Samuel Johnson: A Brief Biography
David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College
Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709 (N.S.) in the country town of Lichfield in Staffordshire, the son of Michael Johnson, aged 50, a bookseller and stationer, and his wife Sara, aged 37. The elder Johnson was prone, as his son would be, to bouts of melancholy, but he was a man of some local repute — at the time of Johnson's birth, he was Sheriff of the city. Johnson, a sickly child, was not expected to live: in 1711, at the age of two, he was taken, nearly blind, partially deaf, suffering from scrofula and a tubercular infection, to be touched for the "King's Evil" by Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts to rule England. No miraculous cure, however, took place.
In 1716 Johnson, sensitive, clumsy, and precocious, entered the Lichfield Grammar School which was headed by the scholarly but brutal John Hunter, who beat his students, as he said, "to save them from the gallows." Later in life Johnson would insist that had he not been beaten he would have done nothing, but under Hunter's tutelage he learned Latin and Greek and began to write poetry. In 1725 at the age of sixteen, a very provincial Johnson came for a six-month visit with his cousin, Cornelius Ford, a sophisticated and somewhat rakish former Cambridge don, and became aware for the first time of the existence of the larger intellectual and literary world represented by Cambridge and London.
In 1726 Johnson left school and went to work in his father's bookshop, which was failing: he spent the next two years were unhappy ones, but during this time he continued — avidly if unsystematically — to study English and classical literature. In 1728, with a small legacy of forty pounds left to his mother upon the death of a relative, he was — very unexpectedly — able to enter Pembroke College at Oxford. At Oxford, however, he was unable to keep himself adequately supplied with food or clothing — a problem which he would have for many years — and though he occasionally displayed considerable erudition symptoms of the melancholia which would haunt him for the remainder of his life were already beginning to manifest themselves. He paid, in consequence, little attention to his studies, and in 1789, extremely depressed and too poor to continue, he left Oxford without taking a degree.
Johnson's Latin translation of Pope's "Messiah," written at Oxford, was published in 1731, but by that time Johnson, poor, in debt, depressed, partially blind, partially deaf, scarred by scrofula and smallpox, found himself (understandably enough) fearing for his sanity. In December of that year his father died, a virtual bankrupt.
In 1732 Johnson found employment as an usher at Market Bosworth Grammar School. On a visit to Birmingham, he made the acquaintance of Henry Porter and his wife Elizabeth. The following year, lying in bed during another lengthy visit to a friend in Birmingham, Johnson dictated an abridged English version of a French translation of a travel book — A Voyage to Abyssinia — which had been written by a seventeenth-century Portuguese Jesuit. It became his first published book, and he earned five guineas by it.
In 1735, aged twenty-five, Johnson married his "Tetty," the by-now-widowed Elizabeth Porter, aged forty-six. With his wife's dowry of £700, Johnson established, in the following year, an ill-fated private academy at Edial, near Lichfield: boarding pupils included David Garrick, who would become the most famous actor of his day, and one of Johnson's closest friends. By 1737 the academy had proved a failure, and Johnson, determined to make his fortune by writing, left for London, accompanied by Garrick.
In 1738, living in London in extreme poverty, Johnson began to write for Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine, and published his "London," an imitation of Juvenal's satire on the decadence of ancient Rome, for which he receives ten guineas. He also made the acquaintance of Richard Savage, another impoverished poet of dubious reputation. A year later, Samuel Johnson, who had never met Johnson but who had admired his "London," attempted to get him an M. A. degree from Trinity College in Dublin so that he could become headmaster at a school: the attempt, however, failed, and Johnson was forced to continue his life of poverty and literary drudgery in (metaphorically speaking) Grub Street.
Between 1740 and 1743 he edited parliamentary debates for the Gentleman's Magazine: when, years later, he was complimented for his impartial approach to his task, he stated, characteristically, that though he "saved appearances tolerably well," he nevertheless "took care that the WHIG DOGS should not have the best of it."
In 1744 Richard Savage ended a miserable existence in a Bristol jail. Johnson was moved to write a Life of Savage — remarkable for its honest portrayal of the strenghs and weaknesses of his friend's character — which became the first of Johnson's prose works to attract the attention of the reading public.
1745 saw the publication of Johnson's "Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth." The following year he signed a contract with a group of publishers and (alotting himself, intially, three years) undertook the enormous task of compiling an English dictionary which would be analogous to that which had been produced, in French, by the forty members of the French Academy. He addressed his "Plan of a Dictionary" to the Earl of Chesterfield, who would prove to be a most unsatisfactory patron.
In 1748, with six assistants, Johnson moved into a large house in Fleet Street and began work upon his dictionary. In 1749 his great but melancholy "The Vanity of Human Wishes" appeared, and Garrick produced Johnson's tragedy Irene at Drury Lane: though Johnson made a small profit, the play proved unsuccessful.
Between 1750 and 1752, writing two a week, he produced the more than two hundred Rambler essays. In 1752, his wife Tetty died. Two years later Johnson returned to Oxford, where he became acquainted with Thomas Warton, the future Poet Laureate. The following year, with Warton's help, Johnson received an M. A. degree from Oxford. In the same year his great Dictionary of the English Language was finally completed and published, and, though he was still very poor, his literary reputation was finally established. During this period he made new friends of the much younger Joshua Reynolds, Bennet "Lanky" Langton, and Topham Beauclerk.
In 1756 Johnson produced his "Proposals for a New Edition of Shakespeare," which would not, however, appear until 1765, and continued his activities as a journalist, editing, writing prefaces, and contributing articles to journals. Briefly arrested for debt, he was bailed out by Samuel Richardson. Between 1758 and 1760, he wrote another series of essays, The Idler, for a weekly periodical. In 1759 his mother Sarah died, and, in a somber mood, he wrote the moral fable Rasselas to pay, as he said, for her funeral.
In 1762, upon the succession to the throne of George III, Johnson was provided (much to his satisfaction, but much, also, to his embarrassment, for he was an unrepentant old Tory, and, with Whig abuses in mind, had defined "pension" in his dictionary as "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country") with a pension of £300 per year. For the first time in his life he was not forced to scrape for money, and though his personal appearance was still remarkably and unavoidably uncouth he became one of the most prominent literary lions in polite society: when several young ladies, encountering him at a literary soiree, surrounded him "with more wonder than politeness," and contemplated his odd figure "as if he had been some monster from the deserts of Africa," Johnson is said to have remarked "Ladies, I am tame; you may stroke me."
In 1763 he met James Boswell (aged twenty-two) for the first time, and after he got over the fact that Boswell was Scottish (Johnson abhorred the Scots — hence his famous definition, in his dictionary, of "oats": "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people") the two got on very well together. 1764 brought the formation of the Literary Club, whose members included Johnson, Reynolds, and Edmund Burke, as well as (eventually) David Garrick and Boswell.
In 1765 Johnson's edition of Shakespeare's Plays, with its splendid and perceptive preface, was finally published, and he received an honorary LL.D. from Trinity College in Dublin. He also met the wealthy Henry and Hester Thrale, with whom he would spend much of his time during the next sixteen years, talking brilliantly but writing littleč"No one but a blockhead," he once remarked, "writes but for money."
In 1769 Boswell, by now an Edinburgh lawyer, married, and remained in Scotland until 1772. Between 1770 and 1775 Johnson produced a series of fiercely but characteristically opinionated political pamphlets. In August of 1773, though he had always despised Scotland, Johnson undertook his memorable trip to the Hebrides with Boswell. In July of 1774, Johnson went to Wales with the Thrales. During that same year Oliver Goldsmith, one of the few contemporaries whom Johnson genuinely admired, died, and Johnson felt a tremendous sense of loss.
In 1775 Johnson published his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. During the same year he received an honorary LL.D. from Oxford, and visited to France (which he finds worse than Scotland) with the Thrales. He reacted furiously to the American Revolution, characterizing the rebellious colonists as "a race of convicts." In 1776 he travelled with Boswell to Oxford, Ashbourne, and Lichfield, where he stood bareheaded in the rain in the market-place before the stall which had housed his father's bookshop, in order to atone for a "breach of filial piety" committed fifty years before.
In 1778 he made the acquaintance of Fanny Burney, aged twenty-four, and soon to be the sucessful authoress of Evelina. In the following year David Garrick, Johnson's old pupil and close friend, died, and he was again shaken. In 1781, after Johnson's The Lives of the English Poets had been published, Henry Thrale died. Johnson consoled his widow and, though he ought perhaps to have known better, contemplated marrying her.
In 1783, however, his health began to fail, and he suffered a stroke. The following year, partially recovered, he broke with Mrs. Thrale when she announced her intention of marrying Gabriele Piozzi. Johnson, frail and troubled by gout, asthma, dropsy, and a tumour, found that his his life-long fear of death had begun to preoccupy him, but he faced it bravely, as he had faced all adversities. On December 13 he died, aged seventy-five: he was buried in Westminster Abbey, with approriate ceremony, on December 20.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000