Johnson Biography
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Essayist, Journalist, Poet, Novelist, Biographer, Lexicographer.
Active 1735-1784 in England, Britain, Europe

The best source of information about the life of Johnson remains James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., published in 1791. This is available in many popular reprints, the major scholarly edition being that of George Birkbeck Hill, revised in six volumes by L.F. Powell (1934-1964). Other major contemporary stores of biographical material compiled by Johnson’s acquaintances include the Anecdotes of Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs Thrale), and memoirs by the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, both reprinted in the two volumes of Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by George Birkbeck Hill (1897). The best modern biographies of Johnson are John Wain’s Samuel Johnson (1974) and Walter Jackson Bate’s major study, similarly titled, of 1977. Authoritative accounts of Johnson’s life prior to his acquaintance with Boswell can be found in Thomas Kaminski’s The Early Career of Samuel Johnson (1987), and in James L. Clifford’s Young Samuel Johnson (1955), while several studies which take aspects of Johnson’s literary and critical work as their theme have used a broadly biographical or chronological framework, for example, Lawrence Lipking’s Samuel Johnson: the Life of an Author (1998) and Robert DeMaria Jr.’s Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (1997). Recent attempts to re-imagine aspects of the life and personal relationships of Johnson in fictional form include Beryl Bainbridge’s According to Queeney published in 2001. Regular scholarly contributions on Johnson’s life, world and social milieu appear in the New Rambler, the organ of the Johnson Society of London, and in the Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, edited by Paul J. Korshin and Jack Lynch.

Samuel Johnson was born on 7 September 1709 (18 September “new style”) at Lichfield in Staffordshire, in the English Midlands. He was the elder son of Sarah and of the bookseller Michael Johnson. The young Samuel Johnson was brought up in the bookshop adjacent to Lichfield’s market square and read voraciously amongst his father’s stock. He attended Lichfield Grammar School which he entered in 1717, but spent an extended and highly enriching time – educationally, socially and culturally – at Stourbridge in 1726 with his cousin, the learned and agreeable Reverent Cornelius Ford. Johnson was admitted to Pembroke College, Oxford, as a Commoner in 1728, where he came well equipped with a vast stock of literary and other scholarly learning, much of it out of the ordinary track. His father’s deteriorating financial circumstances dictated that Johnson would leave Oxford after only eighteenth months, without taking his degree. Johnson then returned to the Midlands to seek work as a schoolmaster; but none of his efforts to find secure employment met with much success. There is speculation that Johnson’s eccentric appearance and strange, awkward manner, were amongst the reasons for this. After the failure of his own private academy at Edial, opened in 1736 but attracting few pupils, Johnson determined to take his chances in London literary life as a writer, and he removed there in 1737. Johnson had been composing a tragic drama entitled Irene at this time, and with a draft of this work complete, he set out in the company of David Garrick, one of his former pupils who was later to become the great Shakespearean actor. Once established in the capital Johnson began work for Edward Cave, the literary entrepreneur and editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Johnson had produced his first prose work in 1733, a translation from the French of Father Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia, and had married Elizabeth Jervis (Mrs Porter) in 1735.

Johnson’s first real breakthrough as a serious writer came with the publication of his imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, the poem London, which was printed in May 1738, and in the same year the “Life of Father Paul Sarpi” appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine. The poetical work was well received as an important poem of its moment, cast in the contemporary mode of the heroic couplet and based on a Roman model but having its own entirely distinctive voice, sometimes terse and spare, sometimes emotional, sometimes scholastic and abrasive. It was praised by Alexander Pope, and Johnson’s rise to literary eminence can be dated from this time. Johnson published the political pamphlet Marmor Norfolciensis, Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage in the following year, along with a “Life of Boerhaave” and a translation of Crousaz’s Commentary on Pope’s Essay on Man. Lives of Admiral Blake, Drake and Barretier appeared in 1740, with a “Life of Sydenham” in 1741. In the next few years, and in the midst of his other commitments, Johnson contributed biographies to a Medicinal Dictionary; but his extraordinary bibliographical, scholarly and historical gifts also came into their own when he was called upon to work on the catalogue of the Harleian Library. Johnson’s close and uninterrupted engagement with the world of public and political affairs was at the same time tirelessly maintained. One of his regular tasks as a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine was to compose a sequence of parliamentary reports published under the title of “Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia”.

Significant publications in this period include Johnson’s “Life of Savage” (1744). This early biography, re-printed in revised form for the later Lives of the Poets (1779), seems to capture something of the tone of Johnson’s early friendship with the semi-vagrant poet Richard Savage in the taverns and streets of eighteenth-century London. Johnson’s distinctive powers as a biographer are suggested memorably in his eloquent, moving, sometimes tragic, sometimes highly comic evocation of Savage’s extraordinary personality, his kindness, petulance, recklessness, and his uniqueness as an individual able to say so much about the generality of the human condition (as the story of Savage’s life does about Johnson’s). 1745 saw Johnson’s first experiments as a critic of Shakespeare with his publication of detailed sample materials for a new edition, and the annotations, glosses and literary-critical readings included in his Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth.

It is at this stage of his literary career, towards the end of the 1740s, that Johnson’s literary productions begin to be shaped by the larger drives and complex contours of his unusual personality, immortalized by Boswell’s portrait: the melancholic disposition combined with an extraordinary sense of the pleasures of human company, the delight in intellectual exchange with men and women alike, and the profound ironic sense that was to inspire Jane Austen’s comedies of human manners. Johnson’s nature seems to have mixed extraordinary confidence in himself and his powers with deep guilt and self-doubt. These traits of personality form the background to literary projects that are sometimes of immense proportions and involve unthinkably large commitments of time, organisation and personal resources, but which Johnson seems unusually fitted to perform. In 1746 Johnson signed a contract to compile his Dictionary of the English Language, and the Plan of the Dictionary was published in 1747. The Dictionary was dedicated to Lord Chesterfield, the aristocrat who famously failed to provide the promised financial support, and provoked Johnson’s elegantly derisive “Letter to Chesterfield” at the point when the first edition was about to appear in print (1755). A sense of disappointment, of having fallen predictably short of his ideal, is suggested by the tone of Johnson’s Preface to the Dictionary and something of the enduring poignancy of human experience evident in the “Life of Savage” is recalled here, as it was whenever Johnson had occasion to contemplate his long and wearisome climb to literary recognition or made comparisons between a task in prospect and a task complete. Such patterns of experience were also familiar to Johnson as a reader of Shakespeare’s plays, and they are defined in the theme and form of Johnson’s second major imitation of Juvenal (the tenth satire). Johnson’s great poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, was published in 1749, and in the same year, Garrick, who was now manager of the theatre in Drury Lane, helped to arrange a performance of Johnson’s hitherto unstaged play, Irene, with some modest success, though Johnson never wrote for the theatre again. Garrick’s Thespian vanity (and that of the acting profession more generally) eventually became a standing joke with Johnson.

Johnson began his celebrated twice weekly essays on morality, social manners, criticism and literature for The Rambler in 1750. These appeared without a break until 17th March 1752 and were often reprinted. In 1753, and in company with his friend, the critic and scholar Joseph Warton, Johnson contributed essays to Hawkesworth’s The Adventurer, and in 1756 he made public formal Proposals for his edition of Shakespeare, delayed after the appearance of Warburton’s edition. In the same year Johnson began editing The Literary Magazine, a monthly journal, and the location for Johnson’s own most famous single review, attacking the complacent and sophistical argument of Soame Jenyns’ Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Johnson’s Idler, somewhat lighter and sharper in style than The Rambler, ran from 1758 to 1760. Johnson’s mother died in 1759 and Johnson composed his extraordinary work of philosophical fiction on the “choice of life” in this year. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia was supposedly written in the evenings of one week to meet the expense of his mother’s funeral. From this painful moment in his life Johnson turned with increasing attention to the long haul of editing Shakespeare, working over the notes and prefaces of the earlier editors – Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer and Warburton – and composing those of his own.

Recognition for Johnson’s contributions to literature appeared in 1762 with a pension of 300 per year from the Prime Minister, Lord Bute, and in the following year, Johnson first met Boswell. The Literary Club was formed in 1764, its members including – at different times – the constellation of Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Gibbon, Warton, Burke and Garrick, and their gatherings became a significant nexus of intellectual and cultural exchange in the London of the eighteenth century. The edition of Shakespeare was finally published in 1765, crowned by its distinguished Preface, “The most manly piece of criticism,” wrote Adam Smith, “that was ever published in any country.” Trinity College Dublin awarded Johnson an honorary LL D in this year. (Oxford, his own university, was not to grant Johnson an honorary DCL until a decade later).

The years 1770 and 1771 saw the publication of two of Johnson’s best known political pamphlets, The False Alarm and Thoughts on Falkland’s Islands, with a revised (4th) edition of the Dictionary in 1773 and a revised edition of the Shakespeare edition. It was also in the late summer and autumn of 1773 that Johnson set out with Boswell as his companion on their walking tour of Scotland. The record of this tour, scenes from which were comically recorded in caricatures of the period by Thomas Rowlandson, was published in 1775 as Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Two years later Johnson struck a deal with a consortium of the booksellers of London to compose prefatory essays for a new edition of the English poets. The first four volumes of Prefaces, Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets were published in 1779 and the remaining six volumes in 1781. These essays, beginning with a life of the seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley, were followed by major lives of Milton, Dryden and Pope (along with biographical and critical treatments of a range of seventeenth and eighteenth-century lesser writers). They combine literary history, anecdote, and the personal memory of a lifetime in literature intimately with acute textual analysis, and they represent the summation of Johnson’s career as a literary critic, giving definition to his idea of criticism as it had developed through the essays of The Rambler and The Idler, the various proposals, notes and Preface to the Shakespeare edition. As works of criticism they are immensely varied in approach, scope and tone, and contain many judgements of poetry that remain both compelling and controversial today. Johnson’s melancholia seems to have deepened after the publication of the Lives (as they rapidly became known). He suffered a stroke in 1783 and a serious illness. He busied himself with a final round of travels and visits, but died on 13 December 1784. Some days later he was interred in Westminster Abbey, near the foot of Shakespeare’s monument and close to the remains of his old pupil, David Garrick.

First published 21 March 2002

Citation: Philip Smallwood, University of Central England. "Samuel Johnson." The Literary Encyclopedia. 21 Mar. 2002. The Literary Dictionary Company. 2 July 2006. <http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2387>