Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson books and biography


Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Samuel Johnson LL.D. (September 18, 1709 [O.S. September 7][1] – December 13, 1784), often referred to simply as Dr. Johnson, was one of England's greatest literary figures: a poet, essayist, biographer, lexicographer and often considered the finest critic of English literature. He was also a great wit and prose stylist whose bons mots are still frequently quoted in print today.

Among students of philosophy, Dr. Johnson is perhaps best known for his refutation of Bishop Berkeley's thus!".[citation needed]


Early life and education

Johnson had rooms as an undergraduate on the second floor above the entrance of Pembroke College, Oxford.
Johnson had rooms as an undergraduate on the second floor above the entrance of Pembroke College, Oxford.

The son of a poor bookseller, Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He attended Lichfield Grammar School. On October 31, 1728, a few weeks after he turned nineteen, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as a fellow-commoner. After thirteen months, however, poverty forced him to leave Oxford without taking a degree, and he returned to Lichfield. In 1764, Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate.

He attempted to work as a teacher and schoolmaster, initially being turned down by the headmaster of Adams' Grammar School, Revd. Samuel Lea, but then finding work at a school in Stourbridge. Aged twenty-five, he married Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter, a widow twenty-one years older than he. His first work published in 1735, was a translation from the French of Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia. In 1736. he established a private academy at Ediel, near Lichfield, He had only three pupils, but one of them was David Garrick, who remained his friend, while becoming the most famous actor of his day. He began the writing of his first major work there, the historical tragedy Irene, which was later produced by Garrick in 1749.

In 1737, Johnson, penniless, left for London with his former pupil David Garrick, There he found employment with Edward Cave, writing for The Gentleman's Magazine. For the next three decades, Johnson wrote biographies, poetry, essays, pamphlets, and parliamentary reports (which were printed as if verbatim but were second-hand reports based on interviews with witnesses, and were enormously popular: it is possible that Johnson put words into speakers' mouths that were better than they were capable of.)[citation needed] He also prepared a catalogue for the sale of the Harleian Library. He continued to live in poverty for much of this time. The poem London (1738) and the Life of Savage (1745; a biography of Johnson's friend and fellow writer Richard Savage, who had shared in Johnson's poverty and died in 1744) are important works from this period.

Establishing career

Dr. Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London.
Dr. Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London.

Between 1747 and 1755, Johnson wrote perhaps his best-known work, A Dictionary of the English Language. Although widely praised and enormously influential, Johnson did not make much money from it as he had to bear the expense of its long composition. During this time, Johnson also wrote a series of semi-weekly essays under the title The Rambler. These essays, often on moral and religious topics, tended to be more grave than the title of the series would suggest. They ran until 1752. Initially they were not popular, but once collected as a volume they found a large audience. Johnson's wife died shortly after the final number appeared.

During his work on the dictionary, Johnson made many appeals for financial help in the form of subscriptions: patrons would get a copy of the first edition as soon as it was printed, in compensation for their support during its compilation. Among the patrons to whom he appealed in vain was Lord Chesterfield. After the dictionary was finally published, Chesterfield sent Johnson a large check. Johnson returned it with his now famous Letter to Chesterfield, in which he compares himself to a drowning man who calls for help vainly, then slowly swims to shore and crawls up on the beach, only to be offered a belated rescue by a lifeguard. (Some readers have had this experience.)

He later altered a line in "The Vanity of Human Wishes:

These ills the Scolars life entail,
Toil, Envy, Want, The Garrett and the Jail

by replacing the word Garrett" with "Patron".

Johnson began another series, The Idler, in 1758. These were shorter and lighter than The Rambler and ran weekly for two years. Unlike his independent publication of The Rambler, The Idler was published in a weekly news journal.

In 1759, Johnson published his philosophical novella Rasselas, written in one week to pay for his mother's funeral and settle her debts. Some years later, however, Johnson gained a notoriety for dilatory writing; contemporary poet Charles Churchill teased Johnson for the delay in producing his long-promised edition of Shakespeare: "He for subscribers baits his hook / and takes your cash, but where's the book?"[2]

Status achieved

A portrait of Johnson from 1775 by Joshua Reynolds showing Johnson's intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes.
A portrait of Johnson from 1775 by Joshua Reynolds showing Johnson's intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes.

In 1762, Johnson was awarded a government pension of three hundred pounds a year,[3] largely through the efforts of Thomas Sheridan and the Earl of Bute. Johnson met James Boswell, his future biographer, the following year. Around the same time, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. By now, Johnson was a celebrated figure. He received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765, followed by one from Oxford ten years later.

The first conversation between Johnson and Boswell is frequently quoted:[citation needed]

Boswell: It's true that I'm from Scotland, but I can't help it. Johnson: Sir, that is precisely what you can help. (In other words, he could return to Scotland.)

It is widely believed that Johnson despised the Scots;[citation needed] however, careful reading of Boswell and of Johnson shows that, while Johnson disliked the conditions under which most Scots lived (the rain and the poverty), he actually liked the people.[citation needed] He undertook lengthy walking tours of Scotland and spent much of his life in Boswell's company.

In 1765, Johnson met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and Member of Parliament, and Thrale's wife, Hester. They quickly became friends and soon Johnson became a member of the family. He stayed with the Thrales for fifteen years until Henry's death in 1781, sometimes staying in rooms at Thrale's Anchor Brewery in Southwark. Hester Thrale's reminiscences of Johnson, together with her diaries and correspondence, are second only to Boswell as a source of biographical information on Johnson.

Boswell, Johnson, and the "Journey"

In 1773, ten years after Johnson had met Boswell, the two of them set out on A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, the title Johnson used for his account of their travels published in 1775. (Boswell's account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, was published in 1786, as a preliminary to his Life of Johnson.) Their visit to the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides took place while the post-Jacobite pacification was crushing the Scottish clan system, at a moment when the romanticisation of Gaelic culture was accelerating. Johnson proceeded to attack the claims that James Macpherson's Ossian poems were translations of ancient Scottish literature, on the false basis that the Scottish Gaelic language "never was a written language."[citation needed] He was right nonetheless, for Macpherson could not produce his postulated manuscripts. However, Johnson also aided Scottish Gaelic culture by calling for a Bible translation, which was produced soon afterward. Until then, Scottish Gaels had only Bedell's Irish translation.

Final works

In the 1770s, Johnson, who had been in opposition early in life, published a series of pamphlets in favor of the government. In 1770 he produced The False Alarm, a political pamphlet attacking John Wilkes. In 1771, his Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands appeared, cautioning against war with Spain.[4] In 1774 he printed The Patriot, a critique of what he viewed as false patriotism. The last of these pamphlets, Taxation No Tyranny,[5] 1775, made the case against American colonists, then clamoring loudly for independence.

Johnson's final major work was the Lives of the English Poets, a project commissioned by a consortium of London booksellers. The Lives, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet's work. Johnson died in 1784 and received a burial in Westminster Abbey.

Character sketch

Large and powerfully built, Johnson had poor eyesight, was hard of hearing and had a scarred face as a result of childhood scrofula. He also had a number of tics and other involuntary movements; the symptoms described by Boswell suggest that Johnson surely had Tourette syndrome and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder.[6] In the medical terms of his own period, he tended towards melancholia.

Johnson was a devout, conservative Anglican, a staunch Tory and a compassionate man, supporting a number of poor friends under his own roof. He was an opponent of slavery and once proposed a toast to the "next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies".[7] He had a black manservant, Francis Barber (Frank), whom Johnson made his heir.[8] He admitted to sympathies for the Jacobite cause but by the reign of George III he had come to accept the Hanoverian Succession. He remained a fiercely independent and original thinker, which may explain his deep affinity for John Milton's work despite Milton's intensely radical — and, for Johnson, intolerable — political and religious outlook.

Johnson used a curious form of storthand when writing poetry: He'd compose a line in his head, then only write down the first half (he'd remember the second half by the rhyme.) Then, when he had more time, he'd go back through the manuscript and complete each line. Scholars have often noted[citation needed] that the the ink color is consistent between all the beginning half-lines and between all the ending halflines, but that it frequently differs between the first half of a line and the second half. ( This method is reminiscent of the feats of memory that enabled a Celtic bard to remember over a hundred long tales or Homer to recite the ""Iliad"" and the ""Odyssey"".


Johnson's fame is due in part to the success of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell, however, met Johnson after Johnson had already achieved a degree of fame and stability, leading Boswell's biography to emphasize the latter part of Johnson's life. Consequently, Johnson has been seen more as a gruff but lovable society figure than as the struggling and poverty-stricken writer he was for much of his life.

Before arriving in London, Johnson stayed in Birmingham, where he is remembered in a frieze within the Old Square. Birmingham Central Library holds a Johnson Collection, containing around two thousand volumes of his works (including many first editions) plus literary periodicals and books about him.

Johnson (right) and Prince George portrayed in Ink and Incapability
Johnson (right) and Prince George portrayed in Ink and Incapability

In popular culture, Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane) was featured in the third series of Blackadder (in the episode titled 'Ink and Incapability'), presenting his dictionary to idiot Prince George for his patronage, whereupon it is believed to be burnt by the servant Baldrick; Blackadder then attempts to rewrite the entire book in one night, out of fear of Johnson and his companions. Johnson is often able to find ways of comparing things or people with dogs. The burning theme comes from John Stuart Mill's servant burning the finished draft of Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution.

Johnson was also played by Coltrane in the film Boswell and Johnson's Tour of the Western Islands.

One of Johnson's famous sayings, "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man" is quoted in the introduction to the book and movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (by Hunter S. Thompson), and also in Hell's Angels; the song "Bat Country" by Avenged Sevenfold, dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson, uses the same quotation at the beginning of the music video, and in the introduction to the song.

Johnson was referenced and quoted in the 1976 Wonder Woman episode Judgement from Outer Space. In the episode Steve Trevor tells Diana Prince that the government's plan to kill a powerful alien is a patriotic necessity. To this Diana says, "To quote Dr. Samuel Johnson: Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels'."

Major works

Essays, pamphlets, periodicals

1747 Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language
1750-1752   The Rambler
1758-1760 The Idler (1758-1760)
1770 The False Alarm
1774 The Patriot
1775 Taxation No Tyranny
1783 Preface to Shakespeare


1738 London
1747 Prologue at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury Lane
1749 The Vanity of Human Wishes
Irene, a Tragedy


1759 The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

See also

  • Dr. Johnson's House
  • Samuel Johnson Prize
  • Touch Pieces


  1. ^ After the British changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, Johnson celebrated his birthday on September 18.
  2. ^ Charles Churchill (1731-1764) biography. Retrieved 1 December 2006.
  3. ^ That is about GBP 41,000 in the prices of 2005, according to Inflation: the value of the pound 1750-2005 - PDF. House of Commons Library research paper 06/09, 13 February 2006. Retrieved 1 December 2006.
  4. ^ Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
  5. ^ Taxation No Tyranny. Retrieved December 5, 2006.
  6. ^ Tourette Syndrome Association. Samuel Johnson. Accessed 10 February 2005.
  7. ^ Boswell, James. The Life of Johnson, 23rd September 1777: "Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, 'Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.'"
  8. ^ Boswell, James. The Life of Johnson, Aetat.75 transcribes Johnson's will.


  • Bate, Walter Jackson. The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1978), and Samuel Johnson (1977).
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The personal history of Samuel Johnson (Penguin, 1984).
  • Quinney, Laura. "Chapter 2: Johnson in Mourning" in Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth (1995).
  • Reddick, Alan. The Making of Johnson's Dictionary (Cambridge, 1990).
  • Redford, Bruce (ed.). The letters of Samuel Johnson: the Hyde edition (5 volumes, Oxford, 1994).
  • Watkins, W. B. C. Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, and Sterne (1939).
  • Wharton, T. F. Samuel Johnson and the Theme of Hope (1984).

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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A Journey To The Western Isles Of Scotland

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Dr. Johnson's Works, Life, Poems, And Tales Vo.1

Lives Of The English Poets Prior Congreve

Lives Of The Poets Waller Milton Cowley

Preface To Shakespeare

The Vanity Of Human Wishes And Two Ranbler Papers

The Works Of Samuel Johnson Volume 3

The Works Of Samuel Johnson, Volume 10

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The Works Of Samuel Johnson, Volume 6

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