As befits the preeminent literary figure of his age—and the man who gave his name to it—Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has been the subject of many biographies, beginning with Hester Lynch Piozzi’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and including Sir John Hawkins’ Life of Samuel Johnson (1787) and James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Boswell’s work, twice enlarged in new editions over the next decade, quickly became the genre’s defining standard. Two centuries later, Johnson’s appeal to biographers remains high, despite the fact that his works rank far below those of such major figures as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. In this instance, the man is greater than the sum of his literary output. Of the many biographical studies of Johnson, those of continuing interest and value are Samuel Johnson (1944) by Joseph Wood Krutch, Young Sam Johnson (1955) and Dictionary Johnson (1979) by James L. Clifford, Samuel Johnson (1974) by John Wain, Samuel Johnson (1977) by W. Jackson Bate, and The Life of Samuel Johnson (1993) by Robert DeMaria, Jr.
At the end of the twentieth century, Lawrence Lipking weighs in with Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, Lipking previously wrote The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth Century England (1970), Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition (1988), and The Life of the Poet (1981). In Samuel Johnson, he eschews the traditional approaches to biographical study, focusing instead on Johnson’s works as a means of revealing not just the man’s character and literary philosophy but also his attitude toward the authorial profession and the role of the writer in society. Lipking’s subtitle, “Life of an Author,” set forth the parameters of his study. There are only occasional comments, for example, about Johnson’s childhood, education, and marriage; and his friendship and rivalry with David Garrick, his erstwhile pupil, is treated very briefly. Rather, the book consists of Lipking’s analyses of Johnson’s works, which trace his development from a Grub Street hack to a respectable professional writer, one of England’s first, who in 1762 was awarded a lifetime pension in recognition of his accomplishments.
Lipking begins in 1754, when Johnson was forty-five years old, with the earl of Chesterfield’s essay in The World commending Johnson’s forthcoming dictionary of the English language. Three months later, Johnson, who labored on the project for almost seven years, circulated a reply to Chesterfield attacking the nobleman for having initially repulsed him and for not providing assistance, encouragement, or “one smile of favour” over the years. Johnson denies any sense of obligation “where no benefit has been received.” Although the patronage system had been in decline long before this missive and Johnson for ten years had been earning enough as a writer to support himself without a patron, the letter is significant because it is Johnson’s self-proclamation of his arrival, his birth as an author, and his expressed belief that acceptance by the public matters more than a patron’s condescending embrace. Of course, publication of the dictionary in his forty-sixth year was a point toward which Johnson was working for decades, and Lipking discusses the juvenilia and other writings (most of which were published anonymously) that preceded this magnum opus. These early works have little literary merit, but they reveal a curious conjunction of ambition and dejection in a young writer whose breakthrough would not come until midlife.
Johnson’s first modest success, the biography of Richard Savage, which he wrote soon after the poet’s death in 1743, is a sympathetic treatment of a man who claimed to have been denied his noble birthright. In the course of a didactic narrative, Johnson plays the moralist, showing the weaknesses and mistakes as well as the virtues and abilities of his late friend, admonishing the reader to forswear “Negligence and Irregularity” and developing an authorial ideal of “humility, learning, and service,” according to Lipking. Despite a positive response to the Savage biography, six years passed before Johnson published the first work to bear his name on its title page. His best poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” consists of 336 lines in imitation of Juvenal’s tenth satire. Expansive in its encompassing of life’s various stages, the poem traces a scholar-author’s career and warns young authors of rivalries and other unforeseen perils. For Lipking, this “poet’s poem” (which has been hailed by poets from Lord Byron to Robert Lowell) has an autobiographical subtext and is, in part, a revelatory celebration of the self.
By the time he published it, Johnson had been involved with his dictionary project for two years, overseeing a factory of hacks. Lipking shows how Johnson’s theories of language as well as his identity and confidence as an author—the “I”—emerge in the years he worked as a lexicographer:
Neither humility nor ambition would solve the problems of compiling a dictionary, the exhausting process in which first principles and practical realities would have to be aligned day after day, year after year. He lost himself in the work. At the end of the road lay the figure of an author barely glimpsed before, a comprehensive national man of letters.
The title on the spine is...
(The entire section is 2285 words.)