BORN: 1709, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
DIED: 1784, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction, criticism
Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language (1747)
The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)
Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
The Idler (1758-1760)
The Patriot (1774)
Samuel Johnson. Johnson, Samuel, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Perhaps the best-known and most often-quoted English writer after William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson ranks as England’s major literary figure of the second half of the eighteenth century. He is remembered as a witty conversationalist who dominated the literary scene of London and the man immortalized by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Known in his day as the ‘‘Great Cham (sovereign or monarch) of Literature,’’ Johnson displayed a vigorous reasoning intelligence, a keen understanding of human frailty, and a deep Christian morality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Access to Books Born in Lichfield in 1709, Johnson was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford. The family lived above the bookstore, and Johnson literally grew up among books. He loved to read from an early age and often neglected to help with the shop so he could read. Thus, Johnson grew up with an access to books greater than nearly anyone else at his time in Great Britain, as there were no public libraries in the modern, open, free sense of the word, and book collecting was the milieu of the wealthy.
Published First Translation. As a child, Johnson suffered from scrofula (a skin disease which is often a symptom of tuberculosis, a contagious bacterial infection of the lungs). The condition seriously affected his eyesight and disfigured his face for life. Despite the scrofula, he was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and later at Pembroke College, Oxford, but a shortage of funding forced him to leave the latter institution without a degree in 1729, after a residence of only thirteen months. After his father’s death in 1731, Johnson lived in Birmingham, where he translated into French A Voyage to Abyssinia, by Father Jerome Lobo, which he published anonymously in 1735.
In that same year, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow twenty years his senior. After a failed attempt at running a boarding school, Johnson went to London to make a career as a man of letters. Once in London, he performed editorial work for Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, to which he submitted essays, poems, reviews, and a series of brief biographies. His most notable contributions appeared between 1740 and 1743 and were titled ‘‘Debates in Magna Lilliputia.’’ These essays eloquently—perhaps too eloquently—re-created parliamentary proceedings and were widely accepted as authentic speeches of the great politicians of the day. At the time, Britain was ruled by the Germanic House of Hanover, whose kings left much of the governing to their ministers. Britain was in the midst of a time of rapid colonial and mercantile expansion abroad, and internal stability and literary and artistic achievement at home.
Successful Poet and Prose Writer. In 1738, Johnson anonymously published his immediately successful London: A Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, which contains protests against political corruption and the dangers of the London streets and describes the miseries of the unknown and impoverished author. His Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, published anonymously in 1744, was the first of his prose works to captivate the public. Today, it is admired for its lively depiction of Grub Street life and is considered a milestone in the art of biography.
Shakespeare and the Dictionary. Johnson next turned to Shakespeare’s work, publishing his Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth in 1745. Miscellaneous Observations also contains a preliminary proposal for a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but Johnson laid the project aside after it was suggested that he compile a dictionary of the English language.
In 1747, he published his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, dedicating the work to Lord Chester- field—who, in fact, cared little about the project. In 1749, Johnson published his second Juvenalian imitation, ‘‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’’ in which the personal vicissitudes of scholars, philosophers, and legislators from the modern and ancient worlds are used to illustrate the pitfalls of political ambition, the uselessness of military conquest, and the anguish that accompanies literary production.
Launched Rambler. Beginning in 1750, Johnson published a semiweekly periodical, the Rambler, each issue of which comprised a single anonymous essay on contemporary literary and social conditions. Fervently believing that it is the writer’s duty to make the world a better place, and to ‘‘redeem the time,’’ Johnson crafted these essays in various forms: allegories, sketches of archetypal humans, literary criticism, and lay sermons. A few days after the last issue of the Rambler appeared in 1752, Johnson’s wife died.
Dictionary Acclaimed. During the next few years Johnson confined his literary efforts to work on the dictionary and irregularly contributed to another weekly periodical, the Adventurer, published by John Hawkes-worth. In 1755, Johnson and his secretaries finally finished the forty-thousand-word dictionary, which surpassed earlier dictionaries of its kind, primarily in precision of definition. The dictionary firmly established Johnson’s literary reputation and led to his receiving an honorary MA degree from Oxford University. Lord Chesterfield, striving to make amends for his previous lack of regard, hailed Johnson as the supreme dictator of the English language. This action only provoked what is perhaps the most famous of Johnson’s letters: a scornful rebuke of Chesterfield’s self-serving praise and a defense of his own initiative and industry without the assistance of a patron.
Soon thereafter, Johnson once again focused his attention on Shakespeare, formally issuing his Proposals for Printing the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare in 1756. Despite the commercial success of his dictionary, which nevertheless failed to relieve his money problems, Johnson continued to write essays, reviews, and political articles for various periodicals.
Launched Universal Chronicle. From 1758 to 1760, Johnson contributed a regular weekly essay to the Universal Chronicle. These essays, appearing under the heading ‘‘The Idler,’’ exhibit the moralist and social reformist perspectives of the Rambler pieces but also treat the lighter side of the human condition through comical character sketches. In 1759, informing his printer that he had ‘‘a thing he was preparing for the press’’ to defray the expense of his mother’s impending funeral, Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) in the evenings of one week.
The Literary Club. In 1762, King George III conferred upon Johnson a pension of three hundred pounds Sterling a year, thereby relieving him of the drudgery of hackwork. The next year, his accidental meeting with Boswell in Thomas Davies’s bookshop in Covent Garden inaugurated one of the most famous literary companionships in history. Boswell’s diary entry recording the event noted that Johnson’s ‘‘conversation is as great as his writing.’’ In 1764, Johnson gladly concurred with Joshua Reynolds’s proposal for the founding of what still ranks as the most famous London dining club of all time. Simply called The Club, it was later known as the Literary Club.
Besides Johnson and Reynolds, the original members were Edmund Burke, Topham Beauclerk, Bennet Langton, and Oliver Goldsmith. Eventually Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, and several others were admitted as members. At meetings of the Club, Johnson uttered many of his renowned epigrams and opinions. Indeed, Reynolds once admitted that the Club was formed primarily to give Johnson a forum to express himself verbally and in company.
The following year, Johnson’s Plays of William Shakespeare appeared in eight volumes—eleven years after being proposed. A lifelong student of Shakespeare, Johnson corrected textual corruptions, elucidated obscurities of language, and examined Shakespeare’s textual sources.
Beyond Literature. Although he continued writing prologues and dedications for friends, Johnson no longer devoted his work exclusively to problems of literature and ethics. Instead, he expounded his essentially pragmatic political philosophy in a series of pamphlets on the power politics of English and French colonialism, most notably in The False Alarm (1770), The Patriot (1774), and Taxation No Tyranny; an Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress (1775). The last-named polemic, perhaps his most vociferous outburst against colonial American claims, was written in reply to the resolutions passed by the American Continental Congress of 1774. In 1775, the American colonies official began revolting, marking the beginning of the American Revolution and the eventual loss of the North American colonies that would soon make up the United States of America.
Enjoying unprecedented leisure in the mid-1770s, Johnson extensively toured Great Britain and visited the Continent. Having traveled to Scotland and the Hebrides with Boswell in 1773, Johnson published his impressions two years later in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), which describes the customs, religion, education, commerce, and agriculture of eighteenth-century Highland society. Johnson also traveled with his good friends Henry and Hester Thrale to North Wales in 1774 and to France in 1775.
Poet Biographies. In 1777 Johnson agreed to write biographical prefaces for an ‘‘elegant and accurate’’ edition of the works of English poets, ranging from the time of John Milton onwards. Instead, his prefaces were separately issued as The Lives of the English Poets (1781). This ten-volume work contains fifty-two essays and a wealth of biographical material.
In 1783, Johnson had a paralytic stroke that left him seriously debilitated until the spring of the following year. After visiting his native Lichfield for the last time in the summer of 1784, he returned to London in November, and although his physical condition had considerably worsened, his mind remained alert. Johnson died on December 13, 1784.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Johnson's famous contemporaries include:
Voltaire (1694-1778): Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer and philosopher known for his wit and outspoken support of social reform. His works include the satire Candide (1759).
Edmund Burke (1729-1797): Burke was an Anglo-Irish author, philosopher, and statesman who contributed to the development of conservative political thought. His works include Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770).
David Hume (1711-1776): Hume was a Scottish philosopher and economist considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy. His books include Essays Moral and Political (1744).
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): Franklin was a multitalented American who contributed to science, politics, and publishing. He began publishing his annual Poor Richard's Almanack in 1733.
Henry Fielding (1707-1754): Fielding was an English author who wrote humorous and satirical novels. His novels include Joseph Andrews (1742).
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794): Gibbon was an English historian best known for his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1766-1788).
James Boswell (1740-1795): Boswell was a Scottish author best known as Johnson's companion and biographer. Boswell published his Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Johnson often used satire to critique modern social and political conditions and to point out the weaknesses in human nature. Here are some other well-known satirical works:
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. This novel satirizes the foibles of the human condition through a parody of travel writing.
The Devil's Dictionary (1911), a nonfiction work by Ambrose Bierce. This book gives reinterpretations of English words and terms that are meant to satirize political doubletalk.
The Simpsons (1989-), an animated television series created by Matt Groening. This television show satirizes American culture and society through a parody of middle-class family life.
Works in Literary Context
Johnson—poet, dramatist, journalist, satirist, biographer, essayist, lexicographer, editor, translator, critic, parliamentary reporter, political writer, story writer, sermon writer, travel writer, social anthropologist, prose stylist, conversationalist, Christian—dominates the eighteenth-century English literary scene as his contemporary, the equally versatile and prolific Voltaire, dominates that of France. When Johnson’s name began to be known, not long after the deaths of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, no challenger arose during the next forty years for the title of preeminent English man of letters. His work encompassed many ideas and themes, including the choice of life.
Choice of Life. One theme that emerges in some of Johnson’s early work is the inevitable unhappiness of human existence whatever choice in life is made. In ‘‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’’ a verse satire based on the Roman poet Juvenal’s tenth satire, Johnson considers mankind’s yearnings for the various gifts of power, learning, military fame, long life, beauty, even virtue, and gives a melancholy account, with individual examples, of the misfortunes attendant upon each. The themes of the prose narrative The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, a moral tale set in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) and Egypt, focused on a princely young hero escaping with his sister and the poet Imlac from the secluded innocence of the Happy Valley and tries out various schemes of life.
Age of Johnson. The eighteenth century has often been called ‘‘the Age of Johnson.’’ To be sure, he had notable contemporaries—Edmund Burke, David Hume, Edward Gibbon—but their literary abilities, formidable as they were, moved in a narrower circle of concerns. Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Laurence Sterne received and deserve great acclaim as the founding fathers of the English novel, but their contributions to other areas of writing are less noteworthy.
Almost as prolific as Johnson and as varied in his interests was Horace Walpole, who sometimes expressed aristocratic disdain for the lowborn Johnson, though he never seems to have impinged greatly on Johnson’s consciousness. Walpole might be argued to have made a greater impact than Johnson on the following century, in the legacy of the ‘‘Gothic’’ romance and Victorian pseudo-Gothic architecture. But no one has ever suggested calling the later eighteenth century ‘‘the Age of Horace Walpole.’’ It is not surprising that the standard bibliographies of studies in eighteenth-century English literature show Johnson to have been their most popular subject, followed at some distance by Swift and Pope, and at a longer one by Fielding, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, and William Blake.
Though the phrase ‘‘the Age of Johnson’’ is less used than it once was, Samuel Johnson, whose life spanned most of the eighteenth century and whose writings embraced an astounding variety of genres, remains a central figure in the literary history of the time.
Works in Critical Context
Johnson’s reputation as a man of letters rests as much on his life and personality as it does on his writings. This is evidenced by the scope, depth, and sheer bulk of the corpus of Johnsonian criticism, much of which is pure character analysis. Boswell’s account of his life, particularly from the time of their meeting onwards, was perhaps most responsible for ‘‘Johnsonizing’’ England, and it fostered an image of Johnson as a gifted and original writer and masterly conversationalist.
Contemporary Criticism. Johnson was revered by his contemporaries as a skilled poet, brilliant lexicographer, and sensitive moralist. Critics hailed him as the ‘‘new’’ Alexander Pope upon publication of ‘‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’’ and Johnson’s dictionary, initially well received, remained a standard until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary well over a century later. Equally, Rasselas supplemented the popular moral themes of Johnson’s earlier Rambler and ‘‘Idler’’ essays while satisfying the tastes of eighteenth-century readers for what Pope termed ‘‘impressive truth in fashion drest.’’
Critics continued to admire most of Johnson’s works in the decade following his death, but in time commentators began to fault Johnson for what they considered his highly Latinate, formal, and overly balanced prose style, as well as for his wordiness and narrow critical method. Some critics singled out Lives of the Poets, chastising Johnson for his harsh appraisal of John Milton and his prejudicial assessments of other works and authors, notably Thomas Gray and his Odes.
Changing Reputation in the Nineteenth Century. By the early nineteenth century, Johnson’s folk image— the man of Boswell’s Life—had come to dominate critical thinking, leaving little room for studies of the works themselves. William Hazlitt evidenced this approach when he wrote in 1818, ‘‘His good deeds were as many as his good sayings. . . . All these, and innumerable others, endear him to the reader, and must be remembered to his lasting honour.’’ Indeed, this sort of assessment was typical until the last years of the nineteenth century.
When critics did focus on Johnson’s works, they generally turned to his dictionary and Lives of the Poets. Leslie Stephen favorably remarked that the dictionary ‘‘was a surprising achievement, and made an epoch in the study of language,’’ while Thomas Babington Macaulay mirrored the views of his contemporaries when he appraised Lives of the Poets. ‘‘They are the judgments of a mind trammelled by prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and acute.’’ Similarly, the Rambler essays were dismissed as didactic lay sermons, and other prose works were labeled ‘‘unreadable.’’ Thus, by the turn of the century, interest in Johnson’s literary works was at a low point, but the man himself continued to loom large in the minds of readers.
Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Assessment. The bicentenary of Johnson’s birth in 1909 sparked a major revaluation of the Johnson canon. Throughout the twentieth century, critical emphasis shifted from the amusing idiosyncrasies and the pointed commentaries of the man to his ethical and moral standards, his appraisals of the human condition, and the breadth, strength, and method of his reasoning. Some scholars noted that Johnson’s writings on morals closely anticipated the theories, if not the language, of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, while others ranked Johnson just below Alexander Pope and John Dryden as masters of heroic-couplet verse. Even Lives of the Poets, the most favorably received of Johnson’s works, was reconsidered. No longer perceiving Johnson as a strictly neoclassical critic, scholars contended that he employed an empirical approach in his criticism; some critics have even cited Johnson as the father of New Criticism.
Recently, commentators have turned to Johnson’s Shakespearean work, countering a common nineteenth-century claim that, in the words of Heinrich Heine, ‘‘Garrick got a better hold of Shakespeare’s thought than Dr. Johnson.’’ Likewise, Johnson’s political tracts, long viewed as abusive expressions of his conservative prejudice against the rights of the people, are seen today as an extension of his lifelong concern with political morality and order.
Today, after a long eclipse, Johnson is once again preeminent in the history of English letters, and mention of his name commands reverence in the English-speaking world. According to Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘‘Dr. Johnson will go on being remembered, not so much for his achievements as a writer as for the mysterious quality of greatness that he exudes.’’
Responses to Literature
1. At one point in his career, Johnson was granted a pension by the king of England. How did this work- free source of income change Johnson’s approach to writing? Does a writer like Johnson benefit from a pension or does it have a negative effect on his work? Write a paper that outlines your findings and conclusions.
2. Johnson wrote in many different genres and had an extremely diverse literary output. Is it better for a writer to focus on only one or two types of writing, or does a more diverse career such as Johnson’s produce better writing all around? If you were a writer, would you focus on one form or cast a wide net? Create a presentation that outlines your theories.
3. Choose a favorite author and write a short literary and critical biography modeled after Johnson’s style in Lives of the Poets.
4. Write a story about a modern celebrity that uses satire to make a political or moral point.
Alkon, Paul K. Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt, 1977.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.. London: Charles Dilly, 1791.
Chapin, Chester F. The Religious Thought of Samuel Johnson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.
Folkenflik, Robert. Samuel Johnson, Biographer. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Gray, James. Johnson’s Sermons: A Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Greene, Donald. The Politics of Samuel Johnson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.
Hagstrum, Jean H. Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1952.
Korshin, Paul J., ed. Johnson after Two Hundred Years. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Samuel Johnson. New York: Holt, 1944.
Schwartz, Richard B. Samuel Johnson and the New Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
Voitle, Robert. Samuel Johnson the Moralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Wain, John. Samuel Johnson. New York: Viking, 1975.