Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was an English essayist, poet, biographer, literary critic, and compiler of the monumental Dictionary of the English Language, which contains over forty thousand entries. The son of a struggling bookseller, Johnson was afflicted in infancy with scrofula, a disease that damaged his vision, left him deaf in one ear, and scarred his face. He also suffered from bodily twitches that may have been caused by Tourette’s Syndrome (which was not recognized at the time). His brilliance, as both a writer and a speaker, eventually brought him from poverty to a place of high regard in the London literary circles of his time.
At first, Johnson made a meager living in London by ghostwriting Parliamentary speeches, editing, and translating. Gradually, his fortunes improved. Essays published in the periodicals The Rambler and The Idler, as well as a biographic work entitled The Lives of the English Poets, are among his most important works. His Dictionary of the English Language is a major work of scholarship.
At the age of twenty-five, Johnson married a woman twenty-one years his senior: Elizabeth Jervis Porter, the widow of a friend. She admired his intelligence and his work, and she provided for him. Johnson was deeply affected by her death in 1752. The Literary Club of London (founded in 1764) gave Johnson much opportunity to engage in the debates he enjoyed. Johnson became a very learned man through his extensive reading. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from both Trinity College Dublin and the University of Oxford.
James Boswell, a friend and contemporary, wrote Johnson’s famous biography, Life of Johnson. Boswell records that Johnson loved arguments and was capable of sharp sarcasm. He was also known to have an excellent sense of humor. Johnson was deeply conservative and did not approve of change in the social order, though he was very opposed to slavery. When Johnson died in 1784, he received the honor of being buried at Westminster Abbey.