Defining the World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

A cantankerous subject, Samuel Johnson appears in James Boswell’s famous biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), as a great talker and wit, spending most of his time in conversation. This Johnson, though, evolved only after hard years spent on one of the great early monuments of the English language. His dictionary was not the first in English. There had been earlier attempts to create such a work, but these mostly listed difficult or specialized words, with inadequate definitions. By the 1740’s a group of British booksellers, who were in that era also in the publishing business, decided that there would be a market for a truly comprehensive dictionary. The ambitious Johnson estimated that he could produce the work for them in three years. A decade later, in 1755, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar appeared, containing more than forty-two thousand entries.

In Defining the World, Henry Hitchings gives both the story of Johnson’s dictionary and the biography of the man. As Hitchings demonstrates, his subject’s dictionary contained so much of Johnson that the two remain almost inseparable. The names of the chapters are taken from dictionary entries, alphabetically arranged from “Adventurous” to “Zootomy.” It begins with Johnson’s childhood in Lichfield, where he was friends with the great English actor David Garrick, with whom he moved to London when both were young men. Having left Oxford without a degree, the young Johnson sought to make his living as a writer in the rough-and-tumble literary world symbolized by Grub Street.

Johnson may have been a moralist in Hitchings portrayal, but his life was not conventionally moralistic. He married Elizabeth Porter, who was some years older than he and with whom he had a frequently difficult relationship. Observers both in Johnson’s time and later have suggested that he was being opportunistic in his marriage. Hitchings argues, however, that Johnson genuinely loved Elizabeth and that she was more of a burden than a benefit to the struggling writer. Johnson also enjoyed the company of bohemian figures such as the poet Richard Savage, whose biography Johnson later wrote. The London of the time was an intensely competitive, dirty, and dangerous place, where everyone seemed to be scheming and crime was rampant and rarely policed. Only Johnson’s great physical bulk enabled him to wander the streets at night. At the same time, London was an intensely vibrant place, the right location for a young man seeking to make a name in the world.

Although he struggled financially, Johnson did manage to gain some recognition in London’s literary world. This put him into contact with the publisher and bookseller Robert Dodsley, who, with other booksellers, was searching for someone to compose a comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of the English language. In his proposal, Johnson seemed to know precisely how this should be done. At that time, according to Hitchings, Johnson was a “linguistic conservative.” He believed that change was a corruption of language and that the purpose of a dictionary was to fix proper meanings, spellings, and usage. In this view, he was a child of his time. The eighteenth century was characterized by its passion for order and systematization. Hitchings argues, though, that as the years progressed Johnson moved away from this conservative view of language and began to appreciate that language was a living and evolving thing. He began to see his dictionary as a work to describe the language as it was and had been, not to prescribe how it should be for all time.

Part of the conservatism of Johnson’s original plan for the dictionary may have been a result of his attempt to appeal to Lord Chesterfield as a patron. If so, Johnson was wasting his time. Chesterfield showed little interest in helping the writer through the difficult years of working on the dictionary. Only after it was finished did Chesterfield attempt to claim credit. Johnson’s rebuke of Chesterfield, included in the dictionary in the bitter definition of the word “patron,” has become legendary. Hitchings describes Johnson’s resentment of Chesterfield without giving undue emphasis to this sideshow on the main drama of the...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 102, no. 4 (October 15, 2005): 12.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 16 (August 15, 2005): 897-898.

Library Journal 130, no. 15 (September 15, 2005): 66.

New Statesman 134 (May 16, 2005): 42-44.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (December 4, 2005): 48-49.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 28 (July 18, 2005): 197-198.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2005, p. M2.

The Times Educational Supplement, April 1, 2005, p. 33.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 2005, p. 10.

The Wall Street Journal 246, no. 76 (October 12, 2005): D13.