Article abstract: Johnson not only wrote some of the finest poetry, fiction, and essays of his time but also edited the works of William Shakespeare and compiled the first dictionary of the English language.
Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield; his father, Michael Johnson, was an unsuccessful bookseller. As an infant, Johnson contracted tuberculosis from a wet nurse and lost sight in one eye and hearing in one ear. His physical appearance was not appealing; one of Johnson’s aunt’s declared that she “would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.” Johnson’s ill health and frightening appearance did not, however, prevent him from educating himself in the back room of his father’s bookshop. He did very well in his studies at Lichfield Grammar School, and after a year at Stourbridge Grammar School as both student and teacher, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. He was described by one of the dons there as “the best prepared pupil to have come up to Oxford.” The small legacy from his mother was not enough to keep Johnson at Oxford, however, and he had to leave without a degree in 1731.
His prospects were very uncertain, but he did manage to get a job as an undermaster at Market Bosworth School. Johnson described this experience as a “complicated misery,” and he soon left. It was during this period that Johnson fell into a psychological depression, a malady that was to plague him throughout his life. He did manage to break his depression long enough to translate into English the French version of Father Jerome Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, in 1735. Also in 1735, he married a widow, Elizabeth Porter, who was older than he and not very attractive; in addition, her family opposed her marrying a younger man. With her money, he established Edial School; the school was not a success, however, and in 1737 he went to London with one of his pupils, the future great actor, David Garrick.
In London, Johnson attempted to support himself with his pen. He wrote some essays for the Gentleman’s Magazine and worked on his tragedy, Irene (1749). Johnson was living apart from his wife during this period, and the marriage, which was a very odd one to begin with, was never the same. Johnson wrote one of his better poems in 1738, London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal. The poem is filled with horrifying descriptions of daily life in London, and it provides a picture of the type of life Johnson was then living. One couplet shows something about his attitude at this time: “This mournful truth is ev’ry where confess’d,/SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPRESS’D.” Johnson met Richard Savage in 1738, and the two of them wandered the streets living a hand-to-mouth existence. Savage was a poet, and he claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield. The moral Johnson and the amoral Savage made a strange pair, but Johnson had a close attachment to Savage, as is evident in An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, which Johnson published anonymously in 1744. W.J. Bate calls this work the first example of “critical biography” in English, and its combination of criminal biography with high-minded moral lessons has fascinated readers for two centuries.
Johnson was able to bring his wife, Tetty, to London in 1737, but he was still making a precarious living doing the journalism that Grub Street demanded. One of the most interesting examples of that type of writing...
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was Johnson’s reporting—or, more accurately, creating—the Parliamentary Debates. He did not attend the debates in Parliament, but learned the order of the speakers and the positions they took and then wrote them up in his very noticeable style. For more than two centuries some of those speeches were set forth as models of oratory, but they were really the product of a poor man who dashed them off when he could in a disheveled room in Grub Street.
In 1747, Johnson published The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. He intended to complete this monumental project in three years, and although it took eight years it remains one of the most impressive scholarly accomplishments of modern times. In contrast to Johnson’s eight years, it took the forty members of the French Academy forty years to complete their dictionary. When Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, it was greeted with critical praise and expressions of national pride. Johnson’s reputation was established, and he could find some relief from the demands of Grub Street journalism. His financial circumstances began to improve once the Dictionary project was supported by a group of booksellers. Johnson received 1,575 pounds for the project, which enabled him to rent a house and place his wife in more pleasant surroundings; she was to die, however, in 1752, before her husband’s great work was published. Johnson’s feeling for her is evident in a sentence he wrote in the preface to the Dictionary:
The English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and sorrow.
Johnson’s heroism and humanity were never more manifest.
In 1749, Johnson published his finest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated, which, like London, was based on one of Juvenal’s Satires. Unlike London, however, which attacks the vices of the city, The Vanity of Human Wishes indicts all vain human desires. The poem is an inventory of those “wishes” and singles out such aspects of man’s life as power, military glory, the life of the scholar and the poet. It concludes with a terrifying question: “Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,/ Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?” The answer is that happiness can be obtained only by submitting to “heav’n” and abandoning vain desires. The Vanity of Human Wishes is not only a great poem but also a reflection of Johnson’s own troubled mind; he fell into periodic depressions because he believed that he could not live up to the strong religious demands he made of himself. His only relief was to submit to “heav’n.”
From 1750 to 1752, Johnson wrote hundreds of essays for his journal The Rambler. These essays were not in the manner of the light and personal essays that had been written earlier by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele for The Spectator; instead, Johnson wrote on moral issues with a more distant and impersonal style. For example, he wrote on such topics as old age, self-indulgence, and forgiveness. Some of the essays were on literary subjects such as modern fiction and biography, but they retained the high moral tone and the magisterial style. Johnson later said: “My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.” A later venture into periodical writing in The Idler, in the vein of Addison and Steele, was not as successful, since it went against the Johnsonian grain.
In 1759, Johnson published his small masterpiece Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Rasselas is very similar to a fairy tale. The title character leaves the “Happy Valley” to find “happiness.” On this quest, Rasselas and his companions find not happiness but those vain human desires Johnson exposed in The Vanity of Human Wishes. Political power, learning, poetry, and the social world of pleasure are all found to be lacking in the capacity to bring happiness. It is only when Rasselas and the others can escape their own desires that they find something like happiness. The moral of the tale can also be applied to Johnson’s own condition at the time. He wrote the tale in a few days to earn enough money to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral.
In October, 1765, Johnson’s last great work, the long-delayed The Plays of William Shakespeare, was published. The textual editing of the plays has been superseded, but Johnson’s own comments on specific plays and his preface are still discussed by Shakespearean scholars. The preface is especially important in its rejection of the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action. Johnson rejected the unities of time and space with typical common sense: “The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens, the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria. . . .” His insistence on describing Shakespeare as a playwright whose works were taken from life rather than art and on the pleasure the audience receives from a Shakespearean play remains refreshing and illuminating. Moreover, he did not blindly worship Shakespeare; in fact, he criticized Shakespeare’s excessive use of puns and his sometimes declamatory language.
The last period of Johnson’s life is marked by the friends he made and talked with, especially the Thrales and James Boswell. Henry Thrale was a prosperous brewer and his wife, Hester, had an interest in literature. They invited Johnson to stay at their country home and saved him from one of his periodic depressions. They became, in effect, his family, and their country home became his home. His own house in London provided him with little peace during this period, since it was inhabited by a group of quarrelsome dependents whom Johnson had charitably invited to live there.
In 1763, the famous meeting between Johnson and Boswell occurred. Boswell, the son of a Scottish laird, was a law student with an interest in literature. His relationship with Johnson was curious; Johnson was always teasing Boswell about being a Scot and about being naïve. Johnson also became a moral guide and confessor to Boswell; he patiently listened to tales of Boswell’s romantic liaisons or doubts about religion and reassured him. Indeed, Boswell might be described as the son that Johnson never had. Boswell, for his part, spent a limited amount of time with Johnson, but he recorded the most telling and amusing stories and utterances by and about Johnson. Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) is a remarkable rendering of a man’s personality and thought, having earned for Boswell his own place in the history of letters. The reader of Boswell’s biography comes away with a sense of a legendary man as a living being.
Samuel Johnson was the last of the great neoclassical writers, and, as the last of his kind, he most fully embodied the values, style, and critical concepts of the period. He stressed the “grandeur of generality” in literature rather than the particular, and he insisted again and again that the purpose of literature is to “teach and delight.” During the nineteenth century, this representative of his age came under attack as Romanticism displaced neoclassicism. For more than a hundred years, Johnson was seen as an oddity from an earlier and less important period. Fortunately, Johnson’s fiction, poetry, and essays, as well as his criticism, are now read with a less prejudiced eye as readers continue to discover the Johnsonian values of common sense, humor, and morality.
Johnson the writer may not be to everyone’s taste, but few can resist the appeal of Johnson the man. The manner in which he practiced the moral precepts he taught, such as charity, is very rare. So, too, is the way in which Johnson fought off the depression that victimized him. He believed that “cheerfulness” was everyone’s duty, and he maintained his good spirits in very trying circumstances. Johnson was described by Hester Thrale as the most fun-loving person she had met. Surely, the impression any reader of Johnson or about Johnson receives is that of humor, good sense, and humanity.
Bate, W.J. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. This full biography of Johnson is an essential supplement to Boswell’s biography. It is thorough, gracefully written, and discusses Johnson’s psychology fully.
Bloom, Edward A. Samuel Johnson in Grub Street. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1957. The most informative book about Johnson’s journalism and the practices of magazines and booksellers of the period.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Edited by G. B. Hill, 6 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934-1950. The standard edition of Boswell’s great biography.
Clifford, James. Young Sam Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Clifford focuses on the early years of Johnson, which were slighted by Boswell. Informative and readable.
Greene, Donald J. The Politics of Samuel Johnson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960. A scholarly discussion of an important aspect of Johnson’s career and life. It is the best book on the subject and corrects some false views of Johnson’s Toryism.
Sledd, James H., and Gwin J. Kolb. Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. The best work available on Johnson’s Dictionary.
Voitle, Robert. Samuel Johnson the Moralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. A full and revealing discussion of one of the most important aspects of Johnson’s works and life.
Wimsatt, W.K. The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1942. Still the best discussion of Johnson’s style, by an important literary critic.