Authors: Samuel Johnson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English essayist and critic

September 18, 1709

Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

December 13, 1784

London, England


Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. His father, Michael, was a provincial bookseller, and it was through browsing in his father’s shop that the boy acquired much of his remarkable knowledge. Physically handicapped, with bad eyesight and facial disfigurements, he later developed a pronounced tic. Showing early emotional instability, he was ever afterward subject to long fits of lassitude and depression. {$I[AN]9810000299} {$I[A]Johnson, Samuel} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Johnson, Samuel} {$I[tim]1709;Johnson, Samuel}

Samuel Johnson

(Library of Congress)

In the grammar schools of Lichfield and Stourbridge, and for some thirteen months at Oxford University, Johnson was well grounded in the classics, but because of financial difficulties he left the university in 1729 without a degree. During the next few years, all attempts to find a permanent post as a teacher failed; then, in 1735, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow more than twenty years his senior, with whose small fortune he set up his own school. When this, too, proved unsuccessful, he and his wife moved to London late in 1737. There followed a decade of poverty and distress in the city, as Johnson eked out a meager livelihood as translator and writer. He aided Edward Cave in editing the Gentleman’s Magazine, providing fictionalized accounts of the proceedings in Parliament as well as short biographies, essays, and poems. Independently, he was involved in other large projects, and con amore wrote a revealing life of his erratic friend in misery, Richard Savage. An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers is now recognized as an important milestone in the development of the art of biography.

In 1746, he signed a contract with a group of booksellers to produce a dictionary of the English language, but it was not until 1755 that the work, in two large folio volumes, finally appeared. Meanwhile, he had written two imitations of Juvenal, London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal and The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated, proclaimed by T. S. Eliot to be “among the greatest verse Satires of the English or any other language.” Johnson’s blank-verse work Irene: A Tragedy was produced at Drury Lane in February 1749, with meager success. Early in the 1750s, he wrote some two hundred periodical essays collectively titled The Rambler.

With the publication of A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar in 1755, his reputation was established, but fame brought little immediate financial return. So in June 1756, he issued proposals for a new edition of Shakespeare and in the same year was largely responsible for a new periodical, The Literary Magazine or Universal Review. From April 1758, to April 1760, he contributed a weekly essay under the title of The Idler to a newspaper, the Universal Chronicle. Depressed by the fatal illness of his mother, whom he had not seen for almost twenty years, and needing money for her expenses, he dashed off in the evenings of a single week what is perhaps his most characteristic work, the philosophical tale known as Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson.

After the death in 1752 of his beloved wife, Johnson more and more sought diversion and companionship in the coffee houses and taverns, gradually drawing around him a brilliant circle, including some of the most eminent men of his age, among them Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick. As the years passed, Johnson’s fame as a talker and sage equaled his reputation as a writer.

In 1762, his financial difficulties were alleviated by a royal pension of three hundred pounds a year, and for the rest of his life he wrote only what he wished. Thus began the period so brilliantly chronicled by the young Scot, James Boswell, whom he met in May 1763. In January 1765, Johnson met the brewer Henry Thrale and his talkative wife, Hester, in whose comfortable homes he spent much time during the next eighteen years. Of his late published works, the most notable were a series of political pamphlets hurriedly written in the early 1770s, an account of his journey with Boswell to the western islands of Scotland, and a series of biographical and critical prefaces to an extensive edition of the English poets of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that came to be known as The Lives of the Poets. Subject to asthma and a number of other ailments, he died on December 13, 1784, in London.

In his day, Johnson was best known as a lexicographer, essayist, and critic. Because of Boswell’s genius and a general shift of sensibility, the next century regarded him chiefly as an eccentric character in a great book. He was loved and admired as the epitome of British bullheadedness and as the patron saint of “clubbability,” but only rarely were his works taken down from the shelves. The twentieth century again took Johnson seriously as a creative artist and critic.

The basic quality of his mind was skepticism, except regarding religion, which he would never allow himself to question. He was always searching for truth but, despite dogmatic remarks made in the heat of argument, never certain of finding it. It was this fundamental Pyrrhonism that made him politically conservative, for he could never be convinced of the perfectibility of human institutions. Good individuals, he believed, were more to be desired than changes of government. For him, abstract moral principles carried more weight than political or economic considerations.

As a literary critic, he was neither a rigid theorist nor a bigoted follower of neoclassical rules; he tended to rely instead on common sense and empirical knowledge. While his aesthetic appreciation was limited by an insistence, as he was reading, on understanding clearly how each rhetorical figure worked, within his own frame of reference he was a perceptive and acute judge. Always ready to shift ground if necessary, he had one criterion in mind: the power of a work to please and instruct. Nothing produced by human beings, he was convinced, could be perfect. Thus it was the duty of a critic to point out defects as well as merits in every work of art. Because of his forceful style, however, the listing of defects is often more memorable than extensive general praise.

At its worst Johnson’s prose is overly formal and ponderous; at its best, it is forceful, direct, and pungent. Its difficulty for some modern readers stems not from any excessive use of difficult words or long sentences, for many of his most characteristic utterances are monosyllabic, but from a constant stress on abstract ideas. Such a style is appropriate to one who is remembered as a powerful thinker and moralist.

Author Works Nonfiction: Marmer Norfolciense, 1739 A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage, 1739 The Life of Admiral Blake, 1740 An Account of the Life of John Philip Barretier, 1744 An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers, 1744 Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, 1745 The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, 1747; essays in The Rambler, 1750–52 A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar, 1755 (2 volumes); essays in The Idler, 1758–60; preface and notes to The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765 (8 volumes) The False Alarm, 1770 Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands, 1771 The Patriot: Addressed to the Electors of Great Britain, 1774 Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress, 1775 A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775 Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, 1779–81 (10 volumes; also known as The Lives of the Poets) The Critical Opinions of Samuel Johnson, 1923, 1961 (Joseph Epes Brown, editor) The Supplicating Voice: Spiritual Writings of Samuel Johnson, 2005 (John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, editors) Long Fiction: Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson, 1759 (originally pb. as The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale) Drama: Irene: A Tragedy, pr. 1749 Poetry: London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, 1738 The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated, 1749 Poems: The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 1965 (volume 6; E. L. McAdam, Jr., and George Milne, editors) Translations: A Voyage to Abyssinia, 1735 (of Jerome Lobo’s novel) Commentary on Mr. Pope’s Principles of Morality, 1738–39 (of Jean-Pierre de Crousaz) Miscellaneous: The Works of Samuel Johnson, 1787–89 The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 1958–90 (16 volumes) Selected Writings, 2009 (Peter Martin, editor) Bibliography Bate, Walter Jackson. The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. An essential place to begin a general study of the accomplishments, the personal life, and the influence of Johnson. Johnson’s achievements in both the literary world and the social world are set in their eighteenth-century context. Bate provides enough detail to offer a well-rounded picture of a great scholar who was able to speak convincingly of the human world of pain and weakness as well as to write knowingly of poets and poetic achievement in his era. DeMaria, Robert. Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. An analysis of Johnson's life and career that focuses on the impact of his professional and personal aspirations. DeMaria, Robert, Jr. Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Through an examination of what and how Samuel Johnson read, DeMaria explores the nature of reading from the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Folkenflik, Robert. “Rasselas and the Closed Field.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 57 (Autumn, 1994): 337–352. Claims the satire in Rasselas results from the gap between the endlessness of human quest and the closed field of human scope. Foy, Roslyn Reso. “Johnson’s Rasselas: Women in the ‘Stream of Life.’” English Language Notes 32 (September, 1994): 39–53. Examines Johnson’s depiction of women in Rasselas; argues that the work may be viewed as an equitable portrayal of the potentialities of human beings without making distinctions between the sexes. Greene, Donald J. The Politics of Samuel Johnson. 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. Divided into sections on his early years, first books, London career, and the reign of George III. Greene updated the scholarship of the first edition (1960) and included detailed notes and bibliography. Indispensable background reading for the Johnson student, written by one of the great Johnson scholars of the twentieth century. Greene, Donald J. Samuel Johnson. New York: Twayne, 1970. An appreciation of Johnson’s literary achievement emphasizing its variety and depth and including commentary on the scholar’s contributions to the development of modern journalism. The concept of Johnson as a man of letters, with an emphasis on critical theory and practical criticism, is addressed. Individual works by Johnson are also treated, and bibliographies are included. Hart, Kevin. Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Traces the vast literary legacy and reputation of Johnson. Through detailed analyses of the biographers and critics, Hart explores the emergence of “The Age of Johnson.” Holmes, Richard. Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage. New York: Pantheon, 1993. This distinguished biographer provides a fascinating insight into the origins of Johnson’s prose by conducting a keen psychological investigation of Johnson’s relationship with the controversial poet Richard Savage. This short book is ideal for the beginning student of Johnson, immersing him in Johnson’s period and making Johnson a vivid presence as man and writer. Holmes provides a succinct and very useful bibliography. Lipking, Lawrence. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. In Lipking’s terms, he is writing a life of an author, not the life of a man—by which he means that he concentrates on the story of how Johnson became a writer and a man of letters. A superb work of scholarship, Lipking’s book reveals a sure grasp of previous biographies and should be read, perhaps, after consulting Bate. Meyers, Jeffrey. Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. New York: Basic Books. 2008. Instead of telling Johnson’s life in the form of a chronological story, Meyers focuses on several significant events and how they impacted Johnson. For instance, he discusses Johnson’s physical and psychological handicaps, as well as his marriage to an older woman. Meyers also doesn’t shy away from discussing Johnson’s sexual fetishes and his masochistic relationship with Hester Thrale. An enlightening read for anyone interested in Samuel Johnson. Miller, Stephen. “Why Read Samuel Johnson?” The Sewanee Review 107 (Winter, 1999): 44-60. Argues that Johnson’s work is of more than historical interest; claims his writing reveals a profound understanding of the perplexity of man’s passions and that he was a great prose stylist. Nokes, David. Samuel Johnson: A Life. New York: Macmillan, 2009. Johnson’s life is fleshed out in this biography, which delves into such topics as his unhappy marriage to an older woman, his fear of going insane, and his belief that much of his life consisted of wasted time. Contains eight pages of black and white photos. Reinert, Thomas. Regulating Confusion: Samuel Johnson and the Crowd. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Reinert’s fascinating work of scholarship should be consulted only after perusing earlier, introductory studies, for he is reexamining Johnson’s views of human nature, urban culture, and individualism. “The crowd” of the book’s title refers to Elias Canetti’s theories of crowds and power, which Reinert applies to his reevaluation of Johnson. Smith, Duane H. “Repetitive Patterns in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 36 (Summer, 1996): 623–639. Argues that two aspects of the text, facts and meaning, are complementary rather than contradictory and that Johnson affirms the value of the narrative as entertainment even as he denies its value as a moral tale. Tomarken, Edward. Johnson, “Rasselas,” and the Choice of Criticism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. After surveying the various critical approaches to Rasselas, offers a fusion of formalist and other theories to explain Rasselas as a work in which life and literature confront each other. The second part of the book argues that Johnson’s other writings support this view. Wimsatt, William K. The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1941. This standard work continues to shed light on the sentence structure, the Latinate diction, the rhetorical devices, and other elements that identify Johnson’s prose style. The study of rhetoric in the eighteenth century provides the background for this careful analysis, but the treatment is quite contemporary in approach. This volume is essential for a newcomer in understanding how Johnson composed—often in his head—his often lengthy and complex sentences in order to achieve a clarity of meaning.

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