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...
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