History of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was a devout Anglican and committed Tory, and is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history” He is the subject of the most famous biography in English literature, namely The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for just over a year, but a lack of funds forced him to leave. After working as a teacher, he moved to London, where he began to write for The Gentleman’s Magazine. His early works include the biography Life of Mr Richard Savage, the poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and the play Irene.
After nine years of work, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been acclaimed as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship”. This work brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was the pre-eminent British dictionary.His later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, and the widely read tale The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. In 1763, he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later travelled to Scotland; Johnson described their travels in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Towards the end of his life, he produced the massive and influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a collection of biographies and evaluations of 17th- and 18th-century poets.
Johnson was a tall and robust man. His odd gestures and tics were disconcerting to some on first meeting him. Boswell’s Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson’s behaviour and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome,a condition not defined or diagnosed in the 18th century. After a series of illnesses, he died on the evening of 13 December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the years following his death, Johnson began to be recognised as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and he was claimed by some to be the only truly great critic of English literature.



Early life and education
Main article: Early life of Samuel Johnson
Large three-storey house on a corner site
Johnson’s birthplace in Market Square, Lichfield
Samuel Johnson was born on 18 September 1709, to Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford.He was born in the family home above his father’s bookshop in Lichfield, Staffordshire. His mother Sarah was 40 when she gave birth to Samuel. This was considered an unusually late pregnancy, so precautions were taken, and a “man-midwife” and surgeon of “great reputation” named George Hector was brought in to assist.The infant Samuel did not cry, and there were concerns for the baby’s health. His aunt exclaimed that, “she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.” The family feared that the baby would not survive, and in this extremity, the vicar of St Mary’s was summoned to perform a baptism.Two godfathers were chosen, Samuel Swynfen, a physician and graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford, and Richard Wakefield, a lawyer, coroner, and Lichfield town clerk.
Johnson’s health soon improved and he was put to wet-nurse with Joan Marklew. Some time later, he contracted scrofula known at the time as the “King’s Evil” because it was thought royalty could cure it. Sir John Floyer, former physician to King Charles II, recommended that the young Johnson should receive the “royal touch”which he received from Queen Anne on 30 March 1712. However, the ritual was ineffective, and an operation was performed that left him with permanent scars across his face and body. With the birth of Johnson’s brother, Nathaniel, a few months later, Michael became unable to pay the debts he had accrued over the years, and his family was no longer able to maintain its standard of living.
When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, ‘Sam, you must get this by heart.’ She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. ‘What’s the matter?’ said she. ‘I can say it,’ he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.source=Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson Samuel Johnson displayed signs of great intelligence as a child, and his parents, to his later disgust, would show off his “newly acquired accomplishments”.His education began at the age of three, and was provided by his mother, who had him memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. When Samuel turned four, he was sent to a nearby school, and, at the age of six he was sent to a retired shoemaker to continue his education A year later, Johnson went to Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin.During this time, Johnson started to exhibit the tics that would influence how people viewed him in his later years, and which formed the basis for the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome He excelled at his studies and was promoted to the upper school at the age of nine.During this time, he befriended Edmund Hector, nephew of his “man-midwife” George Hector, and John Taylor, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of his life.
At the age of 16, Johnson was given the opportunity to stay with his cousins, the Fords, at Pedmore, Worcestershire. There he became a close friend of Cornelius Ford, who employed his knowledge of the classics to tutor Johnson while he was not attending school. Ford was a successful, well-connected academic, but he was also a notorious alcoholic whose excesses contributed to his death six years later. After spending six months with his cousins, Johnson returned to Lichfield, but Mr. Hunter, the headmaster, “angered by the impertinence of this long absence,” refused to allow Samuel to continue at the grammar school. Unable to return to Lichfield Grammar School, Johnson was enrolled into the King Edward VI grammar school at Stourbridge Because the school was located near Pedmore, Johnson was able to spend more time with the Fords, and he began to write poems and verse translations. However, he spent only six months at Stourbridge before returning once again to his parents’ home in Lichfield
Entrance of Pembroke College, Oxford
During this time, Johnson’s future was uncertain because his father was deeply in debt. To earn money, Johnson began to stitch books for his father, and it is likely that Johnson spent much time in his father’s bookshop reading and building his literary knowledge. The family remained in poverty until Sarah Johnson’s cousin, Elizabeth Harriotts, died in February 1728 and left enough money to send Johnson to university. On 31 October 1728, a few weeks after he turned 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford.The inheritance did not cover all of his expenses at Pembroke, but Andrew Corbet, a friend and fellow student at Pembroke, offered to make up the deficit.



Johnson made friends at Pembroke and read much. In later life, he told stories of his idlenessHe was later asked by his tutor to produce a Latin translation of Alexander Pope’s Messiah as a Christmas exercise. Johnson completed half of the translation in one afternoon and the rest the following morning. Although the poem brought him praise, it did not bring the material benefit he had hoped for. The poem later appeared in Miscellany of Poems (1731), edited by John Husbands, a Pembroke tutor, and is the earliest surviving publication of any of Johnson’s writings. Johnson spent the rest of his time studying, even during the Christmas holiday. He drafted a “plan of study” called “Adversaria”, which was left unfinished, and used his time to learn French while working on his Greek.
After thirteen months, a shortage of funds forced Johnson to leave Oxford without a degree, and he returned to Lichfield.Towards the end of Johnson’s stay at Oxford, his tutor, Jorden, left Pembroke and was replaced by William Adams. He enjoyed Adams as a tutor, but by December, Johnson was already a quarter behind in his student fees, and he was forced to return home. He left behind many books that he had borrowed from his father because he could not afford to transport them, and also because he hoped to return to Oxford soon.
He eventually did receive a degree. Just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755, Oxford University awarded Johnson the degree of Master of Arts. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin and in 1775 by Oxford University.In 1776, he returned to Pembroke with Boswell and toured the college with his former tutor Adams, who was now a Master. During that visit he recalled his time at the college, his early career, and expressed his later fondness for Jorden.
Later career
See also: The Plays of William Shakespeare; The Idler (1758–1760); and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia



On 16 March 1756, Johnson was arrested for an outstanding debt of £5 18s. Unable to contact anyone else, he wrote to the writer and publisher Samuel Richardson. Richardson, who had previously lent Johnson money, sent him six guineas to show his good will, and the two became friends. Soon after, Johnson met and befriended the painter Joshua Reynolds, who so impressed Johnson that he declared him “almost the only man whom I call a friend”Reynolds’ younger sister Frances observed during their time together “that men, women and children gathered around him [Johnson]”, laughing at his gestures and gesticulationsIn addition to Reynolds, Johnson was close to Bennet Langton and Arthur Murphy. Langton was a scholar and an admirer of Johnson who persuaded his way into a meeting with Johnson which led to a long friendship. Johnson met Murphy during the summer of 1754 after Murphy came to Johnson about the accidental republishing of the Rambler No. 190, and the two became friends.Around this time, Anna Williams began boarding with Johnson. She was a minor poet who was poor and becoming blind, two conditions that Johnson attempted to change by providing room for her and paying for a failed cataract surgery. Williams, in turn, became Johnson’s housekeeper.
Final works
See also: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets
Man staring intently at a book held close to his face
Johnson (1775) showing his intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes; he did not want to be depicted as “Blinking Sam”
On 6 August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland, and to begin “a journey to the western islands of Scotland”, as Johnson’s 1775 account of their travels would put it. The work was intended to discuss the social problems and struggles that affected the Scottish people, but it also praised many of the unique facets of Scottish society, such as a school in Edinburgh for the deaf and mute. Also, Johnson used the work to enter into the dispute over the authenticity of James


Macpherson’s Ossian poems, claiming they could not have been translations of ancient Scottish literature on the grounds that “in those times nothing had been written in the Earse.There were heated exchanges between the two, and according to one of Johnson’s letters, MacPherson threatened physical violence. Boswell’s account of their journey, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), was a preliminary step toward his later biography, Life of Johnson. Included were various quotations and descriptions of events, including anecdotes such as Johnson swinging a broadsword while wearing Scottish garb, or dancing a Highland jig.
Character sketch
Further information: Political views of Samuel Johnson and Religious views of Samuel Johnson
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.
Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson
Johnson’s tall and robust figure combined with his odd gestures were confusing to some; when William Hogarth first saw Johnson standing near a window in Samuel Richardson’s house, “shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner”, Hogarth thought Johnson an “ideot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson”.Hogarth was quite surprised when “this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting and all at once took up the argument … [with] such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this ideot had been at the moment inspired”. Beyond appearance, Adam Smith claimed that “Johnson knew more books than any man alive while Edmund Burke thought that if Johnson were to join Parliament, he “certainly would have been the greatest speaker that ever was there”
Johnson relied on a unique form of rhetoric, and he is well known for his “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, his claim that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to existduring a conversation with Boswell, Johnson powerfully stomped a nearby stone and proclaimed of Berkeley’s theory, “I refute it thus!”
Johnson had several health problems, including childhood tuberculous scrofula resulting in deep facial scarring, deafness in one ear and blindness in one eye, gout, testicular cancer, and a stroke in his final year that left him unable to speak; his autopsy indicated that he had pulmonary fibrosis along with cardiac failure probably due to hypertension, a condition then unknown. Johnson displayed signs consistent with several diagnoses, including depression and Tourette syndrome (TS).
There are many accounts of Johnson suffering from bouts of depression and what Johnson thought might be madness. As Walter Jackson Bate puts it, “one of the ironies of literary history is that its most compelling and authoritative symbol of common sense—of the strong, imaginative grasp of concrete reality—should have begun his adult life, at the age of twenty, in a state of such intense anxiety and bewildered despair that, at least from his own point of view, it seemed the onset of actual insanity”.To overcome these feelings, Johnson tried to constantly involve himself with various activities, but this did not seem to help. Taylor said that Johnson “at one time strongly entertained thoughts of Suicide” Boswell claimed that Johnson “felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible melancholia, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery”.
Johnson was, in the words of Steven Lynn, “more than a well-known writer and scholar for it is said of his poetry, ‘small in amount, its quality excellent’, and regrets were expressed that he had not written much more’ He was a celebrity for the activities and the state of his health in his later years were constantly reported in various journals and newspapers, and when there was nothing to report, something was invented


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