Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boswell and Dr. Johnson on Writing

I wrote a few days ago on what James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson had to say about reading. In the pages I read this month in the Life of Dr. Johnson, I also found a lot of interesting comments on writing. Since this blog essentially consists of these two activities, reading and writing, I can’t pass up the opportunity to pass along some of the wisdom I picked up from two of my favorite historical figures and, again, see how I measure up to their standard.

First, writing, according to these two heroes of Christian letters, must concern a fitting subject. In fact, authors have some collective obligation to publish the true, the good, and the beautiful. “All excellence has a right to be recorded,” says the English language’s first great lexicographer. Of course, Boswell must have taken special joy in transcribing those words of his mentor; they explain his motivation in penning the biography of the Great Man. Boswell loved and admired his friend and wanted the world to know, love, and honor him as well. Using a phrase that should have been placed not in a lowly footnote but on the title page, he describes the notes for his masterpiece as a “record of wisdom and wit, which I keep with so much diligence, to your [i.e. Johnson’s] honour, and the instruction and delight of others.” To the reader, he admits that he tries to “infuse every drop of genuine sweetness into my biographical cup” consistent with veracity and as an antidote to the “false and injurious notions of his character” published by others.

As inspirational as a good subject may be, though, good writing doesn’t flow forth fully formed like Athena. Dr. Johnson advises Boswell and others to write in two stages: “Invent first, and then embellish.” Content before form. Grammar before rhetoric. The physical before the spiritual. Rewriting doesn’t just lead a draft down a straight path toward improvement, though. “Sir,” says Johnson, “you may have remarked, that the making a partial change, without a due regard to the general structure of the sentence, is a very frequent cause of errour in composition.” Oh, I’ve remarked this, sir, many times in rereading my old blog posts. As with reading, Johnson believed parents and teachers should encourage children to start writing at an early age. Today’s American schools, agree as far as that goes. Unlike our schools, though, Dr. Johnson cared about spelling. Of course a writer of a dictionary would! Boswell, too, was wary of change in spelling and hoped that his mentor’s influence would stop the insidious disappearance of k’s from the ends of words like musick and publick. Well, you can’t have everything.

Dr. Johnson says to read Shakespeare and Pascal’s Pensées, and I read them. Goal met. But measuring up to Johnson’s standard of writing is a wee bit harder than it is to mimic his reading patterns. I trust that the books I spend most of my time writing about can be considered worthy subjects. And I can say that I reread and correct and edit and embellish and spell-check everything I write, including my very occasional phone texts. But to what end? Samuel Johnson’s approving contemporaries considered him the most eloquent English writer of their age, perhaps of any age. I’m not even sure how to aim at such a lofty, distant mark. But then, I am my own worst critick.

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