Who Is this Johnson Guy?

A few people have written asking me who Johnson is — a tall order, but perhaps a little information will help those who've never encountered Johnson or his works before.

Johnson was one of the most important English writers of the eighteenth century. It's long been traditional to refer to the second half of the eighteenth century as "the age of Johnson" (just as the first half is often "the age of Swift and Pope"); and Johnson is the single most quoted prose writer in the English language in most dictionaries of quotations (although Shakespeare and the Bible usually blow him away).

But he's usually remembered not as a writer but as a talker, as a personality — mostly thanks to James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). For a long time, and thanks largely to a review by Macaulay in 1831, Boswell eclipsed Johnson's own writings; in fact, many of the famous lines in the quotation dictionaries come not from his works but from Boswell's recollection of his conversation. Boswell has put Johnson in a very small club — authors whose most famous works were written by someone else (the only other members I can think of are Socrates and Alice B. Toklas). In the twentieth century, though, scholars have been paying increasing attention to Johnson himself. I'm a fan of Boswell, but it's not Johnson the talker who captures my interest. So a survey of his works might be helpful.

First, the straightforward facts. Johnson was born in September 1709 in Lichfield, England (near Birmingham), and died in December 1784 in London. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller in Lichfield. In 1728 he went to Pembroke College, Oxford, but a lack of money forced him to leave thirteen months later.

In 1737 he went to London with his pupil, David Garrick, hoping to complete and sell his tragedy, Irene (pronounced Eye-rée-nee) and make a living as a writer. He had no luck with it — it finally appeared, thanks to Garrick's help, only in 1749 — so he took miscellaneous writing jobs. He wrote biographies (including the Life of Savage), political satires (Marmor Norfolciense), and reports on the debates in Parliament. His first hit came in 1738 — a poem called London, an imitation of a satire by the Latin poet Juvenal. (His other most famous poem is The Vanity of Human Wishes, from 1749.)

In 1746 or so, after a planned edition of Shakespeare fell through, he settled on the plan of publishing a dictionary. In popular accounts, the Dictionary of the English Language he brought out in 1755 is often called the first English dictionary. It wasn't. It was, however, far and away the most important dictionary — the dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared a century and a half later.

While working on the Dictionary, he published a series of periodical essays — the closest modern equivalent of the genre would probably be something like a magazine or newspaper column — called The Rambler, which appeared twice a week from 1750 to 1752. He later wrote or contributed to two other series of essays, The Idler and The Adventurer.

In 1759 came Rasselas, an oriental tale — a short work of fiction (about a hundred pages in most modern editions), but few scholars call it a novel. It was written to defray the costs of his mother's funeral. Johnson had scraped a living together from his writing, but was never anywhere near rich. But the ministry of George III gave him a pension of £300 a year in 1762.

James Boswell came to London in 1762, and he met his hero, Johnson, in May 1763. From then until Johnson's death in 1784, the two spent only around 240 days together, including a trip through the Hebrides in 1773, which Johnson described in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775 and Boswell discussed in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson in 1785. But in spite of the relatively few days they spent together, Boswell collected the anecdotal material for his Life in this period.

A long-promised edition of Shakespeare's works appeared in eight volumes in 1765. In the 1770s, Johnson returned to miscellaneous and political writings, few of which catch the attention of amateur readers. But between 1779 and 1781 came a series originally called Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, better (but inaccurately) known today as The Lives of the Poets.

Johnson was famous during his lifetime as an important literary figure, and a number of biographies appeared shortly after his death. The most famous was Boswell's in 1791.

This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.