Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Hero of Hacks

Amidst the economic gloom, Tim Martin in the Telegraph reminds us to look to some of the glories of our literary past as we celebrate the anniversaries of some major authors in 2009, including Charles Darwin, Robert Burns, and Malcolm Lowry (whose Under the Volcano is one of my all time favourite books - though it's three decades and some since I read it!).

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent warmed the cockles of my heart by writing about another author he calls
... the hero of hacks ...
whose 300th we celebrate in September. This man holds a very special place in my heart and I always stop to have a chat with his ghost with when I'm back in London :
A sickly child is born in a small Midlands city, his father an obscure bookseller who soon falls into poverty. Somehow, the boy survives, but with lifelong scarring from a skin disease. Ungainly and uncomely, he suffers so badly from nervous tics that they make him a social pariah. Modern specialists have diagnosed Tourette's Syndrome. On top of physical ailments, he will never escape savage bouts of depression that plague him for the rest of his days. In spite of a disrupted schooling, his prodigious gifts, and a friend's financial help, take him to Oxford. The money gone, he has to leave the university – in shame and debt – after 13 months. The drop-out finds even the humblest schoolteaching jobs closed to him. When he opens a school, three pupils enrol. A lonely hack in London, he hangs out with a bohemian poet, the pair so poor they walk all night for want of cash for a room. To family hostility, this gauche nobody marries a woman 20 years his senior. His works – poems, plays, essays – earn little except the mockery of critics and the scorn of potential patrons in the aristocracy. At length, a group of backers hire this lowliest of scribblers to undertake a mammoth and thankless editing job that will exhaust his energies for almost a decade. Worn out by toil, forever on the verge of ruin, this middle-aged failure who has endured half a lifetime of contempt still finds room in his household for a freed slave from Jamaica – who will become his heir – and a near-blind woman poet. Finally, the mad project reaches its long-delayed terminus. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language appears in 1755.


Matt said...

Dear Sam... And he was the first literary superstar, Boswell being the first 'groupie' in recorded history. Then again, Boswell was rather more than this but, unfortunately, came from a rich background. Of course, his philandering in London and Holland (everywhere?), his black moods, and his irrepressible opportunism redeem him. For some.

Anonymous said...


I find it interesting that you consider coming from a rich background "unfortunate". Is it more fortunate to suffer than not?