Sam Johnson


Sam Johnson Essay, Research Paper

Samuel Johnson

Born: September 18, 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

Died: December 13, 1784 in Bolt Court, England

Nationality: British

Occupation: Poet, Playwright, Journalist, Essayist, Critic

Source: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 2: Writers of the

Restoration and Eighteenth Century, 1660-1789. Gale Research, 1992.

Table of Contents

Biographical Essay

Further Readings


Although Johnson’s output of writing was enormous, only a relatively small

amount of manuscript material has survived. The largest holding is in the

Hyde Collection, Four Oaks Farm, Somerville, New Jersey, which

incorporates the collection of R. B. Adam, described in four volumes (The R.

B. Adam Library Relating to Dr. Samuel Johnson and His Era, 1929-1930);

important holdings are in other private collections. The Yale University

Library, the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the library of Pembroke

College, Oxford, and the Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, have

important manuscripts. A useful guide is J. D. Fleeman, A Preliminary

Handlist of Documents and Manuscripts of Samuel Johnson (Oxford

Bibliographical Society Occasional Publications, no. 7, 1967). This does not

include the locations of manuscripts of Johnson’s letters, which are listed in

R. W. Chapman’s edition of the letters (1952). A forthcoming new edition

of the letters, in five volumes, will include newly discovered letters and new

locations of previously known ones.


Samuel Johnson–poet, dramatist, journalist, satirist, biographer, essayist, lexicographer,

editor, translator, critic, parliamentary reporter, political writer, story writer, sermon writer,

travel writer and social anthropologist, prose stylist, conversationalist,

Christian–dominates the eighteenth-century English literary scene as his contemporary,

the equally versatile and prolific Voltaire, dominates that of France. Perhaps more:

Voltaire had redoubtable rivals during his lifetime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis

Diderot; Johnson had none. Alexander Pope, a greater poet (though Johnson was a fine

one), and Jonathan Swift, a greater satirist (though Johnson’s skill as a satirist has been

underestimated), had died in the 1740s; Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Johnson’s

precursors as popular essayists, still earlier. When Johnson’s name began to be known,

not long after the deaths of Swift and Pope, no challenger arose during the next forty

years for the title of preeminent English man of letters.

That period has often been called the Age of Johnson. To be sure, he had notable

contemporaries–Edmund Burke, David Hume, Edward Gibbon–but their literary abilities,

formidable as they were, moved in a narrower circle of concerns. Henry Fielding, Samuel

Richardson, and Laurence Sterne received and deserve great acclaim as the founding

fathers of the English novel, but their contributions to other areas of writing are less

noteworthy. Almost as prolific as Johnson and as varied in his interests was Horace

Walpole, who sometimes expressed aristocratic disdain for the lowborn Johnson, though

he never seems to have impinged greatly on Johnson’s consciousness. Walpole might be

argued to have made a greater impact than Johnson on the following century, in the

form of those somewhat dubious legacies the “Gothic” romance and Victorian

pseudo-Gothic architecture. But no one has ever suggested calling the later eighteenth

century “the Age of Horace Walpole.” It is not surprising that the standard bibliographies

of studies in eighteenth-century English literature show Johnson to have been their most

popular subject, followed at some distance by Swift and Pope, and at a longer one by

Fielding, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, and William Blake, with Walpole an also ran.

Johnson’s origins were humble, and much of his life was spent in not so genteel poverty.

He once boasted, in reply to a complaint that he advocated preserving class distinctions,

that he could hardly tell who his grandfather was. That grandfather seems to have been

a small tenant farmer or day laborer, one William Johnson. William’s son Michael,

Samuel’s father, was assisted by a charitable society to become apprenticed as a

stationer. After serving his time he set up as a bookseller and, in a small way, publisher

in the Midlands cathedral city of Lichfield. For a time he prospered, and attained minor

civic office. In the poignant small fragment of an autobiography that has survived,

Samuel recorded Michael’s joy at his birth: “When he [the obstetrician] had me in his

arms, he said, ‘Here is a brave boy.’ … My father being that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and

to ride the circuit of the County the next day, he was asked by my mother, ‘Whom he

would invite to the Riding?’ and answered ‘All the town now.’”

Michael had married late. He was fifty-two and his wife forty when their first son was born

on 18 September 1709 (N. S.). She was Sarah Ford, of a family of tradesmen and small

landholders who thought themselves socially superior to the lowly Johnsons. “My father

and mother had not much happiness from each other,” Samuel recorded. “They seldom

conversed, for my father could not bear to talk of his affairs, and my mother, being

unacquainted with books, cared not to talk of any thing else.” In spite of her no doubt

strongly expressed advice, Michael’s business deteriorated, and he died in the poverty

from which he had briefly arisen. Sarah then took over the bookshop and ran it

competently for the rest of her life. It was not a happy family. Sarah’s bourgeois values

were at odds with Michael’s and Samuel’s more intellectual interests, and recent scholars

have attributed some of Samuel’s later psychological problems to her lack of

understanding or affection for the boy. A younger brother, Nathanael, seems to have

suffered also; almost all that is known of him is a pathetic letter to Sarah written when he

was twenty four, accusing Samuel of turning his mother against him and giving a most

gloomy picture of his own prospects. He died shortly afterward, and suicide has been


From childhood Samuel suffered from various physical ailments that plagued him

throughout his life–near blindness in one eye, the tubercular infection scrofula (the

“King’s Evil,” which even the royal touch of Queen Anne failed to cure), a persistent

uncontrollable tic. But he grew up to be a strong, muscular man: his height of six feet

was unusual in the eighteenth century, and, when he first sought employment in London

as a writer, he was once advised rather to hire himself out as a public porter. He received

the standard classical education in Latin and Greek at Lichfield grammar school, where he

was regarded as something of a prodigy. He said that he caught his first enthusiasm for

literature when, as a boy, searching for a cache of apples he thought Nathanael had

hidden behind a shelf of books in their father’s shop, he came across a volume of

Petrarch (no doubt in Latin), and became so absorbed in it that he forgot about the

apples. When he was sixteen, he transferred to the grammar school in nearby

Stourbridge, where some of his Ford relations lived, and later paid tribute to the influence

of his cousin Cornelius Ford, a polished intellectual, who encouraged the boy’s love of

books and ambition to write. While there, he began to compose boyish

poetry–translations of Horace’s odes, conventional love poems to young ladies, even

one, the earliest that has survived, “On a Daffodil.”

When he was seventeen, he returned to Lichfield and put in two no doubt reluctant years

working in the bookshop, where, however, he had the opportunity to devour much of its

contents; he later said that he knew almost as much at eighteen as he did when he was

in his fifties. The lad’s learning and promise caused him to be taken up by the cultured

Gilbert Walmesley, an official of the ecclesiastical court of the diocese, who used to invite

Johnson and another younger Lichfield lad, the lively David Garrick, to dine with him and

who encouraged Johnson’s intellectual interests. Two years later a small legacy from a

relation of Mrs. Johnson’s enabled Samuel to enroll in Oxford University, where many of

his less brilliant but more affluent schoolmates had already gone. When he entered

Pembroke College, the breadth of the young man’s reading is said to have made an

impression on the dons. But the thirteen months he spent there before the money ran

out were hardly successful ones. He found his tutors incompetent, and instead of

attending lectures spent his time in such amusements as sliding on the ice and

encouraging his fellow undergraduates in rebellious indiscipline. “I was rude and violent,”

he later said. “It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I

thought to fight my way by my literature and wit.” Nevertheless it was at Oxford that he

composed his first published work, a translation into Latin verse of Pope’s long poem

Messiah that appeared in a collection edited by an Oxford don (1731). Pope said it was

so well done that it would be hard to tell whether his or the anonymous translator’s was

the original–a great compliment from the greatest poet of his time.

Leaving without a degree, Johnson returned to Lichfield for another two years, doing just

what, no one knows–probably reading further in the bookshop and quarreling with the

rest of his uncongenial family. Michael died in 1731, and presumably Samuel was told

that he no longer need expect to be supported by the small income from the shop. He

held one miserable teaching job for a few months and applied unsuccessfully for others

where he was rejected because it was thought his strange appearance would cause him to

be laughed at by the pupils. He went to live with a former schoolfellow in Birmingham,

where he found occasional employment on the local newspaper, and published a set of

proposals (1734, nonextant) for an edition of the poetry of the Italian Renaissance writer

Politian, with a life of Politian, and a history of Renaissance Latin poetry from Petrarch to

Politian. Nothing came of this, but a windfall of sorts was a commission to translate from

the French A Voyage to Abyssinia by the Portuguese Jesuit Jer?nimo Lobo, with additional

essays on the geography and customs of the country by Joachim Le Grand.

Published in 1735, this first book of Johnson’s is of considerable interest. In the early

seventeenth century, Portugal, in order to make its trade routes to India more secure,

sponsored a Jesuit missionary expedition to Ethiopia, in the hope of converting its rulers

from their ancient and, as the Jesuits thought, corrupt form of Christianity to Roman

Catholicism and hence to bring the country more firmly under Portuguese influence. Lobo

and Le Grand give a vivid account of this nearly unknown part of the world, supposedly

the land of Prester John and the mysterious source of the Nile. Johnson’s preface dwells

on two themes that were to recur in his later work: he compliments Lobo on the honesty

with which he, unlike other travel writers, has “described things as he saw them … copied

nature from the life … consulted his senses, not his imagination,” and he condemns the

Portuguese and the Jesuits for trying to impose by force European domination on

indigenous peoples, and justifying that force in the name of Christianity. The book had

stirred up a heated controversy in Europe: Protestants maintained that the Ethiopian

church was as legitimate a branch of Christianity as Roman Catholicism, perhaps even a

purer one. Johnson makes it clear that he is on the Protestant side. His work is “by no

means a translation, but an epitome”: he does much skillful condensation and

adaptation, often toning down the Catholic expressions in the text. His version runs to

four hundred pages; for it young Johnson received five guineas (around two hundred

dollars in present United States currency).

While living in Birmingham, Johnson met the merchant Henry Porter and his wife

Elizabeth, n?e Jervis. Harry Porter died in September 1734, and on 9 July 1735 Johnson

married his widow. Many eyebrows have been raised at this marriage between a

penniless youth of twenty five and a widow of forty-five with three fatherless children

(after the wedding the children went to live with other relatives). But Johnson always

praised her intellect and her beauty, and she was evidently intelligent enough to

recognize the quality of Johnson’s mind; at her death eighteen years later, he was

devastated. She brought with her some six hundred pounds from her marriage

settlement, and with it Johnson opened a boarding school at Edial, close to Lichfield. It

attracted only a few pupils, one of them being David Garrick. It soon closed, and

Johnson, having tried in vain to earn a living in the Midlands by the use of his pen and

his brains, decided to try his fate in the larger arena of London.

On 2 March 1737, Johnson, accompanied by young Garrick, set out to cover the hundred

miles or so to London. They could afford only one horse and used the old method of

“riding and tying.” For the next twenty-five years Johnson was to earn a precarious living

in London with his pen. Earlier he had written to Edward Cave, the enterprising publisher

who had founded the first periodical to use the title “Magazine,” the monthly Gentleman’s

Magazine. The word means simply a storehouse, and at first Cave’s periodical consisted

mostly of reprinted pieces from other London journals. It was to continue publication

from 1731 to 1907, an astonishingly long life. Johnson suggested that there were

numerous improvements that could be made to it if he were to contribute. Cave did not

reply to this cheeky letter, but, after Johnson approached him in London, he began to

use Johnson’s services as a writer and used them more and more as time went on; there

are times when Johnson seems to have been virtually in editorial control of the journal.

Johnson’s long involvement with journalism is the most undeservedly neglected part of

his career. He was one of its pioneers; after he joined Cave’s staff, the Gentleman’s was

transformed into the prototype of the modern intellectual magazine, providing for the

educated but not specialist reader a broad and thoughtful overview of events of current

intellectual interest, reviewing important new books and printing original articles on the

political scene, new literature, advances in science, religious controversy, and much else.

Johnson contributed to its regular feature “Foreign History,” reporting news from

European capitals, battles in the War of the Austrian Succession, a massacre in Java, a

coup d’?tat in Persia. He initiated a “Foreign Books” feature, reporting literary events in

Europe. He did some “investigative reporting,” uncovering the literary frauds of William

Lauder, as he was later to do with “the Cock Lane ghost” affair and James Macpherson’s

“Ossian” imposture. In time he came to be regarded as the pundit of journalism, and

was called on to write the opening manifestos for many new periodicals, in which he had

wise things to say about the journalist’s responsibility for the education of the thinking

public, the need for truth in news reporting, the importance of timely correction or

retraction of reports that have proved erroneous, and the dangers from fraudulent


The 1738 numbers of the Gentleman’s carried, as well as some short pieces of verse by

Johnson, his “Life of Sarpi.” Paolo Sarpi’s great History of the Council of Trent (1619), a

classic of historiography, recounts, from an antipapal point of view, the events of this

famous “ecumenical” council of the Roman Catholic church which, from 1545 to 1563,

attempted to meet the growing challenge of Protestantism by tightening discipline and

doctrine in the church. Sarpi was one of many Catholics who opposed the increase in

centralized control. His much admired history had been translated into French, and Cave

published a prospectus for a translation of this work into English by Johnson, who in fact

completed a sizable portion of it. But a competing translation was announced, and

Cave’s project was abandoned. Johnson’s succinct “Life” is presumably an attempt to

salvage something from the project. Johnson’s involvement with the History of the Council

of Trent contradicts two legends about him, that he despised history and that his

intellectual interests were the narrow ones of a “Little Englander,” an archetypal John Bull.

On the contrary, as his early dealings with Petrarch and Politian indicate, he was deeply

interested in what happened in the rest of the world, and throughout his life was

concerned to encourage his fellow countrymen to expand their intellectual horizons

beyond the English Channel.

But the outstanding publishing event in the Gentleman’s Magazine after Johnson arrived

there in 1738 was the inauguration of a feature that was to continue for seven years and

was greatly to increase its circulation and establish its lasting prosperity and authority.

This was no less than the project of publishing reports of the debates in the British

Parliament. Their publication had long been forbidden, politicians then as later being

reluctant to have their doings scrutinized too closely, and in the spring of 1738 the House

of Commons passed a resolution threatening of fenders with “the utmost severity” if they

attempted to do so. This was a blow to Cave. The prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole,

had held office for sixteen years, and was now beleaguered by opponents intent on

ousting him. For four more years the attacks on him in Parliament reached a pitch of

violence seldom equaled in that always outspoken assembly, until Walpole was finally

overthrown. The general public was keenly interested in the contest, and any periodical

able to report the debates would see a great increase in its sales. Cave and his

staff–some said primarily young Johnson–thought of a way around the ban. An article

appeared in which the grandson of Lemuel Gulliver described a voyage he had recently

made to the land of Lilliput, once visited by his famous grandfather. He discovered that

the Lilliputian Parliament was debating issues very similar to those in London, and that

opposition members such as the Urgol Ptit were hurling blistering attacks against Sir

Retrob Walelop. He had brought back a shipload of reports of the debates of the Senate

of Lilliput, which the Gentleman’s Magazine thought might interest its readers during the

unfortunate absence of reports of the debates in their own Parliament.

Throughout his life, Johnson was no friend to the preservation of official secrets. “The

time is now come,” he was later to write, “in which every Englishman expects to be

informed of the national affairs, and in which he has a right to have that expectation

gratified.” For instance, one burning issue of the time was the charge that Walpole was

weakly allowing Spain to maintain its embargo against English maritime trade with its

South American possessions, a conflict which was presently to erupt in the so-called War

of Jenkins’s Ear. This gives the writer of the introduction to the Lilliputian debates the

opportunity to reflect on the history of European exploitation of the New World: the

Europeans “have made conquests and settled colonies in very distant regions, the

inhabitants of which they look upon as barbarous, though in simplicity of manners,

probity, and temperance superior to themselves; and seem to think they have a right to

treat them as passion, interest, or caprice shall direct, without much regard to the rule of

justice or humanity; they have carried this imaginary sovereignty so far that they have

sometimes proceeded to rapine, bloodshed, and desolation.”

The British record in North America is not spared: “When any of their people have

forfeited the rights of society, by robberies, seditions, or other crimes,” they are

transported to America, “undoubtedly very much to the propagation of knowledge and

virtue.” These indictments Johnson was to repeat many times in his later writings. He

concludes his account with a hair-raising description of how the Lilliputians, enraged by

the corruptions of government in the time of Lemuel senior, “set fire to the palace” of

the emperor, “and buried the whole royal family in its ruins,” together with the evil

ministers who had fled there for protection. This was fifty years before the storming of

the Bastille, and it is noteworthy that the implied threat is not only against Walpole and

his associates but against the king he served, George II.

The Lilliputian debates occupied much of the Gentleman’s space from 1738 to 1745

(Walpole was forced to resign in 1742, but an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him

continued beyond that time). All the debates that appeared between July 1741 and

March 1744, totaling around half a million words, are usually attributed to Johnson.

Earlier and later debates are said to have been composed by others, perhaps with

assistance or revision by Johnson, but there is no way of determining this. It used to be

thought that they were entirely fictional compositions, but recent study shows, by

comparing them with other extant reports, that their substance corresponds fairly well to

what the speakers are supposed actually to have said, though the prose has

undoubtedly been polished, as printed reports of parliamentary or congressional

speeches still are. The quasi-official Parliamentary History, the predecessor of the official

record, “Hansard,” reprints them, and they are still sometimes quoted by historians

unaware of Johnson’s share in them as examples of the rhetorical ability of their

supposed speakers. Johnson is once supposed to have said, “I took care not to let the

Whig dogs have the best of it,” but most of those who ranted against Walpole were also

Whigs. In fact, a careful reading of the debates will show that the honors for

effectiveness are fairly equally divided between Walpole’s supporters and his enemies,

and on one occasion, the great debate in the House of Commons on 13 February 1741,

on a motion calling for the removal of Walpole from office, Walpole is given a masterly

final speech in reply. Other topics than the conduct of the Walpole administration are the

subjects of extended debate: the state of the armed forces, foreign affairs, trade, the

control of the sale of spirits, “urban renewal” (a bill for paving the streets of

Westminster). Three or more years of reporting detailed discussion of such matters were

a splendid apprenticeship for the general commentator on human affairs that Johnson

was to become.

During these early years, Johnson published a good deal elsewhere than in the columns

of the Gentleman’s, publications with which Cave was also connected. In May 1738 a

nineteen-page booklet appeared, containing a poem of 263 lines in heroic couplets (and

one triplet) entitled London. It caused a mild stir and reached a second edition within a

week. Pope, whose long poem One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight, likewise a

denunciation of life at that time and in that place, was published the same day, gave

high praise to his unknown rival’s work. London is subtitled A Poem, in Imitation the Third

Satire of Juvenal , which was a diatribe against life in contemporary Rome. It is important

to understand that an “imitation” is not a translation or even paraphrase of an original

work, but rather what might be called a set of variations on a theme. Juvenal satirizes

aspects of life in Rome which displease him, Johnson does the same with life in London;

for instance, Juvenal condemns the baneful influence of Greek immigrants, Johnson of

French. Both cities suffer from things that still plague metropolises–street hoodlums,

jerry-built structures, corrupt politicians:

Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,

And here the

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