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  • Transference Attended the Birth of Modern Biography
  • Stuart Feder

Samuel Johnson’s biography of the poet Richard Savage is universally considered to be a milestone in the development of modern biography. Nonetheless, from James Boswell on writers have been variously puzzled, bemused, apologetic and generally uncomprehending regarding Johnson’s choice of biographical subject. For Richard Savage, a minor writer and poet, has been variously described as an exploiter and betrayer of his friends, offensive, malicious, vindictive, vain, and an accused murderer who, even after he was acquitted, left considerable question about his culpability. Savage, who died in debtors’ prison was, as Garraty (1964) sums up, “an engaging but irresponsible dissolute and thoroughly second rate poet” (89). Kronenberger (1947) believes that Johnson was not only taken in by Savage with regard to his history but “his claims to be a poet” as well! (4) Boswell (1992) is at pains to rationalize Johnson’s choice with tact and piety, writing of his subject:

He produced one work [in 1744], fully sufficient to maintain the high reputation which he had acquired. This was “The Life of Richard Savage”; a man, of whom it is difficult to speak impartially, without wondering that he was for some time the intimate companion of Johnson; for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence, and ingratitude: yet, as he undoubtedly had a warm and vigorous, though unregulated mind, had seen life in all its varieties, and had been much in the company of the statesmen and wits of his time, he could communicate to Johnson an abundant supply of such materials as his [Johnson’s] philosophical curiosity most eagerly desired.


Clearly, Boswell was not the last to ponder what drew Johnson to Savage. It is the purpose of this contribution to explore the [End Page 399] question from a psychoanalytic point of view. In what follows this takes the form of a quest to determine the deeper sources for the moralist Samuel Johnson’s incongruous biographical alliance with the dissolute Richard Savage. At the core of the hypothesis advanced here is Johnson’s unconscious sense of maternal neglect, betrayal and abandonment; a mental construct which was generated in the course of early traumatic childhood illnesses as well as the equally traumatic medical treatment of the time. It was this psychological configuration that engaged Johnson firmly and fostered an alliance with the Richard Savage who spent his life blaming his own sufferings on an indifferent “mother,” Lady Anne, the Countess of Macclesfield—who steadfastly denied any relation to Savage. Thus transference, which is characterized by such displacements of mental representation, was a prime motivating factor in Johnson’s choice of biographical subject. And it is to these curious circumstances that we owe Johnson’s landmark in the history of modern biography, An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers.

Doctor Johnson and Richard Savage

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) knew Richard Savage (1697?–1743) during his early years in London. The twenty-eight-year old Johnson had arrived there in 1737. Within a year and a half, he was living apart from his wife (then in her late forties) and was surviving through hack work in the poverty stricken, literary underworld of Grub Street. During this period Johnson met Richard Savage, who was probably about a dozen years his senior. That his date of birth is questionable introduces the preoccupation of Savage’s life which receives much scrutiny and commentary in Johnson’s biography: his family background. For Savage claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield by the Earl Rivers. Since the Countess and her husband had published accounts of their marriage as a consequence of a sensational divorce trial, such a son was a matter of record, and Savage was persistent throughout his lifetime to force the Countess to help him financially and acknowledge him as offspring and heir. [End Page 400]

Savage was a playwright and minor poet, his most famous poem a polemic, entitled appropriately enough, The Bastard. He had hoped to have been named poet-laureat by Queen Caroline (1683–1737) and having failed, designated himself the “Volunteer Laureate” thus linking himself with royalty...

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