THE TELLING EXAMPLE
The kind partiality with which every man looks upon his own fraternity, is generally discovered in his acts of munificence. The merchant seldom founds hospitals for the soldier; nor the sailor endow colleges for the student. [italics added] Every man has had most opportunities of knowing the calamities incident to his own course of life: And who can blame him for pitying those miseries which he has most observed?
It is with the same kind of propension that I have always rejoiced to see the theatres made instrumental to the relief of literature in distress; and though I would not willingly oppose any act of charity, I cannot but confess a higher degree of pleasure, in contributing to the support of those, who have themselves contributed to the advancement of learning; and therefore take, with uncommon satisfaction, this opportunity of informing the town, that next Tuesday will be acted, at Covent Garden, The Way of the World, for the benefit of an unfortunate bookseller [James Crokatt]; a person, who, in his happier state, was little guilty of refusing his assistance to men of letters; whose purse often relieved them, and whose fertility of schemes often supplied them with opportunities of relieving themselves.
Many of the most voluminous and important works, which the industry of learning has lately produced, were projected by his [Crokatt’s] invention, undertaken by his persuasion, and encouraged by his liberality. The time is now come when he calls, in his turn, for assistance; and it is surely the duty of the publick to reward, by uncommon generosity, the benefits which he has conferred upon them, without the usual advantage to himself. (italics added)
— Samuel Johnson, Letter to the Daily Advertiser Concerning James Crokatt (1751), IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pg. 221
This letter was written by on behalf of the London book trade entrepreneur James Crokatt, who having experienced business and financial difficulties, was in debtors’ prison.
From immersion in the works of a writer of Johnson’s stature, I would be inclined to say that:
Anecdotes from the early chapters of Boswell’s Life of Johnson show that Johnson at a very young age was what we would today call a gifted child and that he was intellectually precocious.
It is also apparent from Johnson’s own accounts (and those of schoolmates) that his grammar school instruction was very rigorous in the area of rhetoric, including instruction in Latin. (I believe that his fluency in Latin along with his mastery of the king’s English contributed to, and in fact resulted in, his knowledge of and proficiency in rhetoric and mastery of the rules of exposition and grammar, whereby the “operating principles,” so to speak, of verbal expression were ingrained in him — at his command.) *
Ergo, Johnson wrote as well as he did because he was a born writer and also because he worked so hard at achieving mastery.
* The following quote is apropos. I can relate it to my own experience of foreign language study.
“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” (He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own.)
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen (1833)
— Roger W. Smith