Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [OS 7 September] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a devout Anglican and a generous philanthropist. Politically, he was a committed Tory. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Johnson as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He is the subject of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, described by Walter Jackson Bate as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for just over a year, but a lack of funds forced him to leave. After working as a teacher, he moved to London, where he began to write for The Gentleman’s Magazine. His early works include the biography Life of Mr Richard Savage, the poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and the play Irene.
After nine years of work, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been acclaimed as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship”. This work brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was the pre-eminent British dictionary. His later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, and the widely read tale The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.
Johnson was a tall and robust man. His odd gestures and tics were disconcerting to some on first meeting him. Boswell’s Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson’s behavior and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, a condition not defined or diagnosed in the 18th century. After a series of illnesses, he died on the evening of 13 December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the years following his death, Johnson began to be recognized as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and he was claimed by some to be the only truly great critic of English literature. (Wikipedia)
Of special note: Political Pamphlets
In the early 1770’s Johnson wrote a series of political pamphlets supporting positions favorable to the government but in keeping with his own views. These have often appeared reactionary to posterity but are worth considering on their own terms. The False Alarm (1770) supported the resolution of the House of Commons not to readmit one of its members, the scandalous John Wilkes, who had been found guilty of libel. The pamphlet ridiculed those who thought the case precipitated a constitutional crisis. Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands (1771) argued against a war with Spain over who should become “the undisputed lords of tempest-beaten barrenness.” This pamphlet, his most-admired and least-attacked, disputes the “feudal gabble” of the earl of Chatham and the complaints of the pseudonymous political controversialist who wrote the “Junius” letters.
The Patriot (1774) was designed to influence an upcoming election. Johnson had become disillusioned in the 1740’s with those members of the political opposition who attacked the government on “patriotic” grounds only to behave similarly once in power. This essay examines expressions of false patriotism and includes in that category justifications of “the ridiculous claims of American usurpation,” the subject of his longest tract, Taxation No Tyranny (1775). The title summarizes his position opposing the American Continental Congress, which in 1774 had passed resolutions against taxation by England, perceived as oppression, especially since the colonies had no representation in Parliament. Johnson argues that the colonists had not been denied representation but rather had willingly left the country where they had votes, that England had expended vast sums on the colonies, and that they were rightly required to support the home country. The tract became notorious in the colonies, contributing considerably to the caricature of Johnson the arch-Tory. Yet this view is too simplistic. His rhetorical question to the colonists “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” can be traced in large part to a principled and consistent stance against colonial oppression. (Britannica)
I ran across these quotes of Samuel Johnson in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. I was tempted to look further for some of his poetry, but given the subject of these quotes, and how active he was in politics, I thought them very appropriate with the elections coming up next week. I hope you’ll think about them and get out and vote. I already have! 😀
“It is our first duty to serve society; and after we have done that, we may attend wholly to the salvation of our own souls.”
“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”
from Boswell’s Life of Johnson
“No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.”
Johnson: An Introduction To The Political State of Great Britain
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Johnson: Taxation No Tyranny