer to a writer who was willing to trim his ideological sails to meet the demands of his patron. Thus, if you were told by your patron to defend the Walpole administration during the 1720s, then you wrote glowing testimonials on behalf of this munificent, wise, and far-sighted politician, regardless of what your own political beliefs might be. And, contrariwise, if you were told by your patron to attack the Walpole administration, then you wrote scathing attacks on this irredeemably corrupt tyrant, whatever your own political beliefs might be. And if you were told to defend Walpole on one occasion and to attack him on another occasion (depending on the changing political fortunes of your patron), then, as always, you did as you were told. A hack writer, like a lawyer defending his client, was a mouthpiece for his patron.

When David Hume, Voltaire, and other 18th Century philosophes (“men of letters”) claimed to prize independence above all else, and when some claimed they would rather live in poverty than be employed as a hack writer, they were objecting to what they perceived as the intellectual corruption inherent in the patronage system. As they saw the matter, a hack writer was a writer who sold his intellectual soul for a mess of porridge and to curry favor with the rich and powerful. (I shall return to this subject later and discuss its application to Samuel Johnson, who would eventually receive a good deal of criticism for accepting a royal pension.)

Johnson was an experienced writer by the time he published the Prospectus for his Dictionary of the English Language, so he understood the value of obtaining a sympathetic patron. And it so happens that Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield and one of the principal Secretaries of State, fancied himself an expert on the English language and an arbiter of good taste. Word had come to Johnson via the usual back channels – for no respectable patron would be gauche enough to say outright, “Praise me to the skies, and I will give you money” – that Lord Chesterfield was very interested in Johnson’s project. Thus did Johnson dedicate his Prospectus to the eminent Lord Chesterfield, praising him as an “authority in our language” who has “commissioned me to declare my own opinion….[T]he power which might have been denied to my own claim, will be readily allowed me as the delegate of your Lordship.” (50)

Johnson did his part in the patronage game by giving credit to Lord Chesterfield where none was due, but what did he get in return? Nothing, absolutely nothing -- not one red schilling during the seven stressful years that he worked on his masterpiece. Then, around one year before the Dictionary was to be published, Chesterfield published a glowing testimonial to Johnson’s talent, stating the he would gladly bow to Johnson as the new “dictator” of the English language. This praise, as Johnson clearly understood, was offered in the hope that Johnson would dedicate his Dictionary to Lord Chesterfield, just as he had the Prospectus seven years before. But Johnson, having received nothing from Chesterfield during those seven years, was no longer in the mood to play this courtly game. Johnson told Boswell that the praise bestowed upon him by Chesterfield was “all false and hollow.” Chesterfield “had taken no notice of me” for many years, but now, “when my Dictionary was coming out, he fell a scribbling in The World about it.” Johnson then mentioned a letter he had written to Chesterfield, one written “in civil terms” while making it clear that “I had done with him.” And this brings us to the celebrated letter mentioned earlier, which reads, in part:

Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before….

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had it been kind; but it has been delayed until I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself. (71-72)

Johnson’s Dictionary (published in 1755) was a smashing success with readers and critics alike; it brought “great fame” but no additional money to our beleaguered writer, apart from the 1,575 pounds that he was originally paid (and most of this, as we have seen, was eaten up by expenses over a seven year period). Thus, while the booksellers who had financed this project were rejoicing at their good fortune, Johnson still needed “to make provision for the day that was passing over him.” Johnson was not bitter, however; indeed, when Boswell said, “I am sorry, Sir, you did not get more for your Dictionary,” Johnson replied: “I am sorry, too. But it was very well. The booksellers are generous, liberal-minded men.” Johnson went on to praise his bookselling financiers as patrons of literature who were well-deserving of any profits they might reap from his Dictionary: “it is to them that we owe its having been undertaken and carried through at the risk of great expense, for they were not absolutely sure of being indemnified.” (84)

It was not until seven years later that Johnson’s financial problems would be permanently solved – and this came about not as the result of sales but as the result of royal patronage. In 1762, after Lord Wedderburn had applied to Lord Bute (the Prime Minister) on Johnson’s behalf, he received a royal pension of 300 pounds a year for life in recognition of his literary achievements. And although this was sufficient to live the life of a gentleman, it caused Johnson some embarrassment on two counts.

First, Johnson was a Jacobite, i.e., a person who believed that the Stuart Dynasty still had legitimate title to the throne of England, even though the last Stuart King, James II, had supposedly abdicated after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Jacobites therefore viewed the Hanoverian dynasty – including the monarchy of George III -- as technically illegitimate. And yet here was the Jacobite Samuel Johnson accepting a pension from that selfsame Hanoverian monarch.

Second, pensioners were often viewed as “hacks” in the worst sense, i.e., as writers who would blindly follow the dictates of their patron rather than the dictates of their conscience, so as not to risk losing their largesse. Indeed, in his Dictionary, Johnson himself had defined a “pension” in scathing terms. A “pension,” according to this earlier Samuel Johnson who was not yet a pensioner himself, is “an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” (McKnight, 374)

As for the first problem, Johnson suggested that he wasn’t a Jacobite of the radical kind; and, given the current political stability in England, it would be foolish to insist on a change in dynasties merely to satisfy a legal technicality. (This stance was actually consistent with his conservative political views, according to which the status quo is always preferable to change, except in the most extreme situations.)

The second problem seemed to have troubled Johnson more, for he was now faced with his own barbed accusation from only a few years earlier, namely, that a pensioned writer is “a state hireling.” Here is how Boswell described the happy resolution:

Mr. Thomas Sheridan and Mr. Murphy…told me, that they previously talked with Johnson upon this matter, and that it was perfectly understood by all parties that the pension was merely honorary. Sir Joshua Reynolds told me, that Johnson called on him after his Majesty’s intention had been notified to him, and said he wished to consult his friends as to the propriety of his accepting this mark of the royal favor, after the definitions which he had given in his Dictionary of pension and pensioners….Sir Joshua answered that he was clear to give his opinion then, that there could be no objection to his receiving from the King a reward for literary merit; and that certainly the definitions in his Dictionary were not applicable to him. (104)

Lord Bute would later convey to Johnson the message that his pension “is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.” Thus, although the pension was merely honorary, the money was quite real. This, along with the revelation that “the definitions in his Dictionary were not applicable to him,” was a fortunate turn of events for Samuel Johnson, for he now had the leisure that many writers dream about but very few achieve.

I previously indicated that Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is filled with discussions about the mechanics of writing, so I wish to conclude this piece by touching on a few of these points.

Consider the discussion that began when Boswell mentioned the “liberal payment” that a book reviewer could receive. After referring to one reviewer who supposedly received six guineas for every sheet (i.e. page) that he wrote -- a claim that Johnson found unlikely -- Boswell continued:

BOSWELL: “Pray, Sir, by a sheet of review is it meant that it shall be all of the writer’s own composition, or are extracts, made from the book reviewed, deducted? JOHNSON: “No, Sir: it is a sheet, no matter of what.” BOSWELL: “I think that is not reasonable.” JOHNSON: “Yes, Sir, it is. A man will more easily write a sheet all his own, than to read an octavo volume to get extracts.” (511)

In the typical manner that makes the Life of Samuel Johnson a pleasure to read, Boswell reflects on how Johnson could have been so obviously wrong. He supposes that Johnson had such “a wonderful fertility of mind” that writing came easier to him than reading a book, extracting quotations, and then inserting these quotations into a review -- whereas “with ordinary men, the case is very different.” Of course, much depends on the care and judgment exercised by the reviewer. Selecting extracts might prove “tedious and difficult” for the conscientious reviewer, but in many cases reviewers extract long passages more or less at random in order to pad their reviews and save themselves the trouble of writing. On the other hand (and there is almost always an “on the other hand” whenever Boswell disagrees with his mentor) it is true that some reviewers “take a pleasure in original writing.” Indeed, some reviewers, “instead of giving an accurate account of what has been done by the author whose work they are reviewing, which is surely the proper business of a literary journal,” prefer instead to write “some plausible and ingenious conceits of their own, upon the topics which have been discussed.” (512)

In his penetrating discussion of The Art of Nonfiction, Jeff Riggenbach calls attention to Ayn Rand’s distinction between the subconscious process of writing a first draft versus the conscious editing and rewriting of later drafts. This is very similar to some observations of Samuel Johnson, which he offered as advice to a young clergyman who was concerned with how to write original sermons. In a letter dated Aug 21, 1780, Johnson wrote:

In the labor of composition, do not burden your mind with too much at once; do not exact from yourself at one effort of excogitation, propriety of thought and elegance of expression. Invent first, and then embellish. The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise, in the first words that occur; and, when you have matter, you will easily give it form: nor, perhaps, will this method be always necessary; for by habit, your thoughts and diction will flow together. (440)

When, in 1781, Johnson finished his Lives of the Poets, he remarked that “I wrote this in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigor and haste.” (452) Boswell notes that writing biographies of literary figures was one of Johnson’s favorite pursuits; and he possessed so much knowledge about this subject, and his knowledge was so well “arranged in his memory,” that “he had little more to do than to put his thoughts upon paper.” Boswell continued:

But when he began to write, the subject swelled in such a manner, that instead of prefaces to each poet, of no more than a few pages, as he had originally intended, he produced an ample, rich, and most entertaining view of them in every respect….The booksellers, justly sensible of the great additional value of the copyright, presented him with another hundred pounds, over and above two hundred, for which his agreement was to furnish such prefaces as he thought fit. (452)

Johnson, according to Boswell, placed a high value on precision and clarity:

Johnson’s attention to precision and clearness in expressions was very remarkable. He disapproved of parentheses; and I believe in all his voluminous writings, not half a dozen of them will be found. He never used the phrases the former and the latter, having observed, that they offered occasioned obscurity; the therefore contrived to construct his sentences so as not to have occasion for them, and would even rather repeat the same words, in order to avoid them.” (504)

Johnson was a frank critic of his own work. Once, having been asked how he liked one of his own articles in The Rambler, he answered, “Too wordy.” On another occasion Johnson left the room when his tragedy of Irene was being read aloud to company. When asked about the reason for this, he replied, “Sir, I thought it had been better.” (443) Johnson was also honest enough to admit that he cared about how others responded to his work. “The applause of a single human being,” he remarked, “is of great consequence.” (451)

Did Samuel Johnson enjoy the process of writing? I once asked the same question of Jeff Riggenbach, who replied that what he enjoys is not writing per se, but having written. It would appear that Riggenbach and Johnson have something in common, as we see in these remarks by Johnson:

It has been said, there is pleasure in writing, particularly in writing verses. I allow you may have pleasure from writing, after it is over, if you have written well; but you don’t go willingly to it again. I know when I have been writing verses, I have run my finger down the margin, to see how many I have made, and how few I had to make. (513)

Works Cited

Boswell, James. Life of Samuel Johnson. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952 [1791].

Harris, R.W. Reason and Nature in the Eighteenth Century. London: Blandford Press, 1968.

McKnight, George H. Modern English in the Making. New York: Appleton, 1928.

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In 1747, Johnson published his plan for A Dictionary of the English Language

Great article, but for me I can't read it without thinking of Blackadder.

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