Samuel Johnson – poet, biographer, lexicographer and essayist – has been described as ‘arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history’ (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
Early life and Johnson’s introduction to journalism
Born in 1709 above the bookshop his father owned, Johnson was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and Pembroke College, Oxford (which he had to leave after just a year, without a degree, due to being unable to pay his fees).
In the early 1730s Johnson worked briefly as a schoolteacher, and also began to produce literary translations. In 1735 he married Elizabeth ‘Tetty’ Porter, the widow, some 21 years older than Johnson, of his friend Harry. After trying and failing to establish his own school, Johnson found increasing employment as a journalist for The Gentleman’s Magazine, and worked on his own poetry and drama, including the long satirical poem London (published anonymously in 1738).
Compiling a dictionary of the English language
In 1746 Johnson was approached by a group of publishers, including the celebrated William Strahan, about compiling a dictionary of the English language. This enormous, hugely ambitious work would take Johnson almost a decade to complete, and would be one of his most important legacies.
Other works by Johnson in the 1740s and 1750s include the long poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), the play Irene (performed in 1749, to little success) and the essay series titled The Rambler, in which he discusses the critical literary issues of his day. In 1752 Johnson’s wife died, and this seems to have ushered in a period of depression, though he carried on working on various literary projects, including starting work on a new edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (finally published in 1765), publishing the novella Rasselas (1759) and producing a new series of literary essays, The Idler.
Later works and death
In 1763 Johnson met and befriended the young James Boswell, who would famously go on to write an intimate, detailed biography of his friend, 1791’s Life of Samuel Johnson. The two travelled to Boswell’s native Scotland together, a trip which Johnson wrote up as A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), and Boswell as A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). Johnson spent the latter half of the 1770s at work on another commission, the Lives of the English Poets. Originally destined as a series of biographical introductions to a 60-volume Works of the English Poets, the texts were eventually published on their own, becoming extremely popular and influential works of biography in their own right.
Johnson died in 1784 at the age of 75, leaving behind a substantial body of pioneering works of literary criticism, lexicography and biography.
Further information about the life of Samuel Johnson can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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David Crystal looks past the myths surrounding Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to discover a work of remarkable precision, sensitivity and attention to social and regional variation.
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