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Six-feet tall and clumsy, Dr Johnson defied poverty and disfigurement, became a sensation as a wit and man of letters, cared for a family of homeless men and women and ended up with his own feast day. His life "was a tale of triumph over every kind of obstacle".

Portrait by Joshua Reynolds National Portrait Gallery


Born in 1709, Samuel Johnson was a frail baby who barely survived tuberculosis of the lymph nodes. When he was a boy he almost died of smallpox, and was disfigured with scars. When he became a man he suffered from convulsions that may have been Tourette's syndrome.

Depression and unemployment

But Johnson was precocious. He studied at the ancient grammar school of Lichfield and became a scholar at Oxford. Unfortunately he wa oftens Ill, socially immature and rebellious. Johnson loved Oxford, but he could not stay. His father could not pay for him. For the next three years he lived at home and suffered what appears to be clinical depression. Unemployed, he used to walk 30 miles a day to try to reduce his anxiety.

A love-match and London

The writings of William Law, a Christian mystic whose kindness and good sense were legendary, inspired Johnson, but he couldn't seem to muster the energy to live. To make money he took a job translating a 400-page account of a journey to Abyssinia into English. Unwell, he finished the work in bed. It was love that roused him.

Johnson called his marriage to a lady 20 years his senior a love match, and Elizabeth did inspire him. After failing to be hired as a teacher or to attract students when he set up a school, Johnson decided to make his fortune as a writer in London. He left Lichfield with young David Garrick, the future actor and theatre producer. They were so poor they had to share a horse - the one riding ahead, the other walking, Johnson or Garrick tying up the horse and walking ahead while his companion caught up on horseback.

The senate of Lilliput

In London Johnson began working at fiendish speed to earn enough money so Elizabeth could join him. He found a publisher in Edward Cave, the editor of Gentleman's Magazine, and located a rich vein of satire in the House of Commons, where it has long resided.

The House had made it illegal to publish its debates, but Johnson altered the names of MPs and wrote immensely popular pieces about the "senate of Lilliput". Meanwhile, he was also producing plays, poetry and short biographies. He wrote satire and fierce invective in terse epigrammatic phrases -

This mournful truth is everywhere confessed,
Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.

The black diamond

Many nights Johnson walked the streets of London and talked with a friend, the poet Richard Savage, because neither of them had enough money to sit down and buy a beer. When Savage died, Johnson wrote one of his most admired works, "a pioneering exercise in psychological biography" and "a graphic sociological study of Grub Street". It was also a testament of friendship. Johnson vividly describes Savage's struggle to establish his parenthood, and gives a fair account of the poet's trial for murder. (Oxford DNB).

In 1759 Johnson was working on Rasselas, a philosophical novel that examines the pursuit of happiness and which Johnson wrote at speed and at least partly to defray the cost of his mother's last illness and funeral. (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, Johnson gruffly remarked. Believe him if you like.) His first title for the novel was A Choice of Life. The Publisher added the subtitle The Prince of Abyssinia, A Tale.

The novel examines the British imperial project just getting underway with the oppressive example of the Ottoman Empire. A critic called the melancholy story "a black diamond". But like the spirit of the age, the hero escapes captivity.

An unexpected project

Money troubles continued to plague Johnson, so he was eager to begin work on a project that must have struck some as preposterous -
What was envisaged was something quite different, a commercial venture financed by a consortium of leading figures in the trade, and one which would be compiled essentially by a single hand — that of a poverty-stricken journalist and pamphleteer, who had dropped out of university and who had never left England. Johnson prepared a short prospectus for the undertaking, and then signed a contract on 18 June 1746. The compiler was to be paid 1500 guineas, out of which he had to defray the cost of his copyists, and delivery was due in three years. It seems miraculous today that the job took as few as nine years to complete.
The project was Johnson's great English Dictionary. The DNB looks at how he worked -

For this task, the Johnsons took a substantial house in Gough Square, which survives today off the north side of Fleet Street as a Johnson museum. The garret was fitted out as workroom for the staff, which amounted to five or six assistants, most of them Scots. Johnson used an interleaved copy of Bailey's dictionary in its 1736 edition; he also consulted a wide range of technical and specialist manuals to expand the range of vocabulary. He sought out illustrative quotations in a huge collection of books, from which his amanuenses transcribed marked extracts. Before the mammoth work was completed, a number of distractions held up its progress.

Johnson quarrelled with his intended patron, the earl of Chesterfield, to whom he had dedicated a recast version of the prospectus as The Plan of the English Dictionary (1747); one outcome was a famous letter of dignified rebuke to the peer. ‘Is not a patron, my lord’ asked Johnson sardonically, ‘one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?’ (Boswell, Life, 1.262). . .

Ultimately the work appeared in two folio volumes on 15 April 1755, garnished with preliminary matter including a preface of extraordinary dignity and eloquence. The Dictionary left an immense mark on its age. It soon became recognized as a work of classical standing, and in spite of some minor blemishes it has never lost its historical importance as the first great endeavour of its kind.

Notable above all for definitions of pith and occasional wit, the dictionary was even more original in the way in which every word, as Johnson put it, had its history. Each entry is organized under the headword to exemplify graduated senses of a term, a procedure which redirected the course of English lexicography.

Further, the quotations used to exemplify the usage of a given word combined to form an anthology of moral sayings and helped to define the canon of literature. . .

Johnson had read hundreds of English writers, and his dictionary reflects his knowledge. Among its 40,000 entries, his entry for the verb take runs to more than 133 numbered uses. His dictionary was a tremendous success.

A champion of women writers with an eccentric household

Johnson worked stupendously hard - defying both depression and debtor's prison. His moral outlook gave his essays on social, religious, political and literary themes tremendous depth. Beginning in his forties he became a champion of women writers, including Charlotte Lennox, Hannah More, the abolitionist, and Frances Burney.

His wife, whose devotion had sustained him, died at the age of sixty-three. Rather than remarry, Johnson took on waifs and derelicts, including a former slave. He looked after his castaways with affection, and helped one of them, Anna Williams, to bring out a book of poems. Meanwhile his career was expanding.

Dr Johnson

Oxford awarded him the degree of master of arts, and he began editing a new journal called the Literary Magazine. His writing for the magazine was forceful and varied - everything from defending tea-drinking to warning of conflict between the French and English in the Ohio Valley to examining "the delusive nature of most quests for human happiness". He also began a project close to his heart, an edition of Shakespeare's works, which would take him years to complete.

When he was done, the eight volumes would contain the full canon of accepted plays, pithy textual commentary and decisive critical judgments on each play, "with a masterly aside on Falstaff and a candid admission by the editor of his feelings of shock at the death of Cordelia". The Shakespeare project confirmed Johnson's stature. Dublin University awarded him the degree of doctor of laws, and he has been known as Dr Johnson ever since.

Dr Johnson's circle

Johnson's circle of friends and colleagues numbered Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Henry and Hester Thrale. (The relationship with Hester attracted unsupported claims after Johnson's death - and are not worth contemplating here.) Johnson's immense range of knowledge, his speed of thought and his eloquence left even Burke, Fox and Garrick speechless.

In May 1763 James Boswell burst on the scene, and Johnson welcomed him. It was almost as if the older man saw his younger self - or the son he had never had. Boswell shadowed Dr. Johnson, and famously recorded his conversations. They made a strenuous journey to Scotland, hiking over desolate mountain regions.

The book Johnson wrote as a result, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), "stands as one of its author's most eloquent and challenging works, a great document of cultural studies before the topic was invented" (DNB).

Johnson's sound bites, as recorded by Boswell have become famous -

"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience." On Americans, whose support of slavery he detested: "No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous."

Johnson is hard to pin down, though hundreds of biographers have tried. A man with an appetite for controversy and a realist about people, he was also kind. He housed his misfits, gave generously to the poor and was tender to animals and children. His business sense helped to rescue a friend's brewery. His sense of pleasure made dining with a delight.

Throughout the last decades of his life he revised his dictionary, dined with friends at the Literary Club and made tours of England and Wales. He took the death of old friends such as Garrick very hard.

When he was in his seventies and growing frail, he published a series of prefaces to a new collection, known today as The Lives of the Poets. He faced his own death with courage, though he was in considerable pain. On 13 December 1784, he died with confidence in the Spirit. He was seventy-five.

He left behind books of criticism, poetry, biographies, political pamphlets, prayers, a moving diary, his dictionary and bequests for his friends and the poor. He would be shyly astonished to learn that he has been given a feast day in the Anglican Communion of Saints.

We'll end with our favourite Dr Johnson quote -

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

For the last hundred years Dr Johnson's comment has been interpreted as a scathing criticism of patriotism. In fact it is a scathing criticism of a scoundrel.

Dr Johnson was also a patriot.

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