In an essay titled, “The subject of essays often suggested by chance. Chance equally prevalent in other affairs,” Samuel Johnson calls the essay a “petty composition.” Unlike a scientist or fiction writer, Johnson claims, a writer of nonfiction essays must perpetually “entertain his reader with unconnected pieces,” “new topicks.” Thus the greatest difficulty of the essayist is the choice of topic; with every subject under the sun as a possible writing topic, the essayist is beset with “perplexity and suspense” by this “boundless multiplicity.” Choice then, Johnson argues, comes as a result of “necessity,” and rescues the essayist from perennial distress.

The most frequent difficulty by which the authors of these petty compositions are distressed, arises from the perpetual demand of novelty and change. The compiler of a system of science lays his invention at rest, and employs only his judgment, the faculty exerted with least fatigue. Even the relator of feigned adventures, when once the principal characters are established, and the great events regularly connected, finds incidents and episodes crowding upon his mind; every change opens new views, and the latter part of the story grows without labour out of the former. But he that attempts to entertain his reader with unconnected pieces, finds the irksomeness of his task rather increased than lessened by every production. The day calls afresh upon him for a new topick, and he is again obliged to choose, without any principle to regulate his choice.

It is indeed true, that there is seldom any necessity of looking far, or inquiring long for a proper subject. Every diversity of art or nature, every publick blessing or calamity, every domestick pain or gratification, every sally of caprice, blunder of absurdity, or stratagem of affectation, may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity. But it often happens, that the judgment is distracted with boundless multiplicity, the imagination ranges from one design to another, and the hours pass imperceptibly away, till the composition can be no longer delayed, and necessity enforces the use of those thoughts which then happen to be at hand. The mind, rejoicing at deliverance on any terms from perplexity and suspense, applies herself vigorously to the work before her, collects embellishments and illustrations, and sometimes finishes, with great elegance and happiness, what in a state of ease and leisure she never had begun.

Johnson’s essay ends, as a result of chance choices in composition, with “elegance and happiness,” “ease and leisure.” He describes the artistic process as more a grabbing-at-straws, toss-of-dice type of practice than any kind of systematical, logical method. It is only these chance occurrences, Johnson writes, that constitute the essayist’s craft.

Questions

Is Johnson’s referral to the essay as a “petty composition” ironic? Where in the text can we find evidence to either reading of the term?

Johnson argues that the writer of “feigned adventures,” need only establish his “principal characters” and general plotline, from which his story will grow “without labour.” Do you agree?

Is Johnson at all patronizing of the scientist and the fiction writer? If so, is this somewhat hypocritical? Does not the “judgment” required of the scientist connected with choice? Do not the “incidents,” “episodes,” and “new views” crowding in upon the fiction writer demand choice among them?

How does Johnson substantiate his argument that for essayists, choice of subject matter is ultimately arbitrary? Is Johnson convincing?


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Last modified 16 February 2011

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