Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cashing-In on an Author's Death (18th Century Edition)

by Stephen J. Gertz

Yes, I knew [fill-in full name]. Though we met only once, I knew [fill-in last name] better than anyone else, or, at least, in a different way than any other person who has ever lived.

We met while in the check-out line at the supermarket. I was shy, and so waited a few minutes before assaulting [fill-in first name] with an introduction. Though our conversation (no idle chat, that) was brief, in those five momentous minutes we shared a lifetime of experience. 

I believe that when you trade tales of bruised fruit; wilted vegetables; rancid meat;  a fish so fresh you want to slap its face;  how, as in life, the cookie always crumbles when you least expect it; the virtues of Oreos v. Malomars; the state of tomatoes in New York City v. Los Angeles; and when did, all of a sudden, Balsamic vinegar become a necessary addition to American pantries; etc., you've broken through the surface and are mining a deep vein of gold, each word from [fill-in nickname]'s mouth a 24-karat revelation too precious to keep to myself.

At least that's what my agent said.

And so I present, My Groceries, My Self, and [Fill-in full name].

Frontispiece to the 2d Edition of Dr. Johnson's Letters (1788),
by James Sayers.

When a famous author dies, an industry of post-mortem exploitation begins. Friends and family members, close or distant, indiscreet or otherwise, or a loose acquaintance, contribute their two cents to the memory and reputation of the dearly deceased. All, of course, with the very best of intentions. A desire to ride the coat-tails of the departed's fame and make a buck, of course, never enter into the situation; it is all pure love.

The subject, and cynicism surrounding it, is not a modern phenomenon. When Samuel Johnson died quills swan-dived into inkwells and swam the crawl, sidestroke, and backstroke across sheets of paper. Often freestyle, the race to place their names alongside Johnson's led caricaturist James Sayers (1748 - 1823) to satirize these efforts as strictly dog-paddle strokes in his frontispiece to the second edition of  Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741 - 1821).

Mrs. Piozzi and her first husband, wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, had struck a deep friendship with Johnson and treated him as a member of their family; he lived with the couple for seventeen years, until Henry Thrale's death.

Here, Sayers reproaches Mrs. Piozzi, whose Letters... was published earlier in 1788, and had earned her £500. He portrays her sitting at her desk, writing "Dear Lady...," implying that she concocted some of the letters herself. In a shroud, Johnson's ghost enters her chambers, alarms her, points to portraits of Boswell and Sir John Hawkins on the wall - both of whom Sayers censures - proffers a purse of filthy lucre to her, and recites:

Madam! my Debt to Nature paid
I thought the Grave with hallow'd Shade
Would now protect my Name,
Yet there in vain I seek Repose,
My Friends each a little Fault disclose
And murder Johnson's Fame;
First Boswell with officious Care
Shew'd me as a Man would shew a Bear
And called himself my Friend.
Sir John [Hawkins] shew'd my hearse
And [John] C....[ourtenay] pester'd me with verse
You torture without end.

When Streatham spread its friendly Board,
I opened Learning's valued hoard,
And as I feasted, prosed;
Good things I said, good things I eat,
I gave you knowledge for your Meat,
And thought th'Account was closed;
If obligations still I owed
You sold each item to the Croud
I suffer'd by the Sale,
For Fod's sake Madam, let me rest
No longer vex your quondam Guest
I'll pay you for your Ale.

Boswell had not yet published his Life of Samuel Johnson. Here, Sayers nails him for the Tour of the Hebrides (1785): In the portrait, above left on the wall, Boswell points down to the picture of Johnson and him scaling the a mountain during the Tour.

But it is Sayers doing the finger-pointing, or, rather, finger-wagging at Mrs. Piozzi, Boswell, Sir John Hawkins, and John Courtenay, whose writing about Johnson is now valuable direct source material in Johnsonia. At the time, however, it was a scandal. Now, it's business as usual.

[JOHNSON, Samuel]. [SAYERS, James (1748-1823), caricaturist). Frontispiece for the 2d Edition of Dr. J.....n's Letters. JS [i.e. James Sayers]. [Lond. on]: Pub. by Thos. Cornell 7th April 1788. Engraving, 9 1/4 x 7 inches.

British Museum, Satires 7417.

Image courtesy of Bernard Quaritch Ltd., currently offering this engraving, with our thanks.

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