Samuel Johnson, an English author, born in Lichfield, Sept. 18, 1709, died in London, Dec. 13, 1784. His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller and stationer, and for some time a magistrate of Lichfield; but dying in middle age, he left his family in poverty. From his birth the younger Johnson was afflicted with a malignant scrofula which permanently disfigured his face, and injured both his sight and hearing. At 10 years of age he commenced the study of Latin at the Lichfield free school, and remained there five years, and another year at a private academy in Stourbridge. On account of poverty his entrance at Oxford was delayed for two years, during which time he amused himself chiefly in reading the books in his father's shop. At length he went to Oxford with a schoolmate, the son of a neighboring gentleman, as assistant and fellow student, and was admitted to Pembroke college in 1728. His college life was disorderly, but not vicious. He especially distinguished himself in a Latin translation of Pope's " Messiah," for which he received the applause of his college, while Pope himself declared that it would be a question for posterity which was the original and which the translation.
While at Oxford he showed signs of the morbid state of his brain and nervous system which affected him in all his after life; but by skilful treatment, and the strong will of the patient, the disease was held in check, and the threatened wreck of intellect averted. He remained at the university about three years, left it on account of poverty without a degree, and procured employment as an usher in a school at Market Bosworth, Leicestershire. He next spent some time at Birmingham with a book-seller, who also published a small newspaper, to which Johnson contributed. Here he became acquainted with the family of Mr. Porter, a linen draper, whose widow he afterward married. About this time he executed his first literary work, a translation of Father Lobo's "Voyage to Abyssinia." He soon after issued proposals to publish by subscription the Latin poems of Politian, with a history of Latin poetry from the age of Petrarch to the time of Politian; but the work was never completed. He spent his time alternately at Birmingham and Lichfield, till after two years he was married to Mrs. Porter, who was nearly twice his age, and then he opened a private academy at Edial Hall, near Lichfield. But he obtained only three pupils, two of whom were David Garrick and his younger brother; and after trial of a year and a half the enterprise was abandoned. - In the spring of 1737 he set out for London accompanied by Garrick. He sought employment among the booksellers, and lived at the most economical rates, bearing all his privations and discouragement with a sullen fortitude.
He contributed to the " Gentleman's Magazine," and at length became assistant editor of that publication. He first became known in 1738 by the publication of "London," a poem in imitation of the third satire of Juvenal, which was received with decided favor. He was recommended to the mastership of a school at Appleby, but his want of a degree disqualified him by the statutes of the corporation. A like difficulty prevented his entering the legal profession. He now contributed to the "Gentleman's Magazine" a class of papers in biography and general literature which gave a new and higher character to that work. He also wrote two or three political pamphlets against Walpole and the whig administration. At the beginning of the session of parliament in November, 1740, Johnson undertook to write imaginary reports of the debates, following the order in which the members spoke, and imitating their respective styles. The eloquence of the speeches thus produced excited universal admiration, and the sale of the magazine was greatly increased; but after a little more than two years Johnson relinquished the position, because he doubted the morality of the deception he was practising upon the world, though he still retained his connection with the magazine.
Early in 1744 was published the "Life of Richard Savage," which Johnson had promised to the public immediately upon the death of its subject, a few months before. The book contributed very considerably to fix the reputation of its author. The next year, among other labors, he wrote the preface and index to the Harleian miscellany, a collection of pamphlets from the library of the earl of Oxford, which had been purchased by the bookseller Osborne. In that painful drudgery Johnson toiled as a day laborer, and was treated by Osborne with an insolence that once provoked Johnson to knock him down. The same year he issued a pamphlet entitled "Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth," to which he affixed proposals for a new edition of Shakespeare. This pamphlet attracted the attention of Warburton, who was then engaged in a similar work, and was commended by him as evidently the work of " a man of parts." In 1747 Garrick became joint manager of Drury Lane theatre, and Johnson wrote a prologue to be spoken at its opening, which added greatly to his reputation.
In this year he issued proposals for his "Dictionary of the English Language." The plan of the work, which indicates a thorough acquaintance with the subject, and a comprehensive knowledge of the method to be pursued in its prosecution, was addressed to the earl of Chesterfield, then one of the secretaries of state, who was ambitious of the reputation of a patron of learning, and expressed a warm interest in the enterprise. Five publishing houses were concerned in the contract. Johnson was to receive £1,575, which amount however was to cover all the incidental expenses of preparing the work for the press. To facilitate his work he removed to Gough square in Fleet street, where he had rooms properly arranged for its prosecution, being assisted by six copyists. He availed himself of whatever helps were offered in the extant works on English philology and lexicography, but relied chiefly on his own original labors. This great work occupied its author, though not exclusively, during the next seven years. A trip to Tunbridge Wells, in the summer of 1748, brought him into contact with some of the celebrities of the metropolis, among them William Pitt, Lord Lyttelton, and Speaker Onslow, who paid him marked attention.
To facilitate his intercourse with his literary associates, he also this year originated a club, called from its place of meeting the "Ivy Lane Club." At its organization it consisted of ten members, of whom Johnson, Hawkins, and Dyer afterward belonged to the celebrated "Literary Club." In 1748 Dodsley brought out his "Preceptor," a compilation of choice pieces for young persons, in which first appeared Johnson's " Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe." To this year also belongs his second poetical production, " The Vanity of Human Wishes," an imitation of the 10th satire of Juvenal; it was printed by Dodsley, and brought its author 15 guineas. While yet residing at Lichfield Johnson had commenced a tragedy, in five acts, called "Irene," which he finished during his first two or three years in London; and Garrick, soon after his accession to the management of Drury Lane theatre, undertook to bring it out. It was acted for nine successive nights, before tolerably large and highly respectable audiences, and was received with a good share of favor.
The author's profits amounted to £200, and the copyright brought him another £100, making together a larger amount than he had hitherto received on any one occasion. - On March 20, 1750,. Johnson issued the first number of the "Rambler." Its authorship was not publicly confessed, but it was readily identified by all who knew anything of Johnson's style, nor did he affect any great secrecy in the matter. Its merits were generally confessed, and for two years the semi-weekly issues were continued without omission. Johnson was the sole author of all but eight of the 208 numbers. At the same time he was chiefly occupied with his dictionary, then rapidly approaching its completion. During this portion of his life his mind was remarkably vigorous and fruitful, and its vast accumulations were thrown off in profusion and with great facility. The "Rambler," though coldly received as a periodical, immediately became popular when collected into volumes. About this period Johnson was concerned in an attempt to prove Milton guilty of a wholesale plagiarism in his " Paradise Lost." One Lauder, a Scotch schoolmaster, pretended to have found a large share of the best portions of Milton's great poem among the works of the modern Latin poets; his proofs of this grave charge were embodied in a pamphlet, to which Johnson was induced to write a preface and postscript, thus by implication approving the whole production.
But Lauder's pretended quotations from the modern Latin poets were found to be either taken from Hogg's Latin version of "Paradise Lost," or pure forgeries. Johnson was deeply chagrined, and at once acknowledged his own error, and compelled Lauder to publicly confess his falsehood. That Johnson highly appreciated Milton's genius, he about this time gave a practical demonstration. "Comus" was to be produced at Drury Lane theatre for the benefit of Milton's granddaughter, then living in London in poverty. Johnson entered into the arrangement with zeal, and wrote the prologue for the occasion, which was spoken by Garrick. Early in 1752 Johnson's wife died. Notwithstanding the disparity of their ages, his early affection had only changed into a settled esteem. At her bedside he was convulsed with grief, and yet •while she lay a corpse awaiting burial he composed a funeral sermon to be spoken over her remains. His published " Prayers and Meditations" indicate his feeling. He prayed that, if agreeable to the will of God, he might be favored with her guardianship, and with intimations of her presence, " by appearances, impulses, dreams, or in any other manner agreeable to the divine government." In 1752 Johnson engaged with Dr. Hawkesworth in the publication of the "Adventurer," a series of periodical essays on the plan of the " Rambler." Of these 140 numbers appeared, 29 of which were written by Dr. Johnson. The dictionary was completed in 1755. Lord Chesterfield, who had received the "Plan" with great coolness, now wrote two laudatory letters in " The World," shortly before the work was printed.
But Johnson rejected these tardy advances, and the dictionary was issued without a dedication. The original preface was at once a characteristic and a highly valuable essay. The merits of Johnson's dictionary are too well known to require any statement in this place. It first brought order out of the chaos of the language; and though it has been generally superseded by later compilations, yet the fundamental excellences of all modern dictionaries of the English language have their elements in that work. It greatly enhanced its author's reputation, but he was still compelled to labor unremittingly for the means of daily subsistence. He published at this time a large number of reviews in Newbery's " Literary Magazine." The proposal for an edition of Shakespeare made some years before, but not prosecuted, was renewed and a subscription opened, but the work still lingered on his hands through nine years. He next engaged with the publishers of the " Universal Chronicle," a weekly newspaper,, to furnish a series of miscellaneous essays, and the "Idler" appeared in regular order for two successive years, beginning in April, 1758. Of its 103 numbers Johnson wrote all but 12. In the spring of 1759 appeared his most celebrated work, "Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia," which he wrote in the evenings of one week, and sent to the printer as first written, receiving for it £100, out of which he paid the expenses of his mother's funeral.
But if Johnson's literary labors had failed to provide him a competence, they had procured for him a greatly advanced social position, and secured him a large circle of admirers. His constitutional indolence had however become positively morbid, and he indulged in idleness just as far as his immediate necessities would allow. He seldom went abroad, lay in bed till past noon, and spent the rest of the day in promiscuous conversations with whosoever called upon him; or moped in morbid melancholy if left to himself, which, however, was not often the case. To his guests he devoted a large share of each afternoon, meanwhile regaling himself with his favorite tea, with which he solaced both his earlier and his later hours. Among his personal associates at this period were Richardson. Garrick, Reynolds, Warton, Baretti, Arthur Murphy, Dr. Charles Burney, Dr. (afterward Bishop) Percy, Bennet Langton, and Topham Beauclerk. He was all this time domiciled at Gough square, where he had passed the greater portion of the years of his residence in London. Here, before the decease of his wife, he had begun to gather about him a family group, which was afterward much enlarged, made up of a strangely assorted set of dependants and pensioners.
Anna Williams, the blind daughter of a Welsh physician; Robert Levett, who practised medicine among the very poor, and often received his fees in liquor; Mrs. Desmoulins and her daughter, who had no other claim upon his benevolence than the service which the father of the former, Dr. Swinfen, had rendered to Johnson in a professional capacity in his youth; and Francis Barber, his negro servant, were among the inmates of his house. - Johnson had an implicit belief in the supernatural and invisible world. He practically adopted the maxim that it is safer to believe too much than too little. He believed in the existence and appearance of disembodied spirits, and that they might be manifested to our cognizance. A case of this kind occurred in 1763, which exposed Johnson to the ridicule of his enemies. Certain strange phenomena in the form of "rappings " about the bed of a young girl, in a house in Cock lane, caused a considerable excitement, and a number of gentlemen, of whom Johnson was one, attempted to solve the mystery. Their examinations satisfied them that the whole was a cheat and imposture, and Johnson afterward wrote out a statement of it for the " Gentleman's Magazine." But the affair was seized upon by Johnson's enemies, as exposing a vulnerable point for their attacks.
Churchill, in his poem "The Ghost," depicted Johnson in such broad caricature that it was at once recognized; and Foote the comedian proposed to present him on the stage for the amusement of the town, but abandoned his purpose upon being assured that Johnson was preparing to chastise him if he undertook it. - In 1762 Johnson received from the king a pension of £300. He had often stigmatized the whole business of giving and receiving pensions as the basest kind of bribery; but it being urged by his friends that the whole nation was his debtor for what he had written, and especially for the dictionary, and the premier assuring him that no service to the ministry would ever be expected from his pen in return for the favor, he allowed his scruples to be overcome. Early in 1765 the long promised and long delayed edition of Shakespeare made its appearance, with an elaborate preface discussing the genius and writings of the dramatist, and with a concise account of each play, and notes and commentaries, both original and selected, on various passages. But the work was not such as the reputation of the editor had promised.
He no doubt possessed many valuable qualifications for such a work, yet he was better adapted for original compositions, and in this case his powers were but moderately called into requisition. His own estimate of the work did not differ greatly from that of others. He had now fully attained the height of his ambition as a scholar and man of letters. His claim to the first place among his peers was cheerfully conceded to him with almost absolute unanimity. The university of Oxford, from which he sought in vain for the degree of M. A. when it would have been valuable to him, now accorded a tardy recognition of his greatness by granting to him by diploma the honor of LL. D. He had received the same degree ten years earlier from Dublin university; but after returning thanks for the honor, he declined to wear it, and would not consent to be called doctor till Oxford had given him the title. - About this time Johnson was introduced by Arthur Murphy to Mr. Thrale, a wealthy brewer of Southwark. Thrale was a man of a well cultivated mind, of sound judgment, and great force of character; and his wife, whose name has become intimately connected with Johnson's history, was also a person of some learning and of almost unbounded vivacity, flippant, versatile, and addicted to hero worship.
The acquaintance thus begun soon grew into friendship. Johnson dined with his new friends weekly during several succeeding months, when, having suffered by an attack of sickness, he was removed in 1766 to their residence, and had apartments assigned him in their house at Southwark, and also in their villa at Streatham. Thrale was a member of parliament for Southwark, and as his political creed was nearly allied to that of his guest, Johnson became interested in the politics of the times, and there was at one' time a purpose to bring him into parliament; but the government, fearing that he would not prove sufficiently facile, did not encourage it, and so the design was abandoned. He accompanied his friends on their annual excursions, visiting various parts of the kingdom with them, and also making a visit of several weeks at Paris. His connection with this family not only brought him innumerable comforts and pleasures, but it also afforded him a retreat from his own strangely assorted household, where strifes and complaints were loud and frequent.
It continued till the death of Thrale, and the subsequent-marriage of his widow to Signor Piozzi, greatly to the chagrin of her friends. - A few years previous to his connection with the Thrales, Johnson had formed another association, by which his future renown was to be very largely affected. In 1763 James Boswell, a young man, the son of a Scotch judge, visited London and obtained an introduction to Johnson. Boswell was loose in life and conversation, conceited, meddling, and inquisitive, yet endowed with an insight into character, and an appreciation of qualities the furthest possible removed from his own. Johnson fancied this young Scot on first acquaintance, and Boswell at once fastened himself upon him. They were together almost daily, rambling in the parks, supping together at the Mitre tavern, or wandering the streets till after midnight. Boswell lived in Johnson's shadow, noting his words, describing his manners, and detailing the most trivial occurrences; all of which were afterward embodied in his "Life of Johnson," by which, much more than by the dictionary, or the "Rambler," or even by "Rasselas" and the " Vanity of Human Wishes," Johnson is known. - The founding of the "Literary Club" belonged to this period.
Reynolds and Johnson led in the movement, and among the original nine members were Hawkins, Langton, Beauclerk, Goldsmith, and Burke. Goldsmith had a few years before become somewhat intimate with Johnson, by whom he was greatly esteemed as a writer and cherished as an associate. During its earlier years the club held weekly meetings for conversation, which contributed not a little to maintain the balance of Johnson's strangely affected mind. New members were admitted with great caution, and for several years the whole number did not exceed 12. In 1778 it had grown to 26, and two years later to 35, when 40 was fixed as its complement. The club is still in existence, but it has become rather a learned than a convivial society. - John-son's indolent and purposeless mode of life proved highly unfavorable to his spirits. His "Prayers and Meditations," published after his death, indicate the unhappy state of his mind. He was accustomed to write bitter things against himself in his penitential moments, and especially during Lent. Sometimes his melancholy verged almost on insanity; and again he would pass suddenly to the most extravagant hilarity. His ordinary manners, especially in his later years, were strangely eccentric.
He talked much to himself, muttering in a vocal but generally inaudible undertone. He was never still, but sat with head inclined over the right shoulder, his vast trunk swaying backward and forward, and his hand keeping up a corresponding motion upon his knee. At times he would make a kind of clucking sound, and again a suppressed whistle, and still more frequently a humming noise, accompanied with a vacant smile. His conversation was often violent and discourteous, and he delighted in contradictions. During the years from 1770 to 1775 he produced several political pamphlets, all in the interest of the government, and designed to meet some immediate necessity. The last of these, "Taxation no Tyranny" (1775), was written to controvert the remonstrance of the American congress against taxation without representation. In this Johnson sustained the British government in its measures against the colonies, and predicted the speedy subjugation of America. In 1773 he made a tour to the highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides, through the persuasion of Boswell, who became his fellow traveller, and afterward the chronicler of the journey, of which an account was also written by Johnson. While in Scotland Johnson made inquiries respecting the original manuscripts from which Macpherson pretended to have translated the poems of Ossian, and came away with the conviction that a large share of that work was a forgery, and the rest of comparatively modern origin.
His avowal of this conviction after his return led to a violent controversy between himself and the professed translator. In 1774 he made a tour in Wales with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale. His last considerable literary work, the " Lives of the English Poets," in four volumes, appeared from 1779 to 1781, when their author was over 70 years old; they were undertaken at the request of the booksellers, and performed by irregular impulses. In some respects this was one of the best written of all his works, simple in its style, genial and appreciative in its spirit, and full of interesting statements and valuable criticisms. - About the date of the close of that work the hand of death began to be busy with those about him. Mr. Thrale died in 1781, and a few months later he removed to his own house. In 1782 Levett died, and the next year Mrs. Williams followed him. Some time before the last event he had suffered temporarily from a partial paralysis of the vocal organs. In the latter part of the same summer he once more visited his native town; but as winter drew on he was again brought down, and his whole system became swollen with dropsy.
By the assiduity of his friends, and skilful medical treatment, he so far recovered that during the next summer he visited Derbyshire and was again at Lichfield. Late in the following autumn he grew worse. To physical suffering he was comparatively indifferent, and when near his end he earnestly entreated his attendants to spare no efforts, however painful, to prolong his life. He anticipated death with horror; but as his last hour approached his forebodings at length gave place to humble confidence in the divine clemency. - Few names are more conspicuous in the annals of English literature than that of Dr. Johnson. Though scarcely reckoned among English poets, his productions in that department sufficiently vindicate his claim to a recognition, and not a few judicious critics have believed that with equal devotion to that kind of writing he would have rivalled Pope or Dryden. As an essayist he is ranked with Addison and Steele, whom he imitated only as to the form of his pieces, impressing whatever he thus wrote with his own individuality. He lacked their vivacity and variety, and especially their genial good humor, but surpassed them in depth of reflection and nervous energy of style.
He especially excelled in biographical writing, and among his numerous sketches of personal history and mental portraitures are some that may be studied as models of their kind. As a critic, his judgment was clear and discriminating, and such was his independence that he often condemned the popular favorites of the day, and in most cases posterity has confirmed his decisions. His fictions are chiefly moral allegories; for so fully was he intent on inculcating the practical lesson of life, that it was constantly before him, and gave form and coloring to his purely imaginative productions. - The only complete edition of Johnson's works is that of Oxford (11 vols. 8vo, 1825). That by Hawkins (15 vols. 8vo, London, 1787-'9) contains several pieces not written by Johnson. That by Murphy not containing the parliamentary debates (12 vols. 8vo, London, 1792), has been frequently reprinted, and in a compact form by Bohn (2 vols. 8vo, London, 1850). Lives of Johnson are numerous. Boswell's (2 vols. 4to, London, 1791) has been many times edited.
Croker's edition (5 vols. 8vo, London, 1831) is one of the best; and an exact reprint of the first edition, with notes by Percy Fitzgerald, appeared in 1874 (3 vols., London).