Johnson Issues

Writing almost all the 208 essays in the semiweekly periodical The Rambler, Samuel Johnson established himself as a prominent literary figure in eighteenth century Britain and, through his rigorous examination of literature and human affairs in general, tried to move his readers toward sound judgment and moral wisdom.

Summary of Event

The 208 essays in The Rambler were neither the first distinguished essays in English nor the first published periodically. Francis Bacon’s essays were published in 1597, 1612, and 1625, and in 1709, Richard Steele began the series called The Tatler, Tatler, The (Addison and Steele) to which Joseph Addison contributed. In 1711, shortly after the end of The Tatler, Steele and Addison began The Spectator, Spectator, The (Addison and Steele) which ran until near the end of 1712 and was revived for about six months in 1714. Those earlier essays, especially the ones by Bacon and Addison, influenced Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century when he began The Rambler. [kw]Johnson Issues the Rambler (Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752)
[kw]Rambler, Johnson Issues the (Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752)
[kw]Issues the Rambler, Johnson (Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752)
Rambler (Johnson)
Literature;social criticism
[g]England;Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752: Johnson Issues the Rambler[1320]
[c]Literature;Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752: Johnson Issues the Rambler[1320]
[c]Philosophy;Mar. 20, 1750-Mar. 14, 1752: Johnson Issues the Rambler[1320]
Johnson, Samuel
Cave, Edward
Payne, John
Carter, Elizabeth
Richardson, Samuel
Talbot, Catherine
Chesterfield, Lord

By March, 1750, the forty-year-old Johnson had struggled in London for thirteen years but was only beginning to acquire fame as a man of letters. He had written, among other works, essays for Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a biography of his late friend the poet Richard Savage, Irene: A Tragedy (pr. 1749), and the poems London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated (1749). Furthermore, during the two years through which the Rambler essays appeared, Johnson, with only a few assistants, was working on what became his magnificent A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar
Dictionary of the English Language, A (Johnson) (1755; 2 volumes) and, in his preparatory reading, had found Bacon an especially important writer.

Nobody knows whether Johnson himself initiated the plan for a series of periodical essays or the plan came from other persons, such as the publishers Edward Cave and John Payne. Whatever the case, in the absence of the money Johnson solicited from the literary patron Lord Chesterfield for the work on the dictionary, Johnson needed the two guineas he would receive for each issue of The Rambler to subsist. He also needed occasional creative respites from lexicography. He took his new task seriously, as he implied by praying before the first issue that the Holy Spirit would come into him so that he could glorify God through his essays and bring himself and his readers to salvation. In light of that seriousness, the title of Johnson’s periodical later seemed inappropriate to James Boswell, Johnson’s famous biographer. Whether or not it was appropriate, the idea for the title probably came from Richard Savage’s poem The Wanderer (1729).

All the Rambler essays were anonymous, although Johnson’s close friends, knowing his style and ideas, soon realized who the main author was. Johnson wrote 201 issues in their entirety. Of the remainder, Catherine Talbot wrote one, the novelist Samuel Richardson wrote another, and the translator and poet Elizabeth Carter wrote two. Parts of three other issues were probably by authors other than Johnson. Nevertheless, he became identified with his persona Mr. Rambler—an elderly, scholarly, relentlessly honest thinker who sought less to entertain his readers than to improve them. Besides the essays he wrote as The Rambler, however, Johnson wrote many ostensible letters to Mr. Rambler, using various pseudonyms, to present events that the main persona would not directly know about and to draw lessons from those events.

Each issue of The Rambler began with a Latin or Greek motto. The number of errors in those quotations has led later scholars to surmise that Johnson quoted them from his prodigious but slightly imperfect memory. Originally, no one translated the mottoes into English; Johnson apparently assumed that educated readers knew the Western classical languages well enough to provide their own translations. Eventually, however, publishers furnished translations, some by Johnson himself. Of the mottoes, more came from Horace, a poet of the Augustan Age of Roman literature, than from any other author—a sign of the impression Horace had made on Johnson through the latter’s years of study.

After giving the motto for an essay, Johnson pursued truth, going wherever truth took him as a Christian moralist. In the second issue, for example, writing as The Rambler, he followed a pertinent quotation from the ancient Roman poet Statius with a reference to the frequency with which the human tendency to neglect the present by looking to the future has met with ridicule. Johnson continued, however, by writing that, while critics of this tendency may feel superior, human beings must nevertheless look to the future if they are ever to do anything that does not provide an immediate reward. Some hopes, however, are unrealistic, and many writers, according to Johnson, go beyond reason in their expectation of fame.

Johnson’s style in The Rambler was distinctive enough that it has given rise to the eponymous adjective “Johnsonian.” Retiring as the Rambler, Johnson in his last issue wrote of his effort to purify English and to contribute to “the elegance of its construction” and “the harmony of its cadence.” He defended his diction, often Latinate, by writing that he had “familiarized the terms of philosophy by applying them to popular ideas” when he found “common words” unsuitable. His sentences throughout The Rambler, while varying in length and construction, often seem long and ornate to readers more than two and a half centuries later, who may fail to appreciate the careful parallelism and choices of words that helped Johnson achieve precise meanings at the time.

The Rambler ranges widely in topic, although, as Johnson also commented in the last issue, he avoided fleeting topics of popular discussion, because he was not trying to satisfy mere “temporary curiosity.” Although writing in England in the mid-eighteenth century, Johnson often composed timeless essays of worldwide importance, cautioning against vain wishes, for instance, as in his story in Issues 204 and 205 about Seged, the Ethiopian king who, despite elaborate efforts, cannot find perfect happiness even for a day. In his literary criticism, Johnson wrote as a moralist, as in Issue 4, in which, after a motto from Horace, Johnson treated an increasingly popular genre by warning against those novels in which the author so mixes virtues with vices in a character that impressionable readers learn a dangerously false lesson.


After two years of the pressure of writing an essay to be published almost every Tuesday and Saturday, Johnson ended The Rambler with the issue dated March 14, 1752, three days before his invalid wife died. Although his essays generally were more solemn than those of Addison in The Spectator and no more than five hundred copies of any individual issue were sold, The Rambler was nevertheless popular. Without permission or payment, newspapers outside London printed various essays from the series, and, less than half a year after the publication of the first issue, a collected edition of the essays began appearing.

Before Johnson died on December 13, 1784, there had been ten printings of the entire Rambler series, his authorship was widely known, and, through those essays and other works, he had become a literary giant. More printings followed in the remainder of the eighteenth century, and there were even more in the nineteenth. Although it would be hard to determine the extent to which Johnson succeeded in his effort “to inculcate wisdom or piety” through each issue, the collection surely affected its readers positively. In addition, it marked a step toward open professionalism in English literature. Believing that his supposed literary patron, Lord Chesterfield, had failed in his duty to support the work on the dictionary, Johnson wrote The Rambler to earn a living, thus showing the way for generations of writers to come.

Further Reading

  • Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Psychological biography with a chapter linking The Rambler to The Vanity of Human Wishes.
  • Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. 1791. Edited by R. W. Chapman. New edition, corrected by J. D. Fleeman. London: Oxford University Press, 1970. Monumental biography with an account of Johnson’s work on The Rambler.
  • DeMaria, Robert, Jr. The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. Johnson’s career is seen as a compromise between the necessity of professional writing in English and the longing to be a European humanist scholar writing in Latin.
  • Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler. Edited by W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss. Vols. 3-5 in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. Standard scholarly edition with textual notes.
  • Kernan, Alvin. Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Johnson is protrayed as England’s first great author to work proudly as a professional writer in an age of print.
  • Korshin, Paul J. “Johnson, the Essay, and The Rambler.” In The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, edited by Greg Clingham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Scholarly overview.
  • Lipking, Lawrence. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Biography that discusses only those parts of Johnson’s life reflected in the writing and that includes a chapter on The Rambler.
  • Lynn, Steven. Samuel Johnson After Deconstruction: Rhetoric and “The Rambler.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Rhetorical analysis using ideas from Harold Bloom and Jacques Derrida.
  • Rogers, Pat. The Samuel Johnson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Volume including a succinct article on The Rambler, with cross-references to other articles.

Addison and Steele Establish The Spectator

Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting

Richardson’s Pamela Establishes the Modern Novel

Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary

Publication of the Freeman’s Journal

Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates

France’s First Daily Newspaper Appears

Publication of The Federalist

The Northern Star Calls for Irish Independence

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Joseph Addison; Samuel Johnson; Samuel Richardson; Richard Steele. Rambler (Johnson)
Literature;social criticism