Mrs. M and I made a run to Real City this afternoon, and got home a few hours ago. The gifts are wrapped (in the case of my gift to Mrs. M, with the assistance of the Spawn, and by “assistance,” I mean she did it while I watched. But I lugged the package back and forth, and that should count for something.) So we’re relaxing quietly tonight before tomorrow’s festivities.
A few minutes ago, I was on Twitter and ran across the Christmas, 1969 card from Robert and Virginia Heinlein:
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that RAH’s “Year One” began with Apollo 11. These days, that optimism seems a bit quaint, but who knows? I wouldn’t bet against the Wise Old Man.
In other news, as I was hanging out at the used media emporium this afternoon, I was alerted to a really cool article by Levi Stahl, who considers one of the more interesting footnotes to our knowledge of Samuel Johnson. Nathaniel, Johnson’s younger brother (and only sibling) died in 1737, when he was 24 and Samuel was 28. We don’t know much about the younger Johnson’s life or death — while Samuel moved away from Lichfield and eventually made his way to London, Nathaniel took over the family’s not-very-successful bookselling business (a combination of publishing, manufacture, and sales), but was no more successful than his father. A few months before his death, he wrote to his mother, where he alludes to his financial and business failures, and mentions “crimes […] which have given both you and me so much trouble. ” We don’t know the specifics of those crimes — or even whether Nathaniel was perpetrator or victim. Some biographers have suggested that he may have engaged in some sort of forgery. In any case, he was seemingly in dire straits, and talked of emigrating to the North American colonies — specifically Georgia. He didn’t follow through, however, and as noted, he was dead six months later. Again, the circumstances are obscure. John Wain is among the biographers who suggest that the younger Johnson may have committed suicide, although Stahl notes that Johnson’s burial in consecrated ground argues against that.
But what we do know is that in that same letter is that Nathaniel complains of having received little or no help from his big brother, who perhaps could have assisted in Nathaniel’s effort to expand the business to a new city. We also know that Samuel Johnson said little about his brother, even to his friends. However, late in Samuel’s life, he made inquiries. From Stahl:
[…H]e wrote to a Miss Prowse near Frome, asking if she could have her servants “collect any little tradition that may yet remain, of one Johnson, who more than forty years ago was for a short time a bookbinder or stationer in that town.” Receiving no useful information, he wrote again to supply additional details—yet still not identifying himself as Nathaniel’s brother:
What can be known of him must start up by accident. He was not a native of your town or country, but an adventurer who came from a distant part in quest of a livelihood, and did not stay a year. He came in ’36, and went away in ’37. He was likely enough to attract notice while he stayed, as a lively noisy man that loved company. His memory might probably continue for some time in some favorite alehouse. But after so many years perhaps there is no man left that remembers him. He was my near relation.
If he received an answer, there is no record.
We also know that in Johnson’s prayers and meditations, there is a single sentence at the end of his prayers for his mother’s soul, shortly after her death in 1759: “The dream of my Brother I shall remember.”
Stahl explores all this in the context of Johnson’s lifelong sense of guilt and failure to have done the things he believed he should have done.
A few weeks ago, as I was teaching Johnson to my 18th-C. class, I hadn’t read Stahl’s piece, but mentioned Nathaniel’s death as a bit of a footnote in my discussion of the poverty Samuel endured. And even as I spoke, it occurred to me that I, too, have a brother four years my junior. Like Nathaniel Johnson, my brother could be described as “a lively noisy man that loved company.” And perhaps like Samuel Johnson, I find myself wondering if there were things I could or should have done. I tell myself there weren’t — my family’s dynamics were such that even when I spoke to the matter, it didn’t make a difference; my mother said “I can’t just put him on the street.” But I wonder all the same, and when I dream and my family is there, I remember it as well.
Stahl’s article is worth your time, although its ending may be more optimistic than my similar tale — I am no Johnson, after all.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Lawrence Block.
I’ll wrap this one with a couple of my Christmastime favorites. This one I know I’ve run here before. From Chicago, here are Saturday’s Children, with “Christmas Sounds.”
And here’s the flip side, “Deck Five.” (Side note: Despite the titular allusion to Dave Brubeck’s famous song — and despite the similar riff — this song is not actually in 5/4, but has a 6/8 groove.)
But I still think my favorite rock music Christmas song is this one. Even Pete Sinfield’s lyrics work. Here’s Greg Lake.
See you tomorrow — Merry Christmas.