September 18th – Samuel Johnson

“Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.” 

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was born September 18th, 1709. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he was “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”

His father was a bookseller, and Samuel was born above his father’s shop in Lichfield, Staffordshire. His mother was forty when she had him, and because of what was considered her advanced age many precautions were taken at his birth. He suffered from various illnesses and not expected to live much past birth, even receiving the ‘Royal Touch’ from Queen Anne in 1712 in a hopeful cure for his scrofula which was believed at the time to be cured by royalty. He was a very intelligent child, although he exhibited tics that were posthumously diagnosed as Tourette syndrome. According to Johnson his parent’s did not have a happy marriage, and in his mind it was because of his mother’s want of learning. When he grew older he resolved to marry an intelligent woman.

His father fell deeply in debt as Johnson grew up, and the poverty affected his education. To help with family finances he began to stitch books this father’s shop, using the time amongst the books to read and build his knowledge. 

At the age of 19, with some inheritance from an aunt, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, although he was forced to leave due to finances before he received his degree. (He later received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford).

He wanted to teach, but found it difficult to find employment without his degree, and because of the facial tics he was unable to help. In 1731 his father, deeply in debt, died. 

In 1735 he married Elizabeth, called Tetty, the wealthy widow of a friend. She was forty-six, with three children, and Johnson was 25, and inexperienced in relationships. 

The money of his new wife allowed him to open up his own school, but it was unsuccessful, and cost his wife Tetty a large sum of money. Johnson began to write his first major work, the historical tragedy Irene. In 1737 he moved to London with his wife, and began working as a writer for The Gentleman’s Magazine. In 1738 his first major work, the poem “London,” was published anonymously. After moving Johnson began to feel guilty about living off his wife’s money and moved out – spending time with his friend the poet Richard Savage, sleeping in taverns and roaming the street. In 1743 Savage was committed to debtor’s prison and died – a year later Johnson wrote his biography An Accound of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage.

In 1746 he was approached by a group of publishers about creating an authoritative English dictionary. He agreed, saying it would just take him three years. It took eight, and  he was paid 1,500 guineas (arounnd $350,000 USD today). In 1755 he published A Dictionary of the English Language. Until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 it was considered the preeminent English dictionary. Johnson prepared the work single-handedly, making his work one of the greatest single achievements in scholarship ever. 

His work on the dictionary was nonstop and included a number of assistants and mountains of books for research. Because of the chaos of his work and his wife’s ill health he once again moved out. Tetty returned to the countryside in 1752, and shortly after she died. Johnson felt guilty about her death for the remainder of his life.

In 1756 Johnson was arrested for an outstanding debt of £5 18s. He wrote to publisher Samuel Richardson, who leant him money, and the two became friends. In 1862 he received a government pension which finally relieved his financial difficulties.. 

Johnson spent his life writing essays, poetry, and books, becoming a leader of the London literary world in the 18th century. In 1765 he published The Plays of William Shakespeare, and his famous The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781). 

In 1763, he met James Boswell, a young Scottish lawyer, whose The Life of Johnson (1791) did much to spread Johnson’s name.

Samuel Johnson died on December 13th, 1784, at the age of 75, and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Lesson from Johnson

From birth, Johnson’s life revolved around books, and he wrote, studied and translated whatever opportunity came his way. His single handed composition of a dictionary not only established him as a leading man of letters, it also provided a resources for students, writers and readers for centuries after his death. 

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