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"Mr. Compositor, I ask your Pardon" - The famous Dr. Johnson and his Printers

This article was written by my paternal grandfather Walter Dack Brelstaff (1903 - 2000)  and first appeared in The British Printer, November 1941 (page 98).   Walter was a printer by trade and rose to become president of the local co-operative society and a respected local historian.  Until I came across a copy of this article amongst some of his papers a few weeks ago, I had no idea he had a publication history.  I thought back in 1981 that I was breaking new ground for his side of the family with the publication of my first paper.  Why didn't he tell me back then that he had published something 40 years earlier?  And why didn't he go on to publish more?  (Actually some of his local history work was published, but that was in a collaborative book with many  coauthors).  I suppose, work, family and other commitments got in the way.  Anyhow, after having quoted my maternal grandfather last month, I am now able to even things up by quoting my paternal one here.

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds.jpgIt is a fairly safe assertion to say that every compositor has, at some time or other, wrestled with the illegibilities of hieroglyphic copy. The proverbial way of excusing misprints is to throw the onus on the printer, but were it not for the vigilance of compositors and readers many a faux pas would titillate the reading public and exasperate the author. The compositor naturally renders first-aid treatment to bad copy, correcting grammatical errors and mispellings. In the smaller country offices where the reading and revision of proofs is not assigned to one person, the reponsibility resting on the compositor is much greater. Upon his knowledge and discretion much depends.

It is interesting to recall Dr. Johnson's connections with printers and publishers. There is, of course, the well-known ejaculation of Millar, the bookseller, when he received the belated and final sheet of copy for the famous dictionary. That Dr. Johnson expected some asperity is obvious, for he asked the messenger what Millar had said. "Sir," answered the messenger, "he said, 'Thank God, I have done with him.'" "I am glad," replied Johnson with a smile, "that he thanks God for anything."

Boswell also records an instance of the doctor's carelessness in preparing his copy. Both sides of the paper had been used and the cost of rewriting the copy on one side of the paper cost Johnson £20.

On one occasion Johnson, with characteristic frankness paid tribute to the diplomacy of his printer. This instance arose out of the definition of a word in his dictionary. In talking to Boswell he said: "You know, sir, Lord Gower forsook the old Jacobite interest. When I came to the word 'Renegado,' after telling that it meant 'One who deserts to the enemy, a revolter,' I added, 'Sometimes we say a Gower.' Thus it went to the press; but the printer had more wit than I , and struck it out."

There is, however, another reference to printers which is hardly complimentary. Mr. Strahan, the printer, had received one of Johnson's proteges into his works as an apprentice. Calling upon Strahan to enquire about the lad's progress, Johnson borrowed five guineas from the printer so that he might give one guinea to the apprentice. The doctor asked the lad: "Well, my boy, how do you go on?" "Pretty well, sir; but they are afraid I an't strong enough for some parts of the business." Johnson: "Why, I shall be very sorry for it, for when you consider with how little mental power and corporeal labour a printer can get a guinea a week, it is a very desirable occupation for you." We are not informed how the "little, thick, short-legged boy" profited by his benefactor's interest. Strahan himself appears to have been sufficiently successful for Boswell to make the comment that "A printer, having acquired a fortune sufficient to keep his coach, was a good topic for the credit of literature."

The traditional printer's devil is also mentioned by Boswell. Dr. Johnson had told Sir Joshua Reynolds that a very respectable author had married a printer's devil, whereupon Reynolds incredulously exclaimed "A printer's devil, sir! Why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags." Johnson's reply provides an amusing illustration of the way in which he autocratically ruled the conversational circle. "Yes, sir, but I suppose he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. And she did not disgrace him - the woman had a bottom of good sense." On observing the amusement of the company, Johnson sharply informed them that he meant fundamentally sensible. "Where's the merriment?" he asked, and Boswell records for our delight that they "all sat composed as at a funeral."

Another instance shows the doctor's irascibility, although it was actually cited by Boswell to prove Johnson's willingness to make the amende honorable. Apparently a proof sheet of one of his works had been sent to him. After a hasty glance at it, he stormily refused to read it and demanded the presence of the offending compositor. Boswell is worth quoting here, for the compositor's Johnsonian connection is rather interesting.

"The compositor was Mr. Manning, a decent, sensible man, who had composed about one-half of Johnson's Dictionary, when in Mr. Strahan's printing-house; and a great part of his 'Lives of the Poets,' when in that of Mr. Nichols; and who (in his seventy-seventh year) when in Mr. Baldwin's printing-house, composed a part of the first edition of this work concerning Johnson. By producing the manuscript, he at once satisfied Dr. Johnson that he was not to blame. Upon which Johnson candidly and earnestly said to him, 'Mr. Compositor, I ask your pardon; Mr. Compositor, I ask your pardon, again and again.'" Surely no compositor ever received such a handsome apology, although his close association with Johnson's manuscripts suggests that this was not the first occasion when Mr. Manning had hurriedly followed the proof sheets. At seventy-seven, Mr. Manning must have been a venerable fount of erudition and Johnsoniana.

Reader Comments (1)

Printer's devils were not necessarily all men, then.
September 3 | Unregistered CommenterAydin

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