OLL's September Birthday: Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709 – December 13, 1784)
September’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of Samuel Johnson, essayist, lexicographer, poet, moralist, and critic who has been called “the most distinguished man of letters in English history” and “The Great Cham of Literature.”
He was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, to Sarah and Michael Johnson. His father was a bookseller, and young Samuel’s childhood, spent among the books in his father’s shop, must have laid the basis for a lifetime of reading and writing. He was a weak and sickly child and suffered, among other ailments, from scrofula. Surgeries to treat the disease left him with permanent scars on his face and body. (He was one of the last English scrofula patients to be treated with the traditional cure of being touched by the monarch to heal the illness. Queen Anne touched Johnson and 199 other patients in 1712.)
Despite his physical weakness, he was a bright child who excelled at memorizing various texts and poems. He received an informal education from his parents and other relatives and also attended local grammar school. During his school days he excelled especially in Latin, in which he wrote most of his first poems. Otherwise, his life during these years was precarious as a result of his father’s perpetual indebtedness and the family’s poverty. It was also around this time that he began to exhibit the strange tics and odd mannerisms that became one his most famous characteristics. Modern historians speculate that these were symptoms of Tourette Syndrome.
In 1728 the family’s fortunes improved somewhat after his mother inherited some money, allowing Samuel to enroll at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself, producing a number of English translations of Latin works. The money from the inheritance, while helpful, was not enough to overcome his family’s precarious financial situation, forcing Johnson to withdraw from Oxford after only 13 months. He moved back in with his family, sharing their poverty and suffering from a number of illnesses. His father died in 1731, furthering Johnson's distressed mental and physical state. He managed to find work as a teacher in a local school, but found it boring and he eventually quit. Soon thereafter he opened his own school, Edial Hall Academy near Lichfield, but he failed to attract students and was forced to close.
One bright spot during this otherwise bleak period in his life was his friendship with a local merchant, Harry Porter, and his wife Elizabeth (known by her nickname “Tetty”) whom he met in 1732. Harry was already ill when they met, and he died in 1734 (leaving Tetty with a small inheritance). Shortly thereafter, Johnson began to court her (though some accounts say that she took the initiative in this) and in July 9, 1735 they married in St.Werburgh’s church in Derby (their marriage is reenacted there annually). She was twenty years his senior and her family, including her children by Harry, strongly disapproved of her marriage to the poverty stricken and not-yet-famous Samuel Johnson. Despite the opposition of both families to the marriage, they seem to have been completely devoted to one another and were, by all accounts, a happy couple.
While his marriage provided some financial and emotional stability, his efforts to find some sort of employment in the Lichfield area were clearly going nowhere and so, in 1737 he and Tetty moved to London. There, he found work with Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine. He quickly became a very popular contributor, writing poems, essays, and reports on parliamentary debates. He also published works outside of the framework of the magazine. Especially noteworthy was the poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749) and The Rambler, a series of semi-weekly essays he published between 1750-1752, which dealt with morals, mores, and literature. The general picture that emerged from his writings was distinctly pessimistic. His bleak view of the world, no doubt exacerbated by the death, in 1752, of his beloved Tetty, probably reached its epitome in his novella History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), written and published hastily to pay for his mother’s funeral expenses. The hero, Rasselas, searches in vain for happiness and fulfillment in romantic love, the arts, and philosophy, only to give up in disillusionment and disappointment. The novel exemplified Johnson’s view that our happiness and wishes are ultimately unrealizable in this imperfect world. The work was a powerful attack on the glib optimism that characterized much popular thinking of the time, and has sometimes been compared to Voltaire’s Candide. In the meantime, Johnson had already begun (in 1746) work on a monumental task, the compilation of a dictionary. Finally published in 1755, his Dictionary of the English Language cemented his reputation and renown in England and remained the standard English dictionary for a century.
In 1756, Johnson began publishing and writing for The Literary Magazine, or Universal Review, in which he published reviews of other authors’ works, as well as essays attacking the Seven Years War (known to North Americans as the French and Indian War) which had just broken out. He also began work on a massive project that was to take up most of the next ten years: the publication of a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The project was rooted in his contention that the versions of the plays as they existed in his day had been badly edited and in some cases distorted. His work, The Plays of William Shakespeare, was finally published (in ten volumes) in 1765. It revolutionized scholarship on Shakespeare, which it has continued to influence down to the present day.
The publication of the Dictionary, on top of his already prodigious literary accomplishments, made Johnson a celebrity. In 1762 the young King George III granted Johnson an annual pension in recognition for his important work in publishing the Dictionary. While modest, the pension did afford Johnson a degree of financial stability, probably for the first time in his life. In 1765 Trinity College in Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate, as did his old alma mater Oxford in 1775.
He emerged as a strong opponent of the movement for American independence and the subsequent revolution, and castigated his fellow Englishmen who supported the Americans’ demands. His last major work was his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, published in 1781, which contained essays on 52, mostly eighteenth century figures.
The latter years of Johnson’s life were increasingly lonely ones, as his circle of friends and admirers slowly died off. His health, never very good, continued to worsen. In June 1783 he suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. He died in London in December 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.