John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, September 18, 2009

A personal note at the Johnson tercentenary

“Greek, sir, is like lace,” said Samuel Johnson; “every man gets as much of it as he can.” Fashions in men’s clothing and, sadly, learning have changed since the eighteenth century, and not all of Johnson’s advice remains applicable. But the great lexicographer, critic, essayist, and poet, born three hundred years ago today, has much to say that we would do well to hear.

One caricature of Johnson that has come down to us is the roaring Tory. He did “talk for victory,” and, in a sublime understatement in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he was “sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction.” But he was a complex personality, and deeply humane.

He knew what it was to be poor without a place to spend the night. He knew the grind of turning out hackwork for small pay. He knew the horror of depression and breakdown, and the fear of its return. He knew himself to be ugly, even physically repulsive. His struggles with his own disabilities and disadvantages gave him an insight into and sympathy with the struggles of other human beings.

In No. 14 of the Rambler he wrote:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues, which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

In No. 60, the great essay on the writing of biography, he summed up:

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.

Human life, he saw, was a struggle “in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” His own career is mirrored in the famous line from his poem London:


And yet, all this granted, he had a genius for friendship, a relish of conversation, and — despite his self-condemnations for indolence and procrastination — an energy to take on and complete huge and complex tasks. One of the things that ring most true in Boswell’s grand biography is his image of Johnson as a gladiator in the amphitheater of his own mind, heroically combating the apprehensions that beset him.

Twenty years ago, in a vacation in London, I made a pilgrimage to the garret in Gough Square where, sitting in a defective chair propped against a wall, Johnson labored for nearly nine years to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and I stood, my head bowed, for a moment at his grave in Westminster Abbey.

His work and his example merit our attention and respect.


  1. I once worked for an editor who could cut a word or two from a sentence without its author ever knowing any were gone. I used to sit by him when he edited me so I could see the word disappear and the sentence improve. I'd try to write sentences that he couldn't possibly tighten, but he invariably could. His own sentences were as tight as the highest-pitched string on a harp. Which brings me to Samuel Johnson. He wrote the tightest complex sentences ever. Consider this one from Mr. McIntyre's piece:

    "We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure."

    That's a lot of thought, clearly put, in handful of words.

  2. Wait... Are you aware that today's featured article on Wikipedia is the one about Samuel Johnson's early life?

  3. That sentence, in addition to its remarkable clarity, also has a splendid cadence.

  4. One manager I knew would also cut words, phrases, or sentences from reports submitted just to show he was the boss and only he knew what was right. One person in he office got to know his predelictions well enough that he would write two versions of a report, submit one, and have it returned, corrected, so that it matched the original version.

    Retired in Elkridge

  5. I recently had the privilege of visiting the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop in Lichfield--and took what I knew would be a forgivable liberty by signing McIntyre's name in the visitors' book "in absentia," after my own. It's a remarkable and moving place. The bookshop at the entrance is intended as a simulacrum of the one Michael Johnson (Samuel's father) ran there, but is probably much more successful; Michael apparently never had the knack for business. (Samuel wrote in later life, "You never find people labouring to convince you that you may live happily upon a plentiful fortune.") The Johnson family crammed itself into the basement, and the upper floors were let to lodgers and are now used as exhibit space.

    I won't go on with the entire four pages of notes I took there, but will leave you with this quotation from an exhibit: "At Oxford, [Dr. Johnson] combined a massive programme of reading with anarchic bursts of disrespect for authority." Is anyone else reminded of a certain bow-tied blogger??

    Happy belated 300th, Dr. J. And cheers to you, McI.