James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., often referred to as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, is one of the most famous biographies ever written and the best known source of memorable quotations by Samuel Johnson.
Few people today have read this entire work. And, given that it amounts to more than 1,200 pages of text that records thousands of things Johnson did and said on specific dates in minute detail, that’s not likely to change.
But most people who are familiar with famous quotations and classic English literature know at least some of the famed anecdotes and quotes it contains.
One known to many aspiring writers is: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Boswell recorded that bon mot by Johnson on April 5, 1776 and it’s usually quoted with no context.
If you read the page where it appears in the Life of Johnson, you find that it was one of the few things Johnson said that Boswell pointedly disagreed with, at least after the fact, in a comment in the book.
Here’s the famous quotation in the context of Boswell’s April 5 entry:
“When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, ‘I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.’ This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.”
Boswell’s comment in that last sentence notes, rightly, that many people write stories and books without knowing whether they will make money from what they are writing — though, of course, almost all aspiring writers hope for financial success from their work.
I suspect Johnson’s “blockhead” quote may have stung a bit for Boswell.
He was a lawyer by trade who wrote almost daily in journals and aspired to be a successful book author.
By 1776, Boswell had published four books, though none generated significant acclaim or money.
His legal career was also less than stellar.
It wasn’t until he finally published his Life of Johnson in 1791 — seven years after Johnson died — that Boswell received major recognition as a writer.
In contrast, by 1776, Johnson was one of the most successful literary critics and authors in England.
In addition to his pioneering and popular Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, Johnson wrote scores of popular essays, poems, pamphlets, periodicals, sermons, literary biographies, and books of literary criticism.
Johnson met Boswell in 1763, when he was 54 and Boswell was 22.
They bonded quickly and dined, traveled and corresponded with each other off and on until Sam died in 1784.
After Johnson passed, it took Boswell six years to compile and publish his detailed account of their meetings, travels and correspondence.
But it was well-received when it was finally published and became viewed as a major, classic piece of English literature.
One of the most entertaining ways to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson I know of is to read the illustrated online edition that uses excerpts chosen by writer Dan Leo, illuminated with quirky, humorous digital artwork by Rhoda Penmarq.
Dan and Rhoda post a new illustrated excerpt each week on their Classix Comix website and Facebook pages.
Taken in these relatively short bites, with Rhoda’s images and Dan’s tongue-in-cheek commentary at the end, reading The Life of Johnson is actually fun. (I also encourage you to check out Dan’s mind-blowing novels on Amazon, Railroad Train to Heaven and This World or Any Other World, and Rhoda’s many unique illustrated books of stories and poetry on Lulu.com.)
James Boswell did earn praise and money from The Life of Johnson in his final years, and it gave him lasting posthumous fame.
But he appears to have been something of a loser through most of his life, plagued by alcoholism, depression and venereal diseases.
He died at age 55, a few years after The Life of Johnson was published.
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