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Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) - Byname Dr. Johnson


English poet, essayist, critic, journalist, lexicographer, conversationalist, regarded as one of the outstanding figures of 18th-century life and letters. Johnson's literary reputation is part dependent on James Boswell's (1740-1795) biography The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (1791), with whom he formed one of the most famous friendships in literary history. The writer Ford Madox Ford has considered Johnson the most tragic figures of English literature, "whose still living writings are always ignored, a great honest man who will remain forever a figure of half fun because of the leechlike adoration of the greatest and most ridiculous of all biographers. For it is impossible not to believe that, without Boswell, Johnson for us today would shine like a sun in the heavens whilst Addison sat forgotten in coffee houses." (from The March of Literature, 1938) – Johnson became Doctor Johnson when Dublin University gave him the honorary degree in 1765. He had a huge, strong athletic build, his appetite was legendary and it is said that he often drank over 25 cups of tea at one sitting.
"One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts."

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfeld, the son of a bookseller. His childhood was marred by ill health: a tubercular infection affected both his sight and hearing and his face was scarred by scrofula. Johnson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford. His father died in 1731 and left the family in poverty. Johnson's studies were cut short and he returned to Lichfield, affected by depression which haunted him for his life. He worked as a teacher at the grammar school in Market Bosworth and published his first essays in the Birmingham Journal.

In 1735 Johnson married Mrs Elisabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior. They started a school at Edial, near Lichfeld, but the school did not prosper. Johnson's lack of degree and convulsive mannerisms hindered his success as a teacher. Two years later they moved to London where Johnson worked for Edward Cave, the founder of The Gentleman's Magazine. When he applied to a publisher for employment, he was found unfit for the job. "You had better get a porter's knot and carry trunks," he was advised.

The death of the poet Richard Savage, who was Johnson friend, gave rise in 1743 to his first biographical work. He addressed to Lord Chesterfield his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747 and worked for eight years with the project. Lord Chesterfield refused to support Johnson while he was at work on his dictionary and later Johnson wrote: "This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find, he is only a wit among Lords." A patron was in his Dictionary "one who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery."

Johnson's longest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, came out in 1749. On that same year his tragedy Irene was staged and appeared at Drury Lane. Between the years 1750 and 1752 he edited Cave's magazine The Rambler, writing nearly all of its numbers. When Cave died in 1754 Johnson wrote a life of the bookseller for The Gentleman's Magazine. Johnson's working method was complex: he first made a rough draft, then "turned over in his mind all the Latin words into which the sentence could be formed. Finally, he made up Latin-derived English words to convey his sense." (from The March of the Literature)

A Dictionary of the English Language was published finally in 1755, and the abridged edition in 1756. Johnson's financial situation was weak, although the work as a whole remained without rival until the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928), initially compiled by James Murray (1837-1915). Johnson wrote the definitions of over 40 000 words, illustrating them with about 114 000 quotations drawn from every field of learning. On the lines laid down by earlier French and Italian dictionaries, Johnson selected a 'golden age' from which he would work. For him this was the century that ran from the later sixteenth century until the English Restoration of 1660. It was not that Johnson did not understand that language changed. But he regarded most of the changes as degenerate. Johnson was not afraid of vulgar expressions in his dictionary:

to fart. To break wind behind.
As when we gun discharge,
Although the bore be ne're so large,
Before the flame from muzzle burst,
Just at the breech it flashes first;
So from my lord his passion broke,
He farted first, and then he spoke - Swift

In addition to his Dictionary and the philosophical romance of The Prince of Abissinia (1759, later known as Rasselas), Johnson published essays in The Adventurer (1752-54) and The Idler (1758-60). He produced a number of political articles, biographies of Sir Thomas Browne and Roger Ascham, and contributed to the Universal Chronicle.

The new monarch George III awarded Johnson in 1762 an annual pension, which improved his circumstances. He spent his time in coffee houses in conversation and in idleness; in the 1770s, after Johnson was widowed, he had a close relationship with the society hostess Hester Thrale. In 1763 Johnson met at Tom Davies's book shop the young Scot James Boswell, who became later his biographer. With Boswell he traveled in 1773 in Scotland and published his observations in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). One of Johnson's motives to embark on the tour was to investigate the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian poems; he was sure that they were fakes.

Boswell's own account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., appeared ten years later, after the death of Johnson. Of Johnson's many remarks about Scotchmen perhaps the most famous was his reply when Boswell told him at their first meeting, "I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it..." Johnson replied: "That, sir, I find, is what a very good many of your countrymen cannot help." He continued his travels and went to Wales with Hester Lynch Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and accompanied him to Paris in 1775, Johnson's only visit to the Continent. Johnson's biographical essays of English poets were published in 1781 as The Lives of the Poets. The idea for the work came in 1777 from London booksellers and others. In this work Johnson abandoned his distinctive style full of long abstract words, which was already considered old-fashioned by his contemporaries. He wrote in short enough words, with a style that was sufficiently learned but comprehensible. Years he had practiced his conversational skills marked his rhythm and vocabulary.

"My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may say to a man, "Sir, I am your most humble servant." You are not his most humble servant. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather and were so much wet." You don't care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly." (Johnson to Boswell, May 15, 1783)

Johnson spent the summer of 1784 visiting Lichfield, Birmingham, and Oxford and returned to London depressed and exhausted. He died of pneumonia during the night of 13 December and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Before his death, Johnson threw into the fire a number of his manuscripts, letters, and personal papers. According to Boswell, among the burned papers were "two quarto volumes, containing a full, fair, and most particular account of his own life, from his earliest recollection."

The bulk of Johnson's estate was left in trust for his black manservant, Francis Barber, a former slave from Jamaica. Although Johnson's celebrity at that time was phenomenal, views about him as a witty but pedantic and pompous writer came to dominate the 19th century. Walter Raleigh's Six Essays on Johnson in 1910 and T.S. Eliot's essay Johnson as Critic and Poet (1944) made evident the need for a thorough revaluation of Johnson's work. In 1944 Joseph Wood Krutch produced the first modern biography of the rigorous and eloquent author.

For further reading: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson by Hester L. Piozzi (1786, reprinted in 1925, 1971, 1975); Samuel Johnson by J. W. Krutch (1944); The achievement of Samuel Johnson by W.J. Bate (1955); Who is Who in Boswell? by J.L. Smith-Dampier (1970); Samuel Johnson: A Survey and Bibliography by James L. Clifford and Donald Greene (1970); Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate (1977); Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing by Paul Fussell (1971); The Unknown Johnson, ed. by J.J. Burke (1983); Samuel Johnson After Deconstruction by Steven Lynn (1992); The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, ed. by Greg Clingham (1997); Samuel Johnson by Lawrence I. Lipking (1998); Bad Behavior by Martin Wechselblatt (1998); Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Peter Martin (2008); Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers (2008) - See also: Edward Gibbon was also a member of the circle that was formed around Samuel Johnson. In 1764 Johnson founded with the painter Joshua Reynolds 'the Club', an artistic group, whose meetings were held at the Turk's Head in Gerald Street. It was attended by Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrik, Boswell, and Charles James Fox.  Place to visit in London: Dr. Johnson House, 17 Gough Square, where Johnson lived and wrote his Dictionary. Houses memorablia and manuscripts. Also: Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Breadmarket Street, in Staffordshire, where Johnson spent his fist 26 years - Note: The great American lexicographer and linguist Noah Webster claimed that Johnson's contribution to his subject had been equivalent to that of Newton to mathematics. See also: Icarus Theatre Collective: Johnson's Mistake by Stephen Hunt. Staged Reading June/October 2007. Set in modern day Rome, the play uses Johnson's response to the idealism of Bishop Berkeley to present miscnception as the basis of sanity.

Selected works:

  • London, 1738
  • Marmor Norfolciense; or, an Essay on an Ancient Prophetical Inscription in Monkish Rhyme, 1739
  • A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the English Stage, 1739
  • An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers, 1744
  • The Vanity of Human Wishes, 1749
  • The Rambler, 1750-1752 (208 nos., in 6 vols. 1752)
  • The Adventurer, 1752-1759 (with others, 140 nos., 2 vols. in 1753-54)
  • Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
  • The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, 1759
  • The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765, (ed. 8 vols.)
  • The False Alarm, 1770
  • Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands, 1771
  • A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775
  • Taxation No Tyranny, 1775
  • The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1777-81
  • Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, 1779-81 (10 vols., as The Lives of the English Poets, 1781, rev. ed. 1783, 1905, 1972, ed. by J.P. Hardy)
  • Prayers and Meditations, 1785
  • The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., Together with his Life, and Notes on His Lives of the Poets, 1787
  • Select Essays of Dr. Johnson, 1889 (2 vols., ed. G. B. Hill)
  • The Critical Opinions of Samuel Johnson, 1927 (ed.J. E. Brown)
  • Prefaces and Dedications, 1937 (ed. A. T. Hazen)
  • The Poems, 1941 (ed. D. Nichol Smith and E. K. McAdam
  • Prose and Poetry, 1950 (ed. M. Wilson)
  • The Letters of Samuel Johnson, 1952 (3 vols., ed. R. W. Chapman)
  • The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 1958-90 (13 vols., ed. by Allen T. Hazen and others)
  • Johnson on Shakespeare, 1960 (edited by R.W.Desai)
  • Selected Writings, 1965 (ed. R. T. Davies)
  • The Selected Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, 1968 (ed. by Walter Jackson Bate)
  • The Poems of Samuel Johnson, 1974 (ed. D. Nichol Smith and E. L. McAdam, Jr., 2nd ed.)
  • Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism, 1974 (ed. by R.D. Stock)
  • The Early Biographies of Samuel Johnson, 1974
  • Samuel Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1977 (ed. by Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt)
  • Samuel Johnson on Literature, 1979 (ed. by Marlies K. Danziger)
  • Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, 1989 (ed. by H.R. Woudhuysen)
  • The Letters of Samuel Johnson, 1992-94 (5 vols., ed. by Bruce Redford)
  • The Collected Works of Samuel Johnson, 1999 (16 vols.)

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