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There are patrons, and there are patrons

By Michael J. Smith on Friday October 2, 2009 08:57 PM

This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite human beings -- and believe me, this is said without the slightest irony or mental reservation.

I refer of course to the tortured giant shown above, Mr -- later Dr -- Samuel Johnson, the moody melancholy indolent ill-bred small-town boy from Lichfield who came practically barefoot to London and wrote the best essays anybody ever wrote, and the first and in some ways greatest of English dictionaries, and some damn good poems, oh and edited Shakespeare brilliantly, and became the subject of the greatest biography that ever was written, or I daresay ever will be written. Anybody who has read Boswell feels that he knows old Sam, which is partly because of Boswell's genius and partly because old Sam himself was, is, a personality of such intensity and force that the air we breathe is still reverberating with him.

I happened to be reading, today, a piece by Andrew O'Hagan in the New York Review discussing some recent additions to the extensive Johnson literature. It's a nice piece, by which I mean not just nicely written, though it is that, but also full of love for the mad old man -- love that recognizes what a monster he could be, but loves him anyway.

Now I enjoyed this piece so much that I hate to cavil. But there was one theme in it that seemed so glaringly wrong that I had to comment.

Everybody knows the story of Johnson's wonderful letter to Lord Chesterfield, spurning Chesterfield's patronage of the Dictionary. The conventions of literary history take this, not wrongly, as a marker of the end of the old era of patronage and the dawn of the era of commercial publishing.

O'Hagan writes:

Johnson ... freed subjectivity.... and brought both dignity and self-sufficiency to the writing game, allowing authors to be who they chose to be, unshackled from patronage and the requirement to please great men. We see it in his essays and we see it again in his Lives of the Poets : a writer's writer, beckoning individual creative power out of the mire of dependency, making the work answerable only to high standards of excellence stringently applied.

Johnson professionalized authorship not only for England but for the world, making the individual conscience responsive only to its own capacities and its own engagements.

This is our old friend the Whig Theory Of History -- which Johnson himself would, of course, have drubbed a lot more brutally than I can ever hope to do -- and it is also the voice of a successful and much-published and relatively young writer, who lives in the best of all possible worlds and has found a market for his "subjectivity" and his "individual creative power." And more power to him, of course.

Those of us who have not been so fortunate find ourselves confronting gatekeepers at least as coldly indifferent as Lord Chesterfield could ever be. They are no longer lords, though they have nicer manners than most corporate apparatchiks, but it is easy enough, these days, to find oneself (in Dr Johnson's words) "waiting in their outward Rooms, or being repulsed from their Door"; and if by chance one should ever succeed, one will look back -- again, in Johnson's slightly altered words -- and ask, "Is not a Publisher, 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?"

Grub Street was probably a livelier and more fluid place in Johnson's day: the booksellers were living as hand-to-mouth as the authors, or nearly so, and they had an insatiable thirst for material. Now, however, the publishers have either become lords in their own right, or been acquired by our brummagem equivalents -- the Rupert Murdochs, the Disneys. They still need material, of course, but there are only a very few of them, and there are so many who want to scribble that it's very much a buyer's market. What the gatekeepers want is to print and sell millions and millions of each title, and to the extent that this business model can be made to succeed, they don't need many titles -- or many writers. One Dan Brown, or Stephen King, asphyxiates ten thousand would-be Grub Streeters.

Back in the day of patronage, your fate was settled by some fatuous aristocrat's whim -- unless you could find another fatuous aristocrat who liked you better; and there were lots of fatuous aristocrats. Now it is settled by the publisher's internalized mental representation of the marketing department's spreadsheet. And there aren't lots of publishers, and they all have the same spreadsheet. Are we better off, or worse?

We might take a look at the bibliography.

The age of patronage gave us Chaucer and Shakespeare. In the world of music it gave us Handel and Bach and Mozart.

Now, after all this Whig progress that Andrew O'Hagan feels so good about, the likeliest authors to survive a cataclysm are the aforementioned Dan Brown and Stephen King, simply because there are so many copies of their work floating around. Ian McEwan or Nick Hornby or even Philip Roth would have the kind of prospects Tacitus had -- and what a miracle it is that we have anything of Tacitus.

As for music publishing -- two words: John Rutter.

I dunno, Andrew. I don't want to bring the Chesterfields back. But the narrative of progress needs a little revision.

Comments (4)


It's a stretch to call Johnson -- the man who titillated a willing public with his Olympian pronouncements on literature and life -- a champion of "subjectivity". At least, it's not the subjectivity of Goethe, Rousseau or Blake.

O'Hagan is in the tradition of celebrating the modern poet/hero without quite accepting that his day is over. I'm guilty of the same thing -- in fact, so is OP!


I should have thanked you for the fine recollection of Dr J. Could you make it a weekly Saturday morning feature -- tribute to a favorite literary figure?


Not a bad idea. Give Nice Mike an airing every once in a while. It's usually Nasty Mike at the wheel here.


i might note
by way of shameless servile flattery
father smiff
-- avid fan of the beast from litchfield--
from time to time
crafts a pretty fair slab of prose

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