Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wain and Macaulay on the Scribbler's Life

Following up on my last (18th Century lit) post, I'm reflecting on that stuff about Samuel Johnson's unobtrusive generosity.  I think I drew that insight from John Wain's biography of Johnson, together with his even more elegant little autobiography of Johnson--a selection of Johnson;'s own writings on himself, which Wain published via Everyman in 1976,  Together the Wain books are a marvelous exemplar of an indispensable genre: the "shock of recognition" book where one write responds to another writer.  The best comparison I can think of is Peter Levi's fine little biography Shakespeare.  You  might think that no one could add anything to the Johnson story after Boswell, just as you might think that no one could add anything to the Shakespeare story after a torrent of predecessors.  In each case, you'd be wrong: Wain, like Levi, achieves a connection with his subject quite beyond the reach of any ordinary scribbler.

I find only one reference to Smart in the index of the Wain biography but it is a story worth repeating.  Per Wain, one "Gardner" a "bookseller"

 signed up two authors, Rolt and Christopher Smart, to produce a monthly miscellany.  This was to cost sixpence and they were to have a third of thre profits between them.  It sounded good until one gets to the small print; neither man was to write anything else during the period of the contract, and it was to last ninety-nine years.  Small wonder tht the lurid miseries of this period provided Macaulay with the material for one of the liveliest pages in his Essays.
[All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. ...  Even the poorest pitied him; and they well might pity him.  For if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute.  To lodge in a garret up four pairs of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footmen out of a place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St George's Fields, and from St George's Fields to the alleys behind St Martin's church, to sleep on a bulk in June, and amidst the ashes of a glasshouse in December, to die in an hospital and to be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kitcat or the Scriblerus Club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been entrusted with embassies to the High Allies; who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albermarle Street or in Paternoster Row.
Tough life.  Give that man a MacArthur Grant.   

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