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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

Ambitions of Authorship

From “The Adventurer”

IN former times, the pen, like the sword, was considered as consigned by nature to the hands of men. The ladies contented themselves with private virtues and domestic excellence; and a female writer, like a female warrior, was considered as a kind of eccentric being, that deviated, how ever illustriously, from her due sphere of motion, and was therefore rather to be gazed at with wonder than countenanced by imitation. But as the times past are said to have been a nation of Amazons, who drew the bow and wielded the battle-axe, formed encampments and wasted nations; the revolution of years has now produced a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their claim to the regions of science, and seemed resolved to contest the usurpations of virility.

Some, indeed, there are of both sexes who are authors only in desire, but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the innumerable correspondents of public papers, who are always offering assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are never taken, and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands, which have been offered and rejected.

To what cause this universal eagerness of writing can be properly ascribed I have not yet been able to discover. It is said that every art is propagated in proportion to the rewards conferred upon it; a position from which a stranger would naturally infer that literature was now blessed with patronage far transcending the candour or munificence of the Augustine age; that the road to greatness was open to none but authors, and that by writing alone riches and honour were to be obtained.

But since it is true that writers, like other competitors, are very little disposed to favour one another, it is not to be expected that at a time when every man writes, any man will patronize; and accordingly there is not one that I can recollect at present who professes the least regard for the votaries of science, invites the addresses of learned men, or seems to hope for reputation from any pen but his own.

The cause, therefore, of this epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper must remain a secret. Nor can I discover whether we owe it to the influences of the constellations, or to the intemperature of seasons; whether the long continuance of the wind at any single point, or intoxicating vapours exhaled from the earth, have turned our nobles and our peasants, our soldiers and traders, our men and women, all into wits, philosophers, and writers.

It is, indeed, of more importance to search out the cure than the cause of this intellectual malady; and he would deserve well of his country, who, instead of amusing himself with conjectural speculations, should find means of persuading the peer to inspect his steward’s accounts, or repair the rural mansion of his ancestors; who could replace the tradesman behind his counter, and send back the farmer to the mattock and the flail.

General irregularities are known in time to remedy themselves. By the constitution of ancient Egypt, the priesthood was continually increasing, till at length there was no people besides themselves. The establishment was then dissolved, and the number of priests was reduced and limited. Thus, amongst us, writers will perhaps be multiplied till no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must necessarily cease.