Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, was widely regarded as the leading literary figure of his time, so much so that it is often referred to as the “Age of Johnson”. He was (amongst other things) a poet, biographer, lexicographer, essayist, editor and reviewer.
Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709, the son of a bookseller. (His home is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum). He was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and at Pembroke College, Oxford, but was forced by poverty to leave Oxford without taking a degree. He returned to Lichfield and worked in his father’s shop for a while, as well as finding employment (rather unsuccessfully) as a tutor.
In 1735, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow who was 23 years older than him. Using her money, they established a school at Edial, near Lichfield, but it failed, and in 1737 Johnson departed for London, hoping to make a living by his writing. With him went his friend and former pupil, David Garrick.
When he arrived in London, his only source of income was his writing: it was to remain so for the next twenty-five years. His publications were prolific and demonstrated an extraordinary range, from his account of the life of the poet Richard Savage (still considered a classic of biography) to reports of the debates in Parliament. He published his long poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and became an editor of, and contributor, to the Gentleman’s Magazine.
He gradually acquired a reputation in the literary world, and in 1746 he was commissioned by a consortium of printers to write a dictionary of the English language. At this time he rented 17, Gough Square, London, which served as both home and workshop for the Dictionary. While working on the Dictionary, he also published a series of essays under the name The Rambler, and contributed to The Adventurer essays. (He was later to write another series as The Idler.)
Elizabeth Johnson died in 1752, plunging Johnson into the depression to which he was subject all his life. Shortly afterwards, Francis Barber, a young boy who had been a slave in Jamaica joined Johnson’s household as a servant. He (and later his wife and children) was to live with Johnson for over thirty years, and to become his heir.
The Dictionary of the English Language was eventually published in 1755. It was not (as is often claimed) the first English dictionary, but it was certainly the most important one published up to that date. It went through numerous editions, and was not superseded until the publication in 1928 of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Johnson was often short of money, even being arrested for debt. In 1759 he published Rasselas, a short oriental story, intended to raise the money to pay for his mother’s funeral.
In 1762, at the age of 53, he at last achieved financial security when he was awarded a government pension. His later major works included an edition of Shakespeare’s plays and a series of biographical and critical studies of the major poets, originally published as prefaces to a large collection of their works, but subsequently published separately. They are usually known as The Lives of the Poets.
In 1763 he met the young Scottish lawyer James Boswell, a keen admirer of Johnson and subsequently a close friend. In 1773 they toured Scotland together. Both published accounts of their travels, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson.
This stage of his life is familiar to reader of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the period when Johnson was the established leader of the literary world, and was at the centre of a circle of some of the greatest figures in art and literature, including Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.
Another important friendship began in 1765, when Johnson met Henry and Hester Thrale. For almost 20 years they provided him with what were effectively second (and third) homes with them in Southwark and Streatham. Hester Thrale was one of a number of women writers whom Johnson encouraged; others included Charlotte Lennox, Hannah More and Fanny Burney. The diaries of Hester Thrale and Fanny Burney provide a counterpoint to Boswell’s account.
Johnson’s last years were marked by illness, the death of several friends, and the breakdown of his friendship with Hester Thrale. He died on 13 December 1784, and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Want to know more?
If you want to read some of Samuel Johnson’s works, there are readily available paperback selections, such as those edited by Donald Greene (Oxford Authors) and by Patrick Cruttwell (Penguin Classics).
The classic biography is Boswell’s Life of Johnson (also readily available in many editions). There are many modern biographies, such as those by John Wain or Walter Jackson Bate. A number of new books on Johnson are expected to appear to mark the Tercentenary.