Decades as a newspaper reporter turned this introvert into a professional extrovert. Shyness and reticence on the job in that business are liabilities. You learn to be at ease when approaching strangers and asking impertinent questions. Most are at first suspicious, some disturbingly hostile. People naturally don’t want to be bothered. A reporter learns the art of the interview, from charm and flattery to soft intimidation. Inevitably, some will slam the door. Others you can seduce but, as in love, you have to take your time. Getting close to the celebrated and powerful can be frightening, sometimes out of personal vanity. You don’t want to irritate or bore someone you admire.
Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855) was a minor English poet and tireless gossip who spanned literary generations and movements, survived into the age of Dickens and Victoria, and yet was old enough to have muffed an opportunity to meet Dr. Johnson. He recounts the story in Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856; my edition was published in 1953 by the University of Kansas Press):
“My friend [William] Maltby and I, when we were very young men, had a strong desire to see Dr. Johnson; and we determined to call upon him and introduce ourselves. We accordingly proceeded to his house in Bolt Court; and I had my hand on the knocker, when our courage failed us, and we retreated. Many years afterwards, I mentioned this circumstance to Boswell, who said, ‘What a pity that you did not go boldly in! he would have received you with all kindness.’”
True, no doubt, but Johnson’s reputation was ferocious. Rogers’ friend Coleridge referred to Johnson’s “bow wow manner.” If Rogers arrived at Bolt Court when he was, say, twenty years old, Johnson would have been seventy-four and within a year of his death. A young man’s timidity is understandable.
Rogers goes on to say in his Table-Talk: “Dr. Johnson said to an acquaintance of mine, ‘My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.’ The world now thinks differently.” I’m not sure what he means. Johnson’s periodical essays (The Rambler series in particular), along with his Dictionary, Rasselas and Lives of the Poets, are his enduring works. In his 1977 biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate quotes Rogers quoting Johnson’s remark and writes:
“But he was really thinking of the best of them (though there are many good ones), for the series is naturally uneven. As he said in the final essay, the periodical writer who condemns himself twice a week to ‘compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed . . . a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease.’ It is not always easy to find a subject quickly, twice a week, to change it in time if the topic proves barren, or to correct and revise before the deadline.”