Samuel Johnson


Samuel Johnson is probably the most famous a literary figure of 18th century Britain, but is better known as a critic, essayist, wit, and lexicographer (writer of dictionaries), than he is as a novelist or poet. He is somewhat unique among literary characters in that most of his fame rests on anecdotes that are told about him, and aphorisms for which he is quoted than on any particular literary work of his own. He is known to modern students mainly by way of Boswell's Life of Johnson, which was written by one of his colleagues and ably captures the spirit of the man. He is a particularly interesting historical character because in Boswell's biography, as well as in his own essays, he provides brilliant commentary on all that is going on around him, and gives wonderful insight into the politics, ideas, and characters of his age.

Samuel Johnson
Johnson was the son of a poor bookseller. He attended Oxford, but could not afford to continue his studies beyond the first year. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years in his home town, but made very little money. He was not physically attractive or well-employed, but he did at this time end up marrying a widow who was considerably older than himself. The marriage worked out quite well, and provided stability during years when financial problems caused him no end of stress. Shortly after their marriage Johnson took up residence in London. There, he was able to find work writing, but not any work that paid him well. He was determined to write, no matter how little money he made doing it, however, and his wife was content with his miniscule and unsteady income.

He first gained a name for himself when in London by writing for The Gentleman's Magazine. At the time, no reporters were allowed in Parliament, so Johnson interviewed witnesses, and recreated the speeches that were made, often more eloquently than they were originally given. He also wrote essays, pamphlets, biographies, and anything else that he could get into print. He eventually contracted to write a comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, which took him ten years. It was of such extraordinary quality that it brought him considerable fame within London literary circles, but still, very little money. By this time Johnson was very well known throughout London, and through the exertions of some of his friends and patrons, was provided with a government pension.

Johnson was not introduced to his biographer, Boswell, until the same year he was recognized with a government stipend. By then Johnson's eyesight was becoming poor, and his literary output declined somewhat, but he still provided very insightful commentary about a great many and varied topics. Johnson and Boswell toured Scotland a few years later and each wrote a book relating their impressions. Johnson actually became less irascible regarding politics in his old age, and was actually quoted as saying something positive about government before he died in 1784.

Key events during the life of Samuel Johnson:

Born to a poor bookseller in Staffordshire.
Entered Pembroke College at Oxford, but left after a year.
Married a widow considerably older than himself.
Established a private academy. Met David Garrick.
Moved to London; began writing for The Gentleman's Magazine.
Began work on his Dictionary of the English Language.
Completed work on Dictionary.
Received a pension from George III.
Introduced to James Boswell.
Embarked on a tour of Scotland with Boswell.
Death of Samuel Johnson

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Dr. Johnson and His Father  in  Thirty More Famous Stories Retold  by  James Baldwin
Johnson—Days of Struggle  in  English Literature for Boys and Girls  by  H. E. Marshall

Image Links

The stranger has stood a whole hour in the market place.'
 in Thirty More Famous Stories Retold

'There is no arguing with Johnson,' said Goldsmith 'For when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it.'
 in English Literature for Boys and Girls

Short Biography
Oliver Goldsmith Poet and novelist, best known for The Vicar of Wakefield
Boswell Associate of Samuel Johnson who wrote his definitive biography.
David Garrick Student of Samuel Johnson who became the most famous actor of his day.
George III Monarch whose long reign encompassed Revolutionary, and Napoleonic Wars.
William Pitt Statesman who masterminded the rise of the British Empire during the critical 18th century.
Edmund Burke Very influential Political Philosopher, whose works are a basis of constitutional law.
Joshua Reynolds Influential British painter of the 18th century.