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||Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) - Byname Dr. Johnson|
English poet, essayist, critic, journalist, lexicographer, conversationalist, regarded as one of the outstanding figures of 18th-century life and letters. Johnson's literary reputation is part dependent on James Boswell's (1740-1795) biography The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (1791), with whom he formed one of the most famous friendships in literary history. G.B. Shaw went as far as to claim that Johnson was a dramatic character created by Boswell.
The writer Ford Madox Ford has considered Johnson the most tragic figures of English literature, "whose still living writings are always ignored, a great honest man who will remain forever a figure of half fun because of the leechlike adoration of the greatest and most ridiculous of all biographers. For it is impossible not to believe that, without Boswell, Johnson for us today would shine like a sun in the heavens whilst Addison sat forgotten in coffee houses." (from The March of Literature, 1938) – Johnson became Doctor Johnson when Dublin University gave him the honorary degree in 1765. He had a huge, strong athletic build, his appetite was legendary and it is said that he often drank over 25 cups of tea at one sitting.
"One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts."
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfeld, the son of a bookseller.
His childhood was marred by ill health: a tubercular infection affected
both his sight and hearing and his face was scarred by scrofula.
Johnson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford. His father died in
left the family in poverty. Johnson's studies were cut short and he
returned to Lichfield, affected by depression which haunted him for his
life. He worked as a teacher
at the grammar school in Market Bosworth and published his first essays
in the Birmingham Journal.
In 1735 Johnson married Mrs Elisabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior. They started a school at Edial, near Lichfeld, but the school did not prosper. Johnson's lack of degree and convulsive mannerisms hindered his success as a teacher. Two years later they moved to London where Johnson worked for Edward Cave, the founder of The Gentleman's Magazine. When he applied to a publisher for employment, he was found unfit for the job. "You had better get a porter's knot and carry trunks," he was advised.
The death of the poet Richard Savage, who was Johnson friend,
in 1743 to his first biographical work. He addressed to Lord
his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747 and
worked for eight years with the project. Lord Chesterfield refused to
support Johnson while he was at work on his dictionary and later
Johnson wrote: "This man I thought had
been a Lord among wits; but I find, he is only a wit among Lords." A
patron was in his Dictionary "one who countenances, supports or
protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid
Johnson's longest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, came out in 1749. On that same year his tragedy Irene was staged and appeared at Drury Lane. Between the years 1750 and 1752 he edited Cave's magazine The Rambler, writing nearly all of its numbers. When Cave died in 1754 Johnson wrote a life of the bookseller for The Gentleman's Magazine. Johnson's working method was complex: he first made a rough draft, then "turned over in his mind all the Latin words into which the sentence could be formed. Finally, he made up Latin-derived English words to convey his sense." (from The March of the Literature)
A Dictionary of the English Language was published finally in 1755, and the abridged edition in 1756. Johnson's financial situation was weak, although the work as a whole remained without rival until the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928), initially compiled by James Murray (1837-1915). Johnson wrote the definitions of over 40 000 words, illustrating them with about 114 000 quotations drawn from every field of learning. On the lines laid down by earlier French and Italian dictionaries, Johnson selected a 'golden age' from which he would work. For him this was the century that ran from the later sixteenth century until the English Restoration of 1660. It was not that Johnson did not understand that language changed. But he regarded most of the changes as degenerate. Johnson was not afraid of vulgar expressions in his dictionary:
to fart. To break wind behind.
In addition to his Dictionary and the philosophical romance of The Prince of Abissinia (1759, later known as Rasselas), Johnson published essays in The Adventurer (1752-54) and The Idler (1758-60). He produced a number of political articles, biographies of Sir Thomas Browne and Roger Ascham, and contributed to the Universal Chronicle.
The new monarch George III awarded Johnson in 1762 an annual
which improved his circumstances. He spent his time in coffee houses in
conversation and in idleness; in the 1770s, after Johnson was widowed,
he had a close relationship with the society hostess Hester Thrale. In
1763 Johnson met at Tom Davies's book shop the young Scot James Boswell, who became later his biographer.
With Boswell he traveled
in 1773 in Scotland and published his observations in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). One of Johnson's motives to embark
on the tour was to investigate the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian
poems; he was sure that they were fakes.
Boswell's own account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., appeared ten years later, after the death of Johnson. Of Johnson's many remarks about Scotchmen perhaps the most famous was his reply when Boswell told him at their first meeting, "I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it..." Johnson replied: "That, sir, I find, is what a very good many of your countrymen cannot help." He continued his travels and went to Wales with Hester Lynch Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and accompanied him to Paris in 1775, Johnson's only visit to the Continent. Johnson's biographical essays of English poets were published in 1781 as The Lives of the Poets. The idea for the work came in 1777 from London booksellers and others. In this work Johnson abandoned his distinctive style full of long abstract words, which was already considered old-fashioned by his contemporaries. He wrote in short enough words, with a style that was sufficiently learned but comprehensible. Years he had practiced his conversational skills marked his rhythm and vocabulary.
"My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may say to a man, "Sir, I am your most humble servant." You are not his most humble servant. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather and were so much wet." You don't care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly." (Johnson to Boswell, May 15, 1783)
spent the summer of 1784 visiting Lichfield,
Birmingham, and Oxford and returned to London depressed and exhausted.
He died of pneumonia during the night of
13 December and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Before his death,
Johnson threw into the fire a number of his manuscripts, letters, and
personal papers. According to Boswell, among the burned papers were
"two quarto volumes, containing a full, fair, and most particular
account of his own life, from his earliest recollection."
The bulk of Johnson's estate was left in trust for his black
manservant, Francis Barber (1745-1801), a former slave from Jamaica. Johnson was fervently opposed to slavery and there was a threat that Barber would be sent back into slavery after his death. Barber
had married in 1762 a white woman named Elizabeth Ball, which had
caused a scandal among Johnson's society friends. Sir John Hawkins,
Johnson's first major biographer, wrote: "In his search of a
wife, he picked up one of those creatures with whom, in the
disposal of themselves, no contrariety of colour is an obstacle."
Elizabeth and Barber had three children. Barber's son Samuel later
became a Methodist minister.
Although Johnson's celebrity at that time was phenomenal, views about him as a witty but pedantic and pompous writer came to dominate the 19th century. Walter Raleigh's Six Essays on Johnson in 1910 and T.S. Eliot's essay Johnson as Critic and Poet (1944) made evident the need for a thorough revaluation of Johnson's work. In 1944 Joseph Wood Krutch produced the first modern biography of the rigorous and eloquent author.