The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Johnson, Samuel (man of letters)

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Johnson, Samuel (man of letters)
Edition of 1920. See also Samuel Johnson on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

JOHNSON, Samuel, English man of letters; b. Lichfield, 18 Sept. (N. S.) 1709; d. London, 13 Dec 1784. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a learned bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford. The father was a Jacobitical, High Church Tory, somewhat given to melancholy, and not methodical in habits. The son took after him in these particulars. Of the mother little is known. They had another son, Nathaniel, born in 1712, who died at 25. The elder Johnson was a man of some local importance, church warden, sheriff and bailiff, but before his death in 1731 his business had declined until he was nearly bankrupt.

Samuel is said to have been a very precocious child, but his mental forwardness could not compensate for his bodily defects. His face was deeply marked by scrofula and one eye was permanently injured, Queen Anne's touch profiting him nothing, but leaving in his loyal memory a vague picture of a “lady in diamonds and a long black hood.” He was first taught by a dame, later at the Lichfield school. Being lazy and lumbering he early exerted his powers of command upon his fellows by making three of his mates carry him to school. In 1726, he was sent to school at Stourbridge for a year. Then he remained for two years at home, where he did little except to read widely among his father's books. His talents impressed a neighboring gentleman, who offered to send him to Oxford. Johnson entered Pembroke College as a commoner 3l Oct. 1728, remained in continuous residence a little over a year, and returned for brief periods, until the autumn of 1731. He was wretchedly poor during his college residence, and he left without a degree because of his father's business troubles. The stories of his haranguing students in a tattered gown and flinging away in a passion a pair of shoes left at his door are well known. His unusual learning seems to have impressed the college authorities from the beginning, and his Latin translation of Pope‘s ’Messiah,' printed in 1731 in a “miscellany,” pleased that famous poet. But Johnson was too indolent and hypochrondriacal to profit greatly from the college routine, and the cutting short of his academic career is thus not specially to be regreted.

After his father's death he found himself obliged to earn his living by teaching school and acting as chaplain to a baronet, who did not treat him kindly. He soon gave up the place and removed to Birmingham, where he lived with an old schoolmate named Hector and became a bookseller's hack. The only fairly important work of these years was his translation, through the French, of the Portuguese Lobo's ‘Voyage to Abyssinia,’ which appeared in 1735. Johnson is said to have walked to Oxford to get a copy of the French version, which has never yet found its way back to the shelves of the Pembroke College library.

In 1735 he made a marriage which has afforded posterity a great deal of amusement Among his acquaintances in Birmingham was a mercer named Henry Porter, who died in 1734, leaving a widow and three children. In a little less than a year Johnson married the widow, who was about 20 years his senior, Johnson declared that it was a love match on both sides, and his own constancy to her throughout her life and his devotion to her memory prove that for himself at least he did not exaggerate. Despite his uncouth appearance, his eccentricities, his visionary and morbid qualities which made some people think him insane, the widow is said to have recognized that he was at bottom one of the most sensible of men. According to Garrick he showed no sense of the beautiful in choosing a fat, painted and affected old woman. She showed no prudence in placing her small fortune under the control of a poor young man with apparently slim prospects. Yet as Johnson was nearsighted and could see but little of what shocked others in his wife — if indeed the report of Garrick was not purposely exaggerated — and as he undoubtedly made her a good husband, there seems to be little reason to waste sympathy on either party to the match.

After his marriage Johnson set up a boarding school near Lichfield. His peculiarities naturally prevented him from succeeding. He may have had only three pupils; but one of these, David Garrick, combines with the master himself to make the short-lived school a very famous one. Early in 1737 the two set out together to seek their fortunes in London. Mrs. Johnson being left in Lichfield. They had little money, and Johnson's chief baggage seems to have consisted of part of his tragedy ‘Irene’ and a few letters of introduction.

The literary adventurer spent his first months in London seeking employment from the booksellers. He lived prudently and seems to have been aided by Henry Hervey, a son of the Earl of Bristol. In the summer he returned to Lichfield and finished ‘Irene’; in the autumn he removed permanently to London with his wife.

Macaulay in an excellent paragraph of his admirable essay on Johnson describes the desperate state of authors at the time. In 1736 the day of the patron was drawing to a close, but, although Pope had succeeded in making the public his patron, it was too early for other men to hope to rival him. Writers who under Queen Anne might have received money and political positions were now rather happy when they were sure of their meals. Booksellers kept them under by “sweat-shop” methods. Johnson took his place in the toiling ranks, but, because of his pride, suffered more than most of his brother hacks. His never polished manners deteriorated in cellar restaurants; he became a sloven in his dress and, as all the world knows, he never got over his acquired aversion to clean linen. Much of the brutality of manners for which he was afterward reproached is accounted for by the rough treatment to which he was subjected at this period of his career.

The details which Boswell was able to gather with regard to the early life of his hero are not very ample. After ‘Irene’ was refused by a manager, Johnson secured employment with Cave in 1738, revising for The Gentleman's Magazine the parliamentary debates, which could be published only as if they had occurred in the senate of Liliput. From July 1741 to March 1744 he wrote the debates, making use of notes taken by others. They were often regarded as genuine, few readers knowing that the writer, to use his own words, had taken care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it.

Meanwhile in 1738 Johnson had published through Dodsley his first important piece of work, the satire entitled ‘London,’ in which he imitated Juvenal's third satire as Boileau and Oldham had done before him. Being a strong, manly spirit and having his own sufferings and indignities to spur him on, he produced a poem which seemed so good to his contemporaries that the first edition was exhausted in a week. Pope inquired who the author was and endeavored to have him elected to the mastership of a school. The project failed and Johnson remained in London gathering the knowledge of writers and life that stood him in such good stead in his later criticism.

This knowledge was first displayed on a considerable scale in his life of Richard Savage (q.v.), which appeared in February 1744. Johnson, who had been much thrown with Savage, took that curious personage far too seriously; but his small biography is not only valuable as an excellent description of the literary Bohemianism of the day, but is important as one of the first books of its kind to abandon a stiff and formal or a stately tone, and to present a life simply and vividly. When we praise Boswell as a biographer, we ought not to forget that his great subject gave him instructions which the Scotchman bettered.

Little is heard of Johnson for the next two or three years, but his fame must have grown, for in 1747 he was employed by a sort of booksellers' syndicate to prepare an English dictionary, this project superseding that of an edition of Shakespeare, which he contemplated in 1745. The dictionary was to be in two folio volumes for which he was to receive £1,575. The entire cost of preparing copy fell on him, however, hence the bargain was not a profitable one to the needy scholar except in so far as it enhanced his reputation. He issued a plan of his work dedicated to Lord Chesterfield; did a large amount of reading to secure quotations; employed six amanuenses to copy such citations as he had marked; supplied etymologies and definitions; and finally on 15 April 1755 stood forth to the world as “the great lexicographer.” All things considered, it was a monument of scholarship despite its compiler's ignorance of the history of the language. Of its definitions, excellent as a rule, the humorous ones, such as that oats is a grain used for horses in England but for people in Scotland, are mainly remembered; but it should not be forgotten that Johnson not only far surpassed his predecessors, but also laid the foundations on which subsequent lexicographers have reared more imposing structures. The dictionary is also remembered as the occasion of Johnson's writing one of the most famous of all letters — that to Lord Chesterfield, who had neglected him for years but on the eve of the publication of the great work wrote flattering notices of it in the hope that it might be dedicated to him. Johnson's letter of 7 Feb. 1755 is remarkable not merely for the dignity with which he refused to be encumbered with help after he had safely reached the shore unassisted, but also for the touching pathos with which he referred to his disillusionment and his loneliness. His “Tetty,” for whose sake he had labored so heroically, was not by his side to share his rewards. She had died in March 1752.

The completion of the “Dictionary” in eight years would have been sufficient work and glory for a more than ordinary man of letters; but between 1747 and 1755 Johnson added greatly to his reputation in other ways. In January 1749 the second of his celebrated satires appeared, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’ based upon the tenth satire of Juvenal. It is better than the ‘London,’ indeed it is one of the best sententious pieces of moralizing in verse to be found in English literature. It brought Johnson only 15 guineas. He received nearly £300 in benefits and copyright for his tragedy ‘Irene,’ which Garrick produced in February 1749. Even Garrick's acting and Johnson's appearance in a box clad in a gold-laced hat and a gold-laced scarlet waistcoat could not save so undramatic a performance. It ran nine nights; the person who has read it nine times has probably never existed.

More important than his reappearance as a poet was his assumption of the role of periodical essayist. His famous semi-weekly imitation of The Spectator, entitled The Rambler, which ran from 20 March 1750 to 14 March 1752, was not specially successful as a journal, but when the numbers were gathered into volumes, which Johnson most carefully revised, the work became very popular. That it was the equal of The Spectator, as the novelist Richardson, who wrote the only really popular number, and other contemporaries declared, nobody now believes. That it should have held its own against so formidable a rival, when so many other attempts had failed, is a clear proof that it had genuine merits. It certainly established Johnson's fame as a moralist, and, if we omit the papers in which he clumsily attempted to be entertaining as well as some of his specifically critical essays, we can still find in its pages more sound thought and feeling with regard to human life in its lights and shadows than can be discovered in the pages of most of the essayists we actually read. Johnson's contemporaries were also greatly impressed by his elaborate, balanced, Latinistic prose style. The effects of this both upon the prose of his period and upon his own reputation were injurious. Even to this day most people think of Dr. Johnson — he was not yet M.A., that degree coming to him from Oxford, partly in reward for The Rambler, in time to be printed on the title page of the Dictionary — as a pompous affected writer who never used a short English word, if he could find a long Latin one to put in its place. The Rambler and other works produced when he was about 40 give a basis of truth to this opinion; but we should remember that as he grew older and after he had had much practice as a racy talker, his style became simpler and stronger.

The last number of The Rambler was written when Mrs. Johnson was dying. He mourned her loss sincerely through 32 years of widowerhood. He did not see her painted cheeks or hear her affected giggles; he saw only an ideal being whose death left him desolate. No one can read the numerous references to her in his ‘Prayers and Meditations’ (1785) without feeling a profound respect for the blinded man.

During the years between 1752 and 1759, that is between The Rambler and ‘Rasselas,’ Johnson not only published the Dictionary, wrote essays for his friend Dr. Hawkesworth's ‘The Adventurer’ (1753-54), and edited and contributed to the Literary Mazagine, or Universal Review (1756-68), but also issued proposals for the edition of Shakespeare he had long contemplated (1756), and began a new series of essays, The Idler. He lazily put off the Shakespeare until a taunt by the satirist, Charles Churchill, in ‘The Ghost,’ to the effect that he was cheating the subscribers who had paid in their money forced him to go to work on the promised edition, which finally appeared in 1765. Naturally, it was not a monument of scholarship, but it contained some sound criticism, and its preface has lone been regarded as one of the most sensible introductions to the reading of Shakespeare that we possess. The Idler ran in weekly numbers from 15 April 1758 to 5 April 1760 on Saturdays in Newberry's ‘Universal Chronicle.’ It was collected in two volumes in 1761 and in part deserved its title, for it was distinctly less ponderous than The Rambler.

It is at this period that the Johnson who has impressed the world's imagination as a man begins dearly to emerge. He was still the old impecunious Johnson, for the year after the Dictionary appeared he was twice arrested for debt. But he was slowly improving his finances, and he was gathering around him friends who were better than riches. He had long delighted in tavern clubs where he met queer characters, such as the forger, Psalmanazer (q.v.). In 1749 he organised a club of his own at the King's Head, which included Bathurst, Hawkesworth, and his future biographer. Sir John Hawkins. Then he formed friendships — destined to become more famous because they figured so frequently in Boswell — with the accomplished Grecian Bennet Langton, with the Ray, fashionable 'Topham Beauclerk, with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. Burney, and, a trifle later, with Goldsmith and Burke. An humbler circle of friends is still more picturesque — to wit, the unfortunates he received into his gloomy house after his wife died — blind Miss Anna Williams, good talker but peevish, Robert Levett, the self-educated physician of the poor, to whose memory Johnson consecrated one of the most pathetic of English elegies — and later, Mrs. Desmonlins and Miss Carmichael. These dependents, as was natural, quarreled among themselves and harassed their benefactor. Another inmate of his house, of whom we frequently hear, was his black servant, Francis Barber.

In January 1759 Johnson's old mother died at Lichfield. The story that he wrote ‘Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,’ in a week, to pay her funeral expenses is, as is usual, not altogether accurate. It seems to have been begun before her death, mainly in order to defray the cost of a visit to her. When published, it became the most popular of his writings, and it still has readers and ranks as a classic, although a ponderous one. It has little narrative interest, lacks the atmosphere of the East, presents us with personages rather than with persons, and makes them talk in an impossibly magniloquent style; yet, when all deductions are made, it remains not only a strong attack upon the fashionable shallow optimism of the day which Johnson detested, but also one of the most manly utterances on the evils of life and the courage needed to combat them that has ever been heard from an English moralist. In literary ability Johnson was inferior to Voltaire, whose witty ‘Candide,’ by a curious coincidence, attacked the optimists almost contemporaneously with ‘Rasselas’; but in moral force the advantage was entirely on Johnson's side.

Three years after ‘Rasselas’ began its long life in numerous editions and translations, Johnson's own life was almost entirely changed. In July 1762, despite his famous uncomplimentary definition of “pension,” he accepted one of £300 per annum. He was independent enough to be able to afford being slightly inconsistent, and he did not promise to support the Tory government in return for its favors. Pensioned or unpensioned he would have taken his reactionary position on American affairs, whether or not he would have written his unfortunate ‘Taxation no Tyranny’ (1775), just as naturally as he took part in exposing the Cock Lane Ghost (1762).

His pension gave Johnson full opportunity to indulge his constitutional sluggishness. He could afford to write only now and then, to lie in bed till the afternoon, to spend the evening at a tavern laying down the law to his hearers. Thanks partly to his genius for conversation and friendship, partly to his rooted dislike of solitude, he grew to be more and more of a club-man, as the word was then understood, and it was in this capacity rather than as a productive man of letters that he became the literary dictator of his time. As Macaulay remarks, between 1765 and 1775 Johnson published only what it would scarcely have taken him a week to write if he had been working at his old rate of speed. Instead of writing he talked, and when he came forward again as an author, the vigorous English of his conversation got the better of the stately Latin of his pen. About the beginning of 1764 he became the chief figure of the famous club which for nearly 20 years had weekly or fortnightly meetings at the Turk's Head, Soho. Besides Johnson, its chief members were Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith, Gibbon, Garrick, Sir William Jones, and, last but not least, James Boswell, whom Johnson caused to be elected early in 1773. Langton, Beauclerc, Bishop Percy, Fox, and others nearly or quite as distinguished, were also members. It is perhaps not so surprising that these men admitted Boswell at Johnson's solicitation as that Johnson should have tolerated the bibulous, gossiping little man, who hailed from a part of Great Britain for which the sturdy English moralist had always professed a great dislike. The matter can no more he settled by explanation than Johnson's infatuation with Mrs. Porter. Boswell, with all his faults, must have been amusing, and his devotion to his master doubtless touched that essentially kind though rough personage. At any rate, posterity, which owes so much to Boswell, has no occasion to harshly either of the apparently ill-assorted friends. It is better to remember that, although several other members of the club wrote books that have stood the wear and tear of time more successfully than most of Johnson's writings have done — Burke, Goldsmith and Gibbon, for example, and Boswell himself — the fact that Johnson dominated such men speaks volumes for his essential greatness as a man. Mere dictatorial rudeness and other qualities natural to an Ursa Major, as the poet Gray used to denominate him, are not sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Boswell is not the only person who lives in literature because he was once associated with Johnson. Henry Thrale, the brewer, and his bright, gay wife are mainly remembered, because after 1764 Johnson passed much of his time at the brewery in Southwark and at their villa at Streatham, leaving his new house in Fleet street to be occupied in the main by the queer recipients of his bounty already mentioned. He now became somewhat more polished in his manners and enjoyed the society of such interesting women as Fanny Burney (Mme. D'Arblay, q.v.), Hannah More (q.v.), Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Carter. The literary lion in such company presents a picture very different from that of the adventurer wandering the streets with Savage. Boswell gives so many interesting pictures of the later Johnson that it is difficult to select the most striking. The interview with George III was a great event in the life of so loyal a subject. It took place in February 1767. His softening down in the presence of that amusing radical, John Wilkes, showed him in a still happier light. His excursions, whether with Boswell or the Thrales, to the Hebrides (1773), to Wales (1774) and to France (1775) — to say nothing of visits to his old friends at Oxford and elsewhere, had their share with time in mellowing his character and widening his outlook upon men and institutions. ‘A Journey to the Western Isles,’ the account he gave of his visit to Scotland with Boswell, upon which the latter wrote a more sprightly book, would have given far more offense to the Scotch if it had been written two decades earlier. It was published in 1775, the year Oxford, following Dublin by 10 years, made him a doctor, and is a dignified and worthy book; but it is probably chiefly remembered because in it Johnson severely handled James Macpherson of Ossian fame, a fact which led to Macpherson's challenging him, and to Johnson's purchasing a stout stick, which he did not have occasion to use on his challenger.

Two years later — Easter Eve 1777 — a committee representing many of the best London booksellers called upon Johnson to ask him to furnish introductions to a proposed series of the works of the English poets since the Restoration. The project pleased him, he named a compensation far too low (200 guineas, subsequently increased by £200 by the booksellers), shook off his lethargy and by 1781 had finished the most famous of his books, the ‘Lives of the English Poets,’ which appeared (collected) in 10 small volumes (1779, 1781). This latest work was, in literary merit, by far his best. He was in sympathy with most of the poets he had to treat, he had amassed through reading and gossip much information about them, he had mellowed with age, the common sense and sound morality, which are the best features of his criticism, had full chance to display themselves, and his style was no longer ponderous and unidiomatic. The life of Milton was marred by prejudice, religious and political, as well as by lack of appreciation of such a poem as ‘Lycidas,’ the life of Gray was unsympathetic and inadequate; but the chief lives, such as those of Cowley, Addison, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Savage, left little to be desired, and many of the minor sketches were intelligent, to the point, and, not infrequently, humorous in a somewhat grim fashion. In short, the book well deserves the place it has secured as an 18th century classic.

After its publication Johnson aged rapidly, and what with the loss of friends (like Thrale in 1781, and Levett in 1782), and with his dread of death and his increasing infirmities of gout and asthma, the last three years of his life were very painful. A break with Mrs. Thrale in consequence of her attachment to the Italian Piozzi, whom she married in 1784, led to his going back to his house in Fleet street, to recriminations and bad temper trying both to him and to her, and finally to his last letter to her, which is pathetic in the extreme. In the summer of 1783 had a paralytic stroke; recovering, he tried, more or less in vain, to forget his miseries in his clubs, old and new. He visited Oxford with Boswell; plans were formed to get him to Italy, but failed; and in November 1784 he entered upon his last illness. Physicians and friends served him with the utmost kindness, his fear of death subsided, and after bravely undergoing operations and giving many proofs of his unfeigned piety, he died peacefully on 13 Dec. 1784. Seven days later he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Johnson's massive figure and disfigured face, his swaying backward and forward, his muttering prayers to himself, his touching all the posts he passed, his bad manners at table, his 25 and less cups of tea, his slovenliness, his near-sightedness — all his moral and physical peculiarities are known wherever Boswell is read. We do not so frequently recall his generosity in making advances after a quarrel, his love of children, his chivalry toward women, his loyalty to his friends, his charity to the poor, his hatred of tyranny in every form. We remember his prejudices and superstitions without recalling the fact that he inherited than in large measure. By insisting upon his eccentricities we tend to overlook his splendid triumph over bodily infirmities and social drawbacks that would have quelled a less resolute spirit. Johnson at bottom was of heroic mold — courageous, tender, large-minded, sound-hearted. His peculiarities make him picturesque; study of his character and his career reveals him to have been truly great as a man. As a man of letters he is also great, through his influence upon the literature of his period, through his services to lexicography, through the solid intelligence and morality of his essays and ‘Rasselas,’ through the sanity of his best criticism, and through the vitality of his biographical sketches. But as a writer of books that are judged solely on their intrinsic merits of style and substance Johnson can scarcely be termed great. His complete works have been but rarely reprinted in the past 80 years and are little read. As an essayist and letter-writer, and poet, he is not in the highest class; ‘Rasselas’ is found to be heavy reading by most people; the ‘Lives of the Poets’ are perused in their entirety by but few. Boswell does much more to preserve Johnson's fame than the great Doctor's own writings; but the value of these is easily underestimated, and Boswell's biography would not have been such a great book if Johnson had not been such a great man. See Lives of the Poets; Rambler, The; Rasselas; Vanity of Human Wishes.

Bibliography. — Good editions of Boswell's ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ are by G. Birkbeck Hill (6 vols., Oxford 1887) and by Roger Ingpen (2 vols., New York 1909). Other editions of importance are those by Malone (6th edition of the work, 1811), Croker (11th edition, 1831; revised, 1835), Percy Fitzgerald (1874), Rev. Alexander Napier (1884). Other sources of information are the biography by Sir John Hawkins (1787), Arthur Murphy's ‘Essay on the Life and Genius, etc.’ (1792), Mrs. Piozzi's ‘Anecdotes’ (1786), and her ‘Autobiography’ (1861), the Diary of Mme. D'Arblay (1841, now edited anew by Austin Dobson), and, in general, books dealing with the chief men of the time, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burke, etc. Consult also the short lives by Leslie Stephen (‘English Men of Letters,’ London 1879), and Col. F. Grant (‘Great Writers,’ ib. 1887); Dennis, J., ‘Dr. Johnson’ (New York 1905); Raleigh, W. A., ‘Samuel Johnson’ (Oxford 1907); id., ‘Six Essays on Johnson’ (ib. 1910); Shorter, C. K., ‘Immortal Memories’ (New York 1907); Piozzi, H. L. T., ‘Dr. Johnson's Mrs. Thrale’ (ib. 1910); Broadley, A. M.. ‘Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale’ (ib. 1910); Bumey, F., ‘Dr. John- son and Fanny Burney’ (ib. 1911); Bailey, I. C., ‘Dr. Johnson and His Circle’ (ib. 1913). The chief critical essays are by M. Arnold, Birrell, Carlyle, Macaulay and Leslie Stephen. Consult also Birkbeck Hill's ‘Dr. Johnson and His Friends’ (1878), and ‘Johnsonian Miscellanies’ (1897), and Whitwell Elwin's ‘Some Eighteenth Century Men of Letters’ (1902). Johnson's works were edited by Hawkins in 1787 in 11 volumes (to which two volumes edited by Stockdale were added later). Several editions by Arthur Murphy followed (1792, 1796, etc.), then two by Chalmers (1810, 1816), and finally in 1825 came the best, the Oxford edition in 11 volumes, edited by F. P. Walesby and containing the Parliamentary Debates. Johnson's ‘Letters,’ save those included in Boswell's were edited by Birkbeck Hill in 1892 (2 vols). Reprints of separate works have been very numerous, of late chiefly for school use. The best editions of ‘Rasselas’ are those by Birkbeck Hill (1887), and O. F. Emerson (1895). The ‘Lives of the Poets’ were edited by Peter Cuningham in 1854, by Mrs. Napier in 1890 and by Arthur Waugh in 1896; but these have been superseded by the monumental edition of Birkbeck Hill (3 vols., 1905). Matthew Arnold edited six of the lives in 1878.

William P. Trent,
Professor of English Literature, Columbia University.