Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Say, just who is this Johnson guy, anyway?

After last month's article that featured a rather flattering profile of Dr Samuel Johnson, a few people wrote and asked me just who the guy really was. This is rather a tall order, but perhaps a little information will help those who've never encountered Johnson or his works before. For the following information, I’m greatly indebted to Jack Lynch and his website, ‘Guide to Samuel Johnson’, which you can find at the following address:

Johnson was undoubtedly one of the most important English writers of the 1700s. 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 called “the age of Swift and Pope”. In fact, Johnson is one of the most quoted prose writers in the English language in most dictionaries of quotations, with only Shakespeare and the Bible edging him out of the limelight.

However, he's usually remembered not as a writer but as a talker, as a personality, and this is mostly thanks to James Boswell's book 'The Life of Samuel Johnson', which was published in 1791. In fact, many of the famous lines in the quotation dictionaries come not from his works but from Boswell's recollection of his conversation. By doing so, Boswell put Johnson in a very small club: authors whose most famous works were actually written by someone else!

So, who exactly was this enigmatic quipper with the quill? 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 Lichfield bookseller. In 1728 he began his Oxford career as a student of Pembroke College, but lack of money forced him to abandon his studies after little more than a year.

Johnson then somehow fell into teaching, and later ‘eloped’ to London with his pupil, David Garrick, hoping to make a living as a ‘respectable’ writer. He had no luck there, and so was forced to scratch a living taking miscellaneous writing jobs. He wrote biographies, political satires, and reports on Parliamentary debates. His first big break came in 1738, with the publication of a poem called 'London', an imitation of a satire by the Latin poet Juvenal.

Some years later he planned to publish a treatise on Shakespeare, but the project fell through, so he settled on the idea of publishing a dictionary. In popular accounts, his 'Dictionary of the English Language', which he brought out in 1755, is often called the first English dictionary. Although it was obviously not, it was, however, far and away the most important dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in the following century.

While working on the Dictionary, he also published a series of periodical essays, the closest modern equivalent of which would be would probably be something like a magazine or newspaper column. These writings appeared twice a week between 1750 and 1752, and were typically published under the title of 'The Rambler'. Later he wrote and made contributions to two other series of essays, 'The Idler' and 'The Adventurer'.

In 1759 he published 'Rassel', an oriental tale. It was a short work of fiction (about a hundred pages in most modern editions), although 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. However, the benevolent ministry of George III saw its way to giving him a pension of 300 pounds a year in 1762.

In the 1770s, Johnson returned to miscellaneous and political writings, few of which have ever caught the attention of amateur readers. Yet 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, or what would nowadays probably be referred to as a celebrity, and a number of biographies appeared shortly after his death. The most famous was Boswell's in 1791, and shortly after this date he effectively became immortalised through his collected sayings. Boswell had only spent a matter of months with Dr Johnson, but during that period he had managed to accrue enough material to preserve the Doctor for posterity.