Samuel Johnson

The writings of the English author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) express a profound reverence for the past modified by an energetic independence of mind. The mid-18th century in England is often called the Age of Johnson.

Samuel Johnson was born in Litchfield, Staffordshire, on Sept. 18, 1709. His father was a bookseller—first successful, later a failure—and Johnson, whom Adam Smith described as the best-read man he had ever known, owed much of his education to the fact that he grew up in a bookstore. Though he lived to old age, from infancy Johnson was plagued by illness. He was afflicted with scrofula, smallpox, and partial deafness and blindness. One of his first memories was of being taken to London, where he was touched by Queen Anne, the touch of the sovereign then thought to be a cure for scrofula.

Johnson was educated at the Litchfield Grammar School, where he learned Latin and Greek under the threat of the rod. He later studied with a clergyman in a nearby village from whom he learned a lesson always central to his thinking—that, if one is to master any subject, one must first discover its general principles, or, as Johnson put it, "but grasp the Trunk hard only, and you will shake all the Branches." In 1728-1729 Johnson spent 14 months at Pembroke College, Oxford. He was poor, embarrassed by his poverty, and he could not complete the work for a degree. While at Oxford, Johnson became confirmed in his belief in Christianity and the Anglican Church, a belief to which he held throughout a life often troubled by religious doubts. His father died in 1731, and Johnson halfheartedly supported himself with academic odd jobs. In 1735 he married Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, a widow some 20 years older than he. Though Johnson's references to his "Tetty" were affectionate, the 17 years of their childless marriage were probably not very happy. Still casting about for a way to make a living, Johnson opened a boarding school. He had only three pupils, one of them being David Garrick— eventually to become the greatest actor of his day. In 1737 Johnson went to London to make a career as a man of letters.

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Making His Name

Once in London, Johnson began to work for Edward Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament did not then permit stenographic reports of its debates, and Cave published a column called "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput"—the name is taken, of course, from the first book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels—for which Johnson, among others, wrote re-creations of actual parliamentary speeches. Years later, when someone quoted to him from a speech by William Pitt the Elder, Johnson remarked, "That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street."

Johnson worked at a variety of other literary tasks. He published two "imitations" of the Roman satirist Juvenal, London, a Poem (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), transposing the language and situations of the classical originals into those of his own day. In 1744 Johnson published a biography of his friend Richard Savage. A neurotic liar and sponger and a failed writer, Savage had been one of Johnson's friends when they were both down and out, and to such early friends Johnson was always loyal. The Life of Savage is a sympathetic study of a complex and initially unsympathetic man. In 1749 Johnson completed his rather lifeless tragedy in blank verse Irene; it was produced by Garrick and earned Johnson £300.

In the early 1750s Johnson, writing usually at the rate of two essays a week, published two series of periodical essays—The Rambler (1750-1752) and The Adventurer (1753-1754). The essays take various forms—allegories, sketches of representative human types, literary criticism, lay sermons. Johnson constantly lived in the presence of the literature of the past, and his essays refer to the classics as if they were the work of his contemporaries. He has a satirist's eye for discrepancies and contradictions in human life, yet he is always in search of the central and universal, for whatever is unchanging in man's experience. His prose is elaborate and richly orchestrated, and he seems to have tried to enlarge the language of moral philosophy by using scientific and technical terms.

Johnson's interest in specialized vocabularies can be easily explained. In 1746 he had, with the help of six assistants, begun work on a dictionary of the English language. The project was finally completed in 1755. Johnson had originally tried to interest Lord Chesterfield in becoming patron for this vast project, but he did little to help Johnson until help was no longer needed. Johnson wrote Chesterfield a public letter in which he declared the author's independence of noble patronage. Johnson's Dictionary is probably the most personal work of its kind that will ever be compiled; though Johnson received help from others, it was not the work of a committee. His own definition of lexicographer was a "writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," yet the work bears his personal stamp: it is notable for the precision of its definitions, for its appreciation of the paramount importance of metaphor in use of language, and for its examples, which draw on Johnson's reading in 200 years of English literature.

Johnson's Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia appeared in 1759, the year of the publication of Voltaire's Candide, a work which it somewhat resembles. Both are moral fables concerned with an innocent young man's search for the secret of happiness. The young Prince Rasselas, accompanied by his sister and the philosopher Imlac, leaves his home in the Happy Valley and interviews men of different kinds in the hope of discovering how life may best be lived. Disillusioned at last, Rasselas returns to his old home. Though Johnson was given to fits of idleness, he could at other times work with great facility; he wrote Rasselasin the evenings of one week to pay for the expenses of his mother's funeral. The work was immediately successful; six editions appeared during Johnson's lifetime and also a number of translations.

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Years of Success and Fame

In 1762 Johnson, though he had been anti-Hanoverian in his politics, accepted a pension of £300 a year from George III. A year later he met James Boswell, the 22-year-old son of a Scottish judge. Boswell became Johnson's devoted companion; he observed him closely, made notes on his conversation, and eventually wrote the great biography of his hero. Boswell's Johnson is a formidable and yet endearing figure: bulky, personally untidy, given to many eccentricities and compulsions, in conversation often contentious and even pugnacious, a man of great kindness who delighted in society but was also the victim of frequent black moods and periods of religious disquiet. In 1773 Boswell persuaded Johnson, who pretended a stronger dislike of the Scots than he actually felt, to join him in a tour of Scotland, and there are records of the trip made by both men— Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's journal.

In 1764 Johnson and the painter Joshua Reynolds founded a club whose members eventually numbered some of the most eminent men of the time; they included the writer Oliver Goldsmith, Johnson's old pupil David Garrick, the economist Adam Smith, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. In 1765 Johnson met Mr. and Mrs. Henry Thrale. He was a well-to-do brewer, and in the Thrales' home Johnson found a refuge from the solitude which had oppressed him since his wife's death in 1752. In 1765 Johnson published an eight-volume edition of the works of Shakespeare; in his "Preface" Johnson praises Shakespeare for his fidelity to nature and defends him against the charge that his failure to observe the three classical unities was a limitation on his achievement.

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Last Years

Johnson's last great literary enterprise, a work in 10 volumes, was completed in his seventy-second year; it is the Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, better known as the Lives of the Poets. Itisa series of biographical and critical studies of 52 English poets, the earliest being Abraham Cowley; it is a magisterial revaluation of the course of English poetry from the early 17th century until his own time by a man whose taste had been formed by the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope and who was thus in varying degrees out of sympathy with the metaphysicals and John Milton, as he was with the more "advanced" writers of his own time. Even when he deals with writers whom he does not much like, Johnson shows his genius for precise definition and for laying down fairly the terms of a critical argument.

Johnson's last years were saddened by the death of his old friend Dr. Robert Levett (to whom he addressed a beautiful short elegy), by the death of Thrale, and by a quarrel with Mrs. Thrale, who had remarried with what seemed to Johnson indecorous haste. In his last illness Johnson, always an amateur physician, made notes on the progress of his own disease. He died on Dec. 13, 1784, in his house in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading on Samuel Johnson

The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, edited by Edward L. McAdam, Jr., and others (9 vols., 1958-1971, and still in progress), will eventually supersede all earlier editions. The Letters of Samuel Johnson was edited by R. W. Chapman (3 vols., 1952). The Poems of Samuel Johnson was edited by David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam, Jr. (1941). The best edition of Lives of the Poets is by George B. Hill (3 vols., 1905). A convenient one-volume edition of James Boswell's Life of Johnson was edited by Robert William Chapman (1953). Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson (1944), is a reliable modern biography. James Lowry Clifford, Young Sam Johnson (1955), is an account of Johnson's life before he met Boswell.

Critical studies particularly recommended are Walter Jackson Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), and Matthew J. C. Hodgart, Samuel Johnson and His Times (1962). Aspects of Johnson's career and thought are examined in Donald Johnson Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson (1960); Maurice J. Quinlan, Samuel Johnson: A Layman's Religion (1964); Arieh Sachs, Passionate Intelligence: Imagination and Reason in the Work of Samuel Johnson (1967); Paul Kent Alkon, Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline (1967); and Paul Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971). A useful guide to the literature on Johnson is James Lowry Clifford and Donald J. Greene, Samuel Johnson: A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies (1951; rev. ed. 1970).