I think I can claim to have an above-average familiarity with Samuel Johnson. I have my father’s copy of Boswell’s London Journal. I used to work for a guy who was ABD on Johnson. I took Latin in college, so the sentence structure isn’t foreign to me. And I’m cranky.
So to be given the famous Letter to Lord Chesterfield! Well, it’s every Hollywood writer’s dream to write such a thing. In fact, maybe I’ll just translate some of it into Hollywoodese:
When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address(Hollywood: the assistant offers you coffee or water)
but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it.(Pride and modesty? There is no Hollywood equivalent for this)
Seven years, my Lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain,(Note that he’s not saying he didn’t complain, just that it was useless to. I’m nodding my head and thinking, My poor wife.)
The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.I have always liked this sentence because it’s kind of random. It also works whether Lord C. gets the reference or not. It’s kind of better if he does, but it’s extra-snotty (because of the bareness of the sentence – he doesn’t oversell it with fancy structure or even an “as you know,”) if he doesn’t. It wouldn't work at all out here because it's kind of a demerit to be too showoffy with the book-learning, even though all the executives have gone to Wharton and stuff.
And now, the first of my two favorite sentences:
Is not a Patron, 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?This is exactly how I’m going to feel when I have to go meet executives again when the strike is over. It would also be a great acceptence speech. The next sentence is very sad when you realize Johnson’s wife died in the middle of composing the Dictionary:
The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.Nowadays, I think, the “solitary” clause would go last, for maximum tear-jerking. Good on Johnson for slipping it in. The rhythm of these two sentences works well, too; Johnson asks his mean rhetorical question, but doesn’t quite stay in this querulous mode – he moves immediately to explain himself in the next sentence, and them shifts from a somewhat elaborate subjunctive to the repetitive (is this anaphora?) set of clauses. He keeps it moving. And in conclusion:
Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,
My Lord, Your Lordship’s most humble,
Most obedient servant, SAM. JOHNSON.
Emphasis added for maximum asperity. To be “long wakened from that dream of hope” is the default condition of all writers, I think, and it’s nice to have it out in the open in the early days of freelancing. And just the right amount of self-pity which is the writers' only friend. (Well, that and alcohol. But the latter is more treacherous.)
I hope we don’t have to wait till Johnson’s birthday to read him again.