Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Samuel Johnson, author, lexicographer and wit, was one of Britain’s leading literary figures in the 18th century. Johnson was the author of The Rambler, the Dictionary of the English Language, Rasselas and The Lives of the Poets. He also edited and was a commentator on Shakespeare’s plays.
By the time of his death, Johnson was acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in English literature. The years from approximately 1755 to 1784 are often referred to as the Age of Johnson.
He was born the son of Michael and Sarah Johnson in Lichfield, a cathedral city in the Midlands, on 18 September 1709 (7 September old style). His father was a bookseller whose circumstances fluctuated and the family was never financially secure. He was a sickly child, who had smallpox and scrofula, and was left with the effects of childhood illness throughout his adult life. Johnson was often afflicted by bouts of melancholy. He was a brilliant young scholar and attended Pembroke College, Oxford, but was forced to leave without a degree when money ran out.
On a happier note he married Elizabeth (‘Tetty’) Porter in 1735. His attempt to start his own school at Edial near Lichfield failed and, along with a former pupil, one David Garrick, he set off for London to seek his fortune as a writer.
Johnson began to build a reputation with articles for The Gentleman’s Magazine, the poem London (1738), works of political satire, reports of parliamentary debates and, in 1744, The Life of Savage. In 1746 he signed the contract for the Dictionary. The poem The Vanity of Human Wishes appeared in 1749. The famous Rambler essays followed between 1750 and 1752; in the latter year his wife died. Although the Dictionary was published successfully in two volumes in 1755, he continued to experience financial difficulties. He wrote Rasselas in a short time in order to defray his mother’s funeral expenses. However, in 1762 he was awarded a pension of £300 per annum by the King. For the first time in his life he was financially secure.
The Celebrity Years 1762-1784
Johnson was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, Dublin, in 1765 and was subsequently often known as Dr Johnson. During his later years he edited Shakespeare and wrote The Lives of the Poets. His friends included many of the leading figures of the age such as Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick, and he became famous as a wit and conversationalist.
In 1763 he met the young Scotsman James Boswell, who recorded much of his conversation. Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which was published in 1791, is widely regarded as the greatest literary biography in the English language. It celebrates its subject as a man of remarkable talents and common human weaknesses.
Johnson died on 13 December 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
A list of suggested further reading may be consulted here.