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Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson Samuel Johnson[1†]

Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made significant contributions as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, sermonist, biographer, editor, and lexicographer[1†]. Born on September 18, 1709[1†], in Lichfield, England[1†], Johnson’s influence on English literature and criticism was profound, and he is often considered one of the most distinguished figures in the history of English letters[1†].

Early Years and Education

Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England[3†][2†]. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah[3†][2†][4†]. His father was the first bookseller of reputation in the Staffordshire community of Lichfield[3†]. Johnson was a sickly infant who early on began to exhibit the tics that would influence how people viewed him in his later years[3†][2†].

From childhood, Johnson displayed great intelligence and an eagerness for learning[3†]. However, his early years were dominated by his family’s financial strain and his efforts to establish himself as a school teacher[3†]. He was educated at Lichfield Grammar School[3†][5†] and spent a brief period at Oxford University[3†][5†][4†], but was forced to leave due to lack of financial support[3†][5†].

Unable to find teaching work, he drifted into a writing career[3†][5†]. In 1735, he married Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, a widow 20 years older than himself[3†]. The responsibilities of this marriage made him determined to succeed as an educator[3†]. He established his own school, but the venture was unsuccessful[3†]. Thereafter, leaving his wife behind in Lichfield, he moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life[3†].

In London, he began writing essays for The Gentleman’s Magazine[3†]. He also befriended Richard Savage, a notorious rake and aspiring poet who claimed to be the disavowed son of a nobleman[3†]. Eventually, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage, his first successful literary biography[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Samuel Johnson’s career was marked by his tenacity and intellect, which saw him rise from humble beginnings to become the leading literary figure of his time[2†][6†]. His career spanned various genres and forms, but he is perhaps best known for his work “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755)[2†][4†]. This monumental work, which took eight years of labor to produce[2†][4†], was hailed as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship” and had a far-reaching impact on Modern English[2†].

Johnson began his career in London, writing essays for The Gentleman’s Magazine[2†]. His friendship with Richard Savage, a notorious rake and aspiring poet, led him to write the Life of Mr Richard Savage, his first successful literary biography[2†]. He also published “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), the first work he published under his name[2†][7†]. It is a panoramic survey of the futility of human pursuit of greatness and happiness[2†][7†].

Johnson’s criticism is, perhaps, the most significant part of his writings[2†][6†]. His assessment of Dryden’s critical works holds good for his own: “the criticism of Dryden is the criticism of a poet; not a dull collection of theorems, nor a rude detection of faults, which perhaps the censorer was not able to have committed; but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight is mingled with instruction, and where the author proves his right of judgment by his power of performance”[2†][6†].

Through his Dictionary, his edition of Shakespeare, and his Lives of the Poets in particular, he helped invent what we now call “English Literature”[2†][6†]. Johnson combined a high regard for monarchy with a low opinion of most kings[2†][6†]. He frequently expressed minority or unpopular views, such as his principled stands against slavery, colonialism, and mistreatment of indigenous peoples[2†][6†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Samuel Johnson’s literary contributions span a wide range of genres, including poetry, plays, essays, moral discourses, literary criticism, sermons, biographies, and lexicography[1†]. Here are some of his main works:

These works, allied in their literary, social, and moral concerns, continue to speak urgently to readers today[1†][9†]. They reflect Johnson’s talent, tenacity, and intelligence, which made him the foremost literary figure and the most formidable conversationalist of his time[1†][4†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Samuel Johnson was a writer of exceptional range, contributing to various genres such as poetry, lexicography, translation, journalism, essay writing, travel writing, biography, editing, and criticism[10†]. His literary fame has traditionally—and properly—rested more on his prose than on his poetry[10†].

Johnson’s work, “A Dictionary of the English Language,” is one of the outstanding achievements in the study of language[10†][11†]. Despite some criticisms of its etymological notes, its definitions are generally apt and often colored by Johnson’s wit, biases, and sound understanding of English usage[10†][11†].

His essays in “The Rambler” (1750-1752) and “The Idler” (1758-1760) discuss literature, religion, politics, and society[10†][11†]. They were much admired in Johnson’s day, but are less so in the modern era[10†][11†]. They are often grave, but rarely dull, and represent some of the finest prose in English[10†][11†].

“Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,” Johnson’s major contribution to fiction, features a naïve young protagonist whose adventures gradually strip away his illusions[10†][11†]. Johnson’s work is the less harsh of the two, but is similar in tone[10†][11†].

Johnson’s work as a biographer and scholar began early[10†][11†]. His “Life of Richard Savage” emphasized with dramatic narrative the wrongs society had visited on him[10†][11†]. Many years after “Life of Richard Savage,” Johnson agreed to write a series of prefaces to the works of English poets for a group of booksellers. The result was “The Lives of the Poets” (four volumes in 1779 and an additional six volumes in 1781)[10†][11†].

Johnson’s works, allied in their literary, social, and moral concerns, continue to speak urgently to readers today. They reflect Johnson’s talent, tenacity, and intelligence, which made him the foremost literary figure and the most formidable conversationalist of his time[10†][11†].

Personal Life

Samuel Johnson’s personal life was marked by a number of significant relationships and circumstances. After the death of his wife in 1752[5†], Johnson’s household was joined by Francis Barber, a former slave from Jamaica[5†]. Barber lived with Johnson for more than 30 years, along with his wife and children, and eventually became Johnson’s heir[5†].

Despite the success of his dictionary, Johnson was continually short of money[5†]. His life was also marked by various physical afflictions. From childhood, he suffered from scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands), which left him with disfiguring scars on his face and neck[5†][2†]. At the age of 30 months, he was taken to London and touched by the queen, a popular belief at the time being that the sovereign’s touch could cure scrofula[5†][2†].

Johnson’s personal life, like his professional one, was characterized by his intelligence and tenacity. Despite his physical afflictions and financial struggles, he maintained a household and formed lasting relationships[5†][2†][5†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Samuel Johnson’s legacy is vast and enduring. His contributions to English literature and language have had a profound impact that continues to resonate today[1†]. His “Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1755, was a monumental work that had far-reaching effects on Modern English[1†]. It was pre-eminent until the arrival of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later[1†].

Johnson’s influence extends beyond his time, with his views forming a prevailing mode of literary theory in the 20th century[1†]. He had a lasting impact on biography[1†], and his dictionary is still considered an essential piece of literary work[1†][12†]. His life and work continue to be studied and celebrated today[1†].

In his later life, Johnson became a celebrity[1†], and following his death, he was increasingly seen to have had a lasting effect on literary criticism[1†]. He is even claimed to be the one truly great critic of English literature[1†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Samuel Johnson [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Samuel Johnson: English author [website] - link
  3. Wikipedia (English) - Early life of Samuel Johnson [website] - link
  4. Britannica - Life and works of Samuel Johnson [website] - link
  5. BBC History - Historic Figures - Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) [website] - link
  6. Britannica - Samuel Johnson - Literary Critic, Poet, Lexicographer [website] - link
  7. Britannica - Samuel Johnson - Literary Critic, Poet, Lexicographer [website] - link
  8. GradeSaver - Samuel Johnson Biography [website] - link
  9. Harvard University Press - Samuel Johnson: Selected Writings [website] - link
  10. Poetry Foundation - Samuel Johnson [website] - link
  11. eNotes - Samuel Johnson Analysis [website] - link
  12. Biography Host - Samuel Johnson - Quote, Dr, Dictionary & Legacy - Biography [website] - link
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