Samuel Johnson Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111201559-Johnson_S.jpg Samuel Johnson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 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...

(The entire section is 2228 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Many writers have suffered, and many more have pretended to suffer, for their art. Samuel Johnson’s own suffering in fact made his art necessary. He was born on September 18, 1709 to Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and Sarah (née Ford), who was then forty years old. The labor had been difficult, and Johnson was, by his own account, born nearly dead. While he was a child, he contracted scrofula and smallpox; he was horribly scarred by the diseases and became deaf in one ear and partially blind in one eye. Although his father was a respectable citizen and even gained a small degree of prominence in 1709 as sheriff of Lichfield, Johnson’s ancestors were of humble background. His parents were unhappy with each other, and their mild mutual hostility contributed to the miseries of their son’s life.

In spite of his ugliness, poor background, and unhappy family life, Johnson became a leader among his schoolmates. He was not an ideal student; he would neglect his studies, then in great bursts of energy apply himself to learning. He wrote much as he had studied; for example, Life of Richard Savage was written in as little as thirty-six hours, and it has been claimed that Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia was completed in a week. He aspired to be almost anything but a writer. With a small savings, he paid for more than a year at Oxford, from October, 1728, to December, 1729, but lack of money forced him to leave. After his father’s death in 1731, he tried teaching. He was temperamentally unsuited for teaching; he gesticulated wildly when lecturing, and his bizarre antics confused his students. David Garrick, the actor, was among his pupils, and later helped Johnson have the verse play Irene: A Tragedy produced in 1749. He married Elizabeth Jervis, the widow of Harry Porter, in 1735. She was nineteen years his senior, but provided him with love, a home, and companionship that helped to stabilize his passionate and explosive personality.

Johnson’s next ambition was to become a lawyer, but his poverty and physical infirmities inhibited his studies and his ability to pursue strenuous professions. He turned to writing to support himself and his wife. Acutely aware of his responsibilities as a husband, Johnson took work where he could find it. He moved to London and persuaded the publisher of The Gentleman’s Magazine, Edward Cave, to allow him to write for the periodical. During this period of his life, he wrote and sold the poem London and tried to interest theater...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The son of a bookseller in Lichfield, Samuel Johnson failed as a school teacher and settled in London, where for years he barely survived as a hack writer. The first work published in his name was The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated in 1749. The same year witnessed the production of his tragedy, Irene, by his friend and former student David Garrick; but his The Rambler essays first brought him general public notice, and his massive A Dictionary of the English Language made him the preeminent man of letters of his age. This work was followed by his 104 The Idler essays, Rasselas, his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, A Journey to the...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England—the son of Michael and Sarah Ford Johnson—Samuel Johnson spent his formative years devouring the volumes in his father’s bookshop. Although his acquisition of knowledge came about in haphazard fashion, the boy’s tenacious memory allowed him to retain for years what he had read at a young age. Almost from birth, he evidenced those body lesions associated with scrofula; the malady affected his vision, and in 1710 or 1711, his parents took him to an oculist. Searches for cures even extended to a visit to London in 1712, where the child received the “royal touch” (from Queen Anne) to rid him of the disease. The illness, however, had no serious effect on...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Samuel Johnson was born to a fifty-two-year-old bookseller, Michael Johnson, and his forty-year-old wife, Sarah Johnson, on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. He was a precocious child who soon spent much time reading widely in his father’s shop. After a typical classical education at Lichfield Grammar School, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, in the fall of 1728. When his funds ran out in December of the next year, however, he returned to Lichfield to work in his father’s bookshop. Johnson’s first published work, a translation into Latin of Alexander Pope’s “The Messiah,” appeared in 1731, the year of his father’s death. Johnson was soon occupied briefly as a schoolmaster in a small...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

No longer considered as a man notable merely because of his eccentric personal mannerisms and interesting talks, Samuel Johnson at last has come into his own as one of the greatest English writers of the eighteenth century. His range is broad. He is a large-souled poet, an incisive essayist, a careful and energetic editor, a pioneer in the art of biography, and a profound moralist. His achievements also include the first A Dictionary of the English Language based on scientific principles and a body of literary criticism, which later critics ignore at their peril.

Johnson’s special appeal lies in his psychological depth, his integrity, and his love and pity for humankind, These qualities continue to speak to...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Samuel Johnson Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. His father, Michael, was a provincial bookseller, and it was through browsing in his father’s shop that the boy acquired much of his remarkable knowledge. Physically handicapped, with bad eyesight and facial disfigurements, he later developed a pronounced tic. Showing early emotional instability, he was ever afterward subject to long fits of lassitude and depression.

In the grammar schools of Lichfield and Stourbridge, and for some thirteen months at Oxford University, Johnson was well grounded in the classics, but because of financial difficulties he left the university in 1729 without a degree. During the next few years all attempts to...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)