The Pursuit of Knowledge

The Noble Savage

And you thought today's writers are a low, unprincipled bunch?

By 1.14.13

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Ghostwriting, reworking old material, writing about subjects one doesn’t know for little or, in some cases, no pay: Dr. Johnson’s Grub Street sounds a lot like today’s publishing industry, doesn’t it? So says Laura Miller anyway, in a recent Salon essay about the ink slingers, penny a liners, and fourth-rate bibliopolists who lived on the physical outskirts of London near Moorfields, where refugees had fled the Great Fire of 1666, and labored along the threadbare edges of the city’s literary scene.

Richard Savage, poet, pamphleteer, and Grub Street warrior extraordinaire, figures into Miller’s essay as the thankless quill driver behind “An Author to be Lett,” the pseudonymous memoir of one Iscariot Hackney. Hackney, who serves as Savage’s stand-in for any number of eighteenth century London scribblers, is a prototypical, well, hack who languishes in obscurity dashing off books about crime, politics, French literature, and beau monde gossip while dreaming of the day when he “might make a Fortune writing for the stage.” Miller compares Hackney’s plight to that of today’s underpaid, underfed adjective jerker (“every laptop-toting hopeful camped out at a Williamsburg cafe to work on a screenplay”) and concludes, probably rightly, that there is nothing new under the literary sun. 

Her essay, however, is mostly about Edmund Curll, the notoriously under-handed publisher (and subject of an excellent 2007 biography by Paul Baines and Pat Rogers), so she can be forgiven for not making as much as she might have out of the extraordinary figure of Richard Savage himself. Savage, with the exception of Samuel Johnson, is the most noteworthy writer to have worked in Grub Street at its height (or nadir) during the ministry of Robert Walpole, the great Whig statesman whom Johnson and Savage, both dyed-in-the-wool Tories, naturally despised. (Later in life, Johnson would come to think somewhat more highly of Walpole, just as he more or less renounced his youthful Jacobitsm.)

Much of what is popularly known about Savage comes from Johnson’s own Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, published in 1744, less than a year after Savage’s death in a Bristol debtor’s prison. This great book (Walter Jackson Bate called it the first “critical” biography) about the life of a hack writer was itself a piece of hack-work: Johnson claimed to have written 48 of the Life’s 186 pages in a single sitting and drew mainly from Savage’s own recollections (though he also collected Savage’s letters and sought interviews with others who had known him). The clearly established facts of Savage’s life are few. Thus, how seriously one takes the story (at least as I relate it here) depends upon the extent to which one thinks the author of The Vanity of Human Wishes capable of credulity. Certainly some of what Savage told Johnson engenders suspicion (he seems to have gotten wrong the date of his birth and misremembered the name of his godmother), but there is not enough counter-evidence to suggest that Johnson’s book comes very wide of the mark, especially in its account of Savage’s adult life. 

Savage claimed to have, and there is at least evidence to suggest that he really may have been, the son of Richard Savage, 4th Earl Rivers, and Ann Macclesfield, the wife of Charles Gerard, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield. Lady Macclesfield, intent upon leaving her husband, confessed her infidelities to him in 1697. An annulment of their marriage was secured by an Act of Parliament the next year. Ann then remarried and placed her infant son under the care of another woman.

Johnson knew almost nothing about the circumstances of Savage’s childhood, and subsequent historians and biographers have found very little to supplement the account that Johnson supplies. His foster mother Anne Portlock was a woman of very limited means, and his necessities were provided for by his grandmother Lady Mason and his godmother, whom he called “Mrs Lloyd,” but who may actually have been named Dorothea Ousley. Lady Mason arranged for the boy to attend a grammar school in Hertfordshire, where he seems to have achieved some measure of success as a pupil. According to Johnson, Savage “always spoke with respect of his master,” which for him suggests that “the mean rank, in which he then appeared, did not hinder [Savage’s] genius from being distinguished, or his industry from being rewarded.”

On his death-bed in 1712, it appears that Earl Rivers asked for the boy’s whereabouts, hoping to leave him £6000, a sum now equal to several millions. Savage’s mother, by then the wife of Henry Brett (later lieutenant-colonel in an infantry regiment and sometime Tory MP for Bishop’s Gate, Shropshire), told her former lover that the boy was dead. Such casual (and unprofitable, for the money did not pass on to her) malice was inexplicable to Johnson, who loathed cruelty, especially when its object was innocent:

This was therefore an act of wickedness which could not be defeated, because it could not be suspected: the Earl did not imagine that there could exist in a human form a mother that would ruin her son without enriching herself. . .

From here Johnson’s narrative progresses very rapidly. The boy eventually became a shoemaker’s apprentice and soon took up the last himself, apparently for several years. When his foster mother died, however, Savage claimed that he discovered among her papers a letter from his grandmother in which the circumstances of his birth were discussed. He set out to meet his mother, who refused him entry to her home: 

Savage was at the same time so touched with the discovery of his real mother that it was his frequent practice to walk in the dark evenings for several hours before her door, in hopes of seeing her as she might come by accident to the window, or cross her apartment with a candle in her hand. 

I wish it were not the case, but I find Savage’s prowling around the Bretts’ home after dark sinister and obsessive. (Where I see evil stars, Johnson sees “assiduity and tenderness,” however.) At any rate, nothing came of his attempts to make contact with Anne Brett, and so Savage, “reduced to the utmost miseries of want,” and “having no profession” (he seems to have abandoned cobbling by this time), “became by necessity an author.” 

By the time Johnson met up with him in the late 1730s, Savage had written numerous pamphlets, plays (some of these translated very loosely from Spanish, one of the many languages with which he seems to have become somewhat inexactly acquainted), and poems, one of which, The Bastard (1728) was luridly autobiographical. He had also secured (and lost) a yearly pension of £200 from Anne Brett’s nephew John Brownlow, a member of the Irish peerage; acted unsuccessfully in a tragedy of his own composition; made himself useful to Alexander Pope by scooping up rumors for use in the Dunciad; and killed a man named James Sinclair. His hand-to-mouth bohemianism is well-described in this very atmospheric passage from Johnson’s Life:

He lodged as much by accident as he dined, and passed the night sometimes in mean houses, which are set open at night to any casual wanderers, sometimes in cellars, among the riot and filth of the meanest and most profligate of the rabble; and sometimes, when he had not money to support even the expences of these receptacles, walked about the streets till he was weary, and lay down in the summer upon a bulk, or in the winter, with his associates in poverty, among the ashes of a glass-house.

Johnson seems to have taken immediately to Savage, who by then was widely considered one of London’s greatest conversationalists and went about in a striking scarlet cloak and shoes in need of mending calling himself the “Volunteer Laureate” (Colley Cibber, the actual Poet Laureate at the time, is famous today mainly as the model for Pope’s King of Dunces); and together they would walk the London streets at all hours, too broke to eat or rest indoors, railing against the Whig dogs. Much was done by Johnson (even amid his own desperate poverty) and others to help Savage; there were innumerable schemes for subscriptions, stagings, and pensions, but he spent money much faster than he could earn (or rather receive) it, and his debts mounted. 

Eventually, it became clear that if Savage stayed in London any longer, he would find himself in choky; and so, with the help of Pope, it was arranged that he would move to Wales and live on the very generous sum of £50 per year. Once there, he planned to revise his works and publish them in a new complete edition; moreover he would (he was sure) do so amid the most pleasant possible surroundings: 

He had planned out a scheme of life for the country, of which he had no knowledge but from pastorals and songs. He imagined that he should be transported to scenes of flowery felicity, like those which one poet has reflected to another; and had projected a perpetual round of innocent pleasures, of which he suspected no interruption from pride, or ignorance, or brutality.

Unsurprisingly, Savage did not make good on his literary promises, nor did he much prosper from the change of scenery. After leaving London (“with tears in his eyes,” according to Johnson) in 1739, he went not immediately to Wales but first to Bristol, where he would die a few years later in 1743 in, of all places, a debtor’s prison. Yet Johnson manages to end the Life on a note of high defiance, with a kind of anti-apologia for his friend, who (at least if his claims concerning his origins are to be credited) did not live half as well as his birth entitled him to have done but thought, talked, and wrote much better than anyone would have expected given the circumstances into which he was forced:

If he was not always sufficiently instructed in his subject, his knowledge was at least greater than could have been attained by others in the same state. If his works were sometimes unfinished, accuracy cannot reasonably be exacted from a man oppressed with want, which he has no hope of relieving but by a speedy publication. The insolence and resentment of which he is accused were not easily to be avoided by a great mind, irritated by perpetual hardships, and constrained hourly to return the spurns of contempt and repress the insolence of prosperity; and vanity may surely readily be pardoned in him, to whom life afforded no other comforts than barren praises, and the consciousness of deserving them.

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will any wise man presume to say, “Had I been in Savage's condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications.