There are many ways of approaching Johnson through reading. While not intended to be rigidly prescriptive, the list below suggests some introductory works, followed by others more suited to advanced studies.
A good short introduction to Johnson’s life and achievement is Samuel Johnson by Pat Rogers, in the Past Masters series from Oxford University Press (1993). A longer, but lively, work is The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life by Henry Hitchings (Macmillan, 2018), which interweaves an account of Johnson’s life with discussions of his views.
Three readable biographies were published around the time of Johnson’s tercentenary: Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Peter Martin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008); Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers (Basic Books, 2008); and Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes (Faber and Faber, 2009).
After such introductory reading, it will be time to engage with Boswell’s famous biography, and with Johnson’s own writings.
James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. was first published in 1791; despite certain limitations, it remains an invaluable source of information about Johnson, and the most extensive record of his conversation. There are many editions, including several single-volume ones, such as James Boswell: Life of Johnson, edited by R.W. Chapman and Pat Rogers, in the Oxford World’s Classics series (Oxford University Press, 2008), and The Life of Samuel Johnson, edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics, 2008). Boswell’s earlier Johnsonian work, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (first published in 1786), is often reprinted with Johnson’s own account of their 1773 tour (see below).
Turning to Johnson’s own writings, Samuel Johnson: Selected Works, edited by Robert DeMaria, Jr, Stephen Fix and Howard D. Weinbrot (Yale University Press, 2021) draws on the complete Yale Edition of Johnson’s works (see below). Another excellent and extensive recent anthology is Samuel Johnson, edited by David Womersley in the 21st-century Oxford Authors series (Oxford University Press, 2018); its predecessor was Samuel Johnson, edited by Donald J. Greene in the Oxford Authors series (Oxford University Press, 1984), and subsequently reprinted in paperback as Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford University Press). Two other good collections are Dr Johnson: Prose and Poetry, selected by Mona Wilson, in the Reynard Library series (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1950), and Selections from Samuel Johnson, edited by R.W. Chapman (Oxford University Press, 1955).
For those wishing to move on to specific areas of Johnson’s work, accessible editions include:
- Samuel Johnson: Selected Essays, edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics, 2003);
- Selected Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by W.J. Bate (Yale University Press, 1968);
- A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology, edited by David Crystal (Penguin Classics, 2006);
- The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, edited by Thomas Keymer, in the Oxford World’s Classics series (Oxford University Press, 2009);
- A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, edited by Peter Levi (Penguin Classics, 1984);
- The Lives of the Poets: A Selection, edited by Roger Lonsdale and John Mullan, in the Oxford World’s Classics series (Oxford University Press, 2009).
(A) Works about Johnson
(1) Early biographies
Many of the early biographies and anecdotes of Johnson are collected (in complete or abridged form) in Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by George Birkbeck Hill (2 volumes; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897); this can be accessed online via the Internet Archive (volume 1; volume 2). This collection includes (volume 1, pp. 141–351) the full text of Mrs Piozzi’s important Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., during the Last Twenty Years of His Life (1786).
Another major early source on Johnson is the full-length biography by his friend Sir John Hawkins, which first appeared in 1787. Extracts from this are included in Johnsonian Miscellanies (volume 2, pp. 79–138). A scholarly edition of the full text has now been published: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by Sir John Hawkins, Knt., edited by O M Brack, Jr (University of Georgia Press, 2009).
The definitive edition of Boswell’s biography (based on the third edition of 1799) is Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, and revised by L.F. Powell (6 volumes; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934–50). Volume 5 of this edition includes Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Many glimpses of Johnson, often in his lighter moments, may be found in the diary of the novelist Fanny Burney; a convenient collection of the relevant passages is assembled in Dr. Johnson & Fanny Burney, edited by C.B. Tinker (Moffat, Yard and Company, 1911).
(2) Modern biographies
One of the best modern biographies is Samuel Johnson by W. Jackson Bate (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975); another outstanding account, especially for its treatment of Johnson as a writer, is The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography by Robert DeMaria, Jr (Blackwell, 1993). Also well worth reading is Samuel Johnson by John Wain (Macmillan, 1974).
(3) Other studies
Numerous studies focus on specific aspects of Johnson’s life, character and work; some noteworthy examples are The Politics of Samuel Johnson by Donald J. Greene (Yale University Press, 1960); Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading by Robert DeMaria, Jr (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); and Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History by John A. Vance (University of Georgia Press, 1984).
(B) Works by Johnson
(1) Complete editions
For many years, the standard edition of Johnson’s works was the one edited by Francis Pearson Walesby, and published at Oxford in 1825 (9 volumes, plus 2 supplementary volumes of Johnson’s Parliamentary Debates); this can be accessed online via the Hathi Trust Digital Library. This has now been superseded by The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (23 volumes; Yale University Press,1958–2019), which is also available online. A further volume (not forming part of the numbered sequence of the Yale edition) will be published, including Johnson’s contributions to the works of others.
(2) The Dictionary
Volume 18 of the Yale edition of Johnson’s works, Johnson on the English Language, includes Johnson’s The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, (1747), along with his Preface and other introductory material from the Dictionary itself.
Various facsimile editions of the complete Dictionary have been published. The first edition of the Dictionary (1755) can be consulted online.
The standard modern edition of Johnson’s letters is The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford (the Hyde Edition) (5 volumes; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992–4).