Study Guide

The Letters of Samuel Johnson

by Samuel Johnson

The Letters of Samuel Johnson Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Thomas Mann defined an author as a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Despite his prodigious output, Samuel Johnson fits Mann’s description. On May 1, 1783, he remarked to James Boswell, “It has been said, there is pleasure in writing.…I allow you may have pleasure from writing, after it is over, if you have written well; but you don’t go willingly to it again.” He had expressed similar sentiments in Adventurer 138: “Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.” When Boswell pressed him on this point, expressing surprise that Johnson did not enjoy writing, Johnson replied testily, “Sir, you may wonder.”

Letters proved especially irksome for most of Johnson’s life. If he had died in 1772, the Hyde edition of his letters, projected to run to five volumes, would have been complete in one. The goad of poverty that drove his pen until he received his pension of £300 a year in 1763 provoked poems, essays, a dictionary, a play, a novel, and an edition of Shakespeare (though published in 1765, it was at its appearance long overdue), but no such stimulus, or indeed any other, prompted the converse of the pen. As Johnson wrote to John Taylor on July 31, 1756, “I know not how it happens, but I fancy that I write letters with more difficulty than some other people, who write nothing but letters,…and indeed I never did exchange letters regularly but with dear Miss Boothby.” The regularity of even that correspondence is suspect, since only eight of Johnson’s letters to her survive. Some seven years later, Johnson wrote to James Boswell, “I love to see my friends to hear from them to talk to them and to talk of them, but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write.…Whether I shall easily arrive at an exact punctuality of correspondence I cannot tell.” In the first decade of their acquaintance, Johnson did not. Although he would eventually write more than a hundred letters to his future biographer, only nine are dated between 1763 and 1772.

Johnson’s epistolary silence resulted from a combination of factors, of which his oft-confessed laziness was but one. Money-making projects necessary to his very survival demanded much of his time; ill health and depression drained his energy. His was not a life filled with incident; in his dictionary he defined a lexicographer (that is, himself) as “a harmless drudge.” When Giuseppe Baretti accused Johnson “with parsimony of writing,” Johnson reminded his Italian friend that “he who continues the same course of life in the same place, will have little to tell.” Not least among the reasons for Johnson’s reluctance to write was his fear of failure and consequent pursuit of perfection. His Rambler 152 surveys the requirements of the successful letter, and he concludes that while apparent artlessness, simplicity, and ease are required, “the pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond, and words ought surely to be laboured when they are intended to stand for things.”

Johnson wanted to please his correspondents; his own early doubts about his ability to do so explain to some extent the existence of fewer than fifty letters between 1731, the date of the first extant, and 1752. His correspondents may not have saved all that he wrote during this period, since he was then a Grub Street hack, not the Great Cham of literature, but Redford believes “that the distribution of the recovered letters reflects in its general shape the number of letters Johnson actually wrote.” Johnson’s natural propensity to procrastination was also encouraged by his knowledge that personal letters in the eighteenth century often became public. Under the date of May 8, 1781, Boswell records in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), “We talked of Letter-writing.” Johnson commented, “It is now become so much the fashion to publish letters, that in order to avoid it, I put as little into mine as I can.” Boswell replied, “Do what you will, Sir, you cannot avoid it.”

Boswell was right. He had already angered his friend by publishing one of his letters in 1768, and by 1781 he probably knew that he intended to include hundreds in his biography. Despite his disclaimer, Johnson was not indifferent to the fate of his correspondence. He urged Hester Thrale to save his letters, and he discussed their publication with her. Arthur Murphy thus erred when he commented in his review of Hester Thrale’sLetters to and from Samuel Johnson (1788) that “We here see Dr. Johnson, as it were, behind the curtains, and not preparing to figure on the stage; retired from the eye of the world, and not knowing that what he was then doing would ever be brought to light.”

As the multiplicity of letters in the last decade of Johnson’s life demonstrates, he finally reconciled himself to the form. Boswell, who had more than once felt slighted by his friend’s epistolary taciturnity, recorded in his Tour of the Hebrides (1786) under the date August 25, 1773, “Dr. Johnson wrote a long letter to Mrs. Thrale. I wondered to see him write so much so easily.” On September 20, 1777, Johnson wrote to Hester Thrale that he regarded writing to her as a duty, but one that he diligently discharged. By the end of 1779, writing letters, at least to her, had...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)