Skip to main content
Select Source:

Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)

JOHNSON, SAMUEL (17091784)

JOHNSON, SAMUEL (17091784), English writer, lexicographer, and critic. Known as "Dr. Johnson," Samuel Johnson was one of the most complex and important figures of eighteenth-century culture. Renowned particularly for his personality, his contribution to eighteenth-century writing is important both for his scholarly knowledge and for his insight into humanity in its moral and social complexity.

EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION

The son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller with intellectual ambitions in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Samuel Johnson was born in 1709. When he was three, he was taken to London to be touched by Queen Anne to cure his scrofula, which, along with smallpox, caused lasting disfiguration. Johnson was educated at Lichworth Grammar School and read prodigiously, enjoying Latin authors and Renaissance literature. While at school, he wrote several English and Latin poems and essays, and a distant cousin, the Reverend Cornelius Ford, whom he visited in Worcestershire, encouraged his interests in poetry and classical culture. As a student at Pembroke College, Oxford, Johnson translated Alexander Pope's "Messiah" into Latin verse, and the poem was published in 1731.

Due to the family's increasing poverty, Johnson completed only one year toward his degree at Oxford, a prevailing source of unhappiness throughout his life. Faced with unemployment, Johnson grudgingly helped in his father's bookshop for two years. The drudgery was compensated for by his friendship with the Reverend Gilbert Walmesley of Lichfield, who encouraged Johnson's literary ambitions. Johnson taught briefly at Market Bosworth Grammar School in Leicestershire but quarreled with his employer and moved to Birmingham in 1733. He lived with a former school friend, Edmund Hector, and earned money writing for the Birmingham Journal. He translated the Portuguese Jesuit Jeronymo Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735. In the same year he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow twenty-five years his senior, and opened a boarding school in Edial, near Lichfield; the school failed, perhaps as a result of the combination of Johnson's indifference to teaching and his physical deformity.

LONDON, JOURNALISM, AND BIOGRAPHY

In 1737 Johnson traveled with David Garrick (a former pupil who was to become the most famous actor of his time) to London, where Johnson was to spend the rest of his life. He found employment as a journalist with the printer Edward Cave, the founder of The Gentleman's Magazine, and later commented, "No one but a blockhead wrote except for money." Johnson almost certainly influenced the journal's development as an authoritative source of information. He contributed book reviews on several subjects and wrote reports of parliamentary debates (a forbidden practice) under the title of Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia, which was a blend of both fact and Johnson's own views presented in his own words. After writing satirical pamphlets that were critical of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Johnson went into hiding in Lambeth under a false name because his arrest had been ordered.

Johnson secured literary success with London, a satirically exuberant poem on the excesses and corruption of London life. Between 1738 and 1744 he also wrote short biographies of historical and naval figures. He helped to catalogue the Harleian library, a collection of books by the first earl of Oxford, writing an influential preface on cataloguing as essential in helping scholarly investigation. Johnson collated The Harleian Miscellany, a series of pamphlets on the political controversies in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, and wrote a preface to his collation. In 1744 he wrote an extended biography, A Life of Richard Savage, a passionately written defense of his friend, a struggling poet who had died in poverty in 1743.

LEXICOGRAPHER, LITERARY CRITIC, AND POET

Johnson's ambition to be an authority on language and literature is realized in his most important work. In 1747, he produced a plan for A Dictionary of the English Language addressed to statesman Philip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), who ignored Johnson and sent him £10. Johnson wished to provide a work of reference "for the use of such as aspire to exactness of criticism, or elegance of style" (Preface, 1756). His intention was to stabilize the language, for example in usage and pronunciation, but not to impose rigid rules like the dictionaries of the continental academies. Johnson's dictionary elucidates the different meanings of words through close examination of the use of quotations from celebrated and authoritative authors. The dictionary's diversity reflects Johnson's wide reading to find illustrative quotations, which were transcribed with the help of six amanuenses. In a famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, Johnson refused his offer of patronage after the dictionary was published to high critical acclaim in 1755 and an abridgment published in 1756. The abridged version became the standard dictionary until the publication of Noah Webster's in 1828.

The Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the Latin poet Juvenal's tenth satire, was published in 1749; the tone and vision of the poem has been debated by critics as reflecting either pessimism at human vanity or hope for humanity's redemption. Although Johnson was disillusioned with the judgment of theater producers about its value as a tragedy, his play Irene was produced by David Garrick in 1749. It earned Johnson £300. Johnson also established a twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler (17501752), writing critical essays on many topics such as the English novel. Between 1758 and 1760, he produced for the Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette a series of essays called The Idler that were lighter in tone. He also edited and wrote reviews for The Literary Magazine. Opposed to the Seven Years' War, Johnson wrote sporadic pieces attacking the war. To pay the expenses of his mother's illness, Johnson rapidly wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, (1759) a philosophical "Oriental" novella. Because of his scholarly successes, Johnson was awarded an honorary M.A. by Oxford University in 1755 and an LL.D. by Dublin University in 1765. The need to support himself by writing was relieved in 1762, when he (controversially) accepted an annual pension of £300 from Lord Bute's ministry.

JAMES BOSWELL AND LATER YEARS

In 1763, Johnson became acquainted with a young Scot named James Boswell, who became his friend and his biographer. Johnson's expanding social life saved him from the bouts of melancholia and depression he suffered. Acquainted with almost all the leading political and literary figures of the time, in 1764 he formed the Literary Club, whose members included Joseph Banks, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith, and James Boswell, who recorded their conversations. Johnson befriended Robert Chambers, a lawyer, who asked his help in composing a course of lectures on common law to deliver to Oxford undergraduates. The degree to which Johnson helped write the fifty-six lectures remains undetermined. In the same year he met the Welsh writer Hester Lynch Thrale (later Piozzi), with whom he developed a close friendship, and traveled to Wales and to France with her family. Her Anecdotes of Johnson (1786) and Letters to and from Johnson (1788), as well as her diaries, have provided rich material for Johnson's biographers. In 1765, Johnson finally published an edition of Shakespeare's plays, which is the first variorum edition, providing the notes of previous editors to aid or sometimes correct interpretation. His preface to the edition demonstrates Johnson's excellence at close critical reading.

In 1773, Johnson traveled with Boswell to the Hebrides, recorded in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and in Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). At the urging of a number of London booksellers, Johnson agreed in 1777 to write Prefaces, Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets (later known as The Lives of the Poets ), which was published 17791781. The monumental work discussed fifty-two of the most celebrated English writers and displayed Johnson's powers of literary criticism and insight.

Johnson died in December 1784 and was buried in poets' corner in Westminster Abbey. His fame followed him with the appearance of his letters and several biographies after his death, most notably James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).

See also Boswell, James ; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; English Literature and Language .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. London, 1755.

. Early Biographical Writings of Dr. Johnson. Edited by J. D. Fleeman. Farnborough, U.K., 1973.

. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssina. Edited by J. P. Hardy. Oxford, 1999.

. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Edited by J. D. Fleeman. Oxford, 1985.

. The Letters of Samuel Johnson. Edited by Bruce Redford. 5 vols. Princeton, 1992.

. Samuel Johnson: Political Writings. Edited by Donald J. Greene. New Haven, 2000.

. Samuel Johnson: The Major Works. Edited by Donald J. Greene. Oxford, 2000.

. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. 16 vols. currently published. New Haven, 1958.

Secondary Sources

Boswell, James. Boswell's Life of Johnson, together with Boswell's Journey of a Tour of the Hebrides and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales. Edited by George Birkbeck Hill and revised by L. F. Powell. Oxford, 19341964. Important posthumous biographies of Johnson, invaluable for its detail.

Clingham, Greg. The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Fifteen essays discussing politics, religion, travel, women, imperialism and many other topics.

Greene, Donald. Samuel Johnson. Boston, 1989. Useful introductory guide to the range of Johnson's work and influence. See also Greene's critical introduction to Samuel Johnson: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Oxford, 1984.

Hart, Kevin. Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. Explores the critical emergence of "The Age of Johnson" in relation to Johnson's literary reputation as a public commodity.

Korshin, Paul J., and Jack Lynch, eds. The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual. New York, 1987. Periodical published once a year focusing on Johnson and his influence.

Venturo, David F. Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson. Newark, N.J., 1999. First monograph focusing on all of Johnson's poetry.

Max Fincher

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-1709-1784

"Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-1709-1784

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

The writings of the English author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) express a profound reverence for the past modified by an energetic independence of mind. The mid-18th century in England is often called the Age of Johnson.

Samuel Johnson was born in Litchfield, Staffordshire, on Sept. 18, 1709. His father was a bookseller—first successful, later a failure—and Johnson, whom Adam Smith described as the best-read man he had ever known, owed much of his education to the fact that he grew up in a bookstore. Though he lived to old age, from infancy Johnson was plagued by illness. He was afflicted with scrofula, smallpox, and partial deafness and blindness. One of his first memories was of being taken to London, where he was touched by Queen Anne, the touch of the sovereign then thought to be a cure for scrofula.

Johnson was educated at the Litchfield Grammar School, where he learned Latin and Greek under the threat of the rod. He later studied with a clergyman in a nearby village from whom he learned a lesson always central to his thinking—that, if one is to master any subject, one must first discover its general principles, or, as Johnson put it, "but grasp the Trunk hard only, and you will shake all the Branches." In 1728-1729 Johnson spent 14 months at Pembroke College, Oxford. He was poor, embarrassed by his poverty, and he could not complete the work for a degree. While at Oxford, Johnson became confirmed in his belief in Christianity and the Anglican Church, a belief to which he held throughout a life often troubled by religious doubts. His father died in 1731, and Johnson halfheartedly supported himself with academic odd jobs. In 1735 he married Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, a widow some 20 years older than he. Though Johnson's references to his "Tetty" were affectionate, the 17 years of their childless marriage were probably not very happy. Still casting about for a way to make a living, Johnson opened a boarding school. He had only three pupils, one of them being David Garrick— eventually to become the greatest actor of his day. In 1737 Johnson went to London to make a career as a man of letters.

Making His Name

Once in London, Johnson began to work for Edward Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament did not then permit stenographic reports of its debates, and Cave published a column called "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput"—the name is taken, of course, from the first book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels—for which Johnson, among others, wrote re-creations of actual parliamentary speeches. Years later, when someone quoted to him from a speech by William Pitt the Elder, Johnson remarked, "That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street."

Johnson worked at a variety of other literary tasks. He published two "imitations" of the Roman satirist Juvenal, London, a Poem (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), transposing the language and situations of the classical originals into those of his own day. In 1744 Johnson published a biography of his friend Richard Savage. A neurotic liar and sponger and a failed writer, Savage had been one of Johnson's friends when they were both down and out, and to such early friends Johnson was always loyal. The Life of Savage is a sympathetic study of a complex and initially unsympathetic man. In 1749 Johnson completed his rather lifeless tragedy in blank verse Irene; it was produced by Garrick and earned Johnson £300.

In the early 1750s Johnson, writing usually at the rate of two essays a week, published two series of periodical essays—The Rambler (1750-1752) and The Adventurer (1753-1754). The essays take various forms—allegories, sketches of representative human types, literary criticism, lay sermons. Johnson constantly lived in the presence of the literature of the past, and his essays refer to the classics as if they were the work of his contemporaries. He has a satirist's eye for discrepancies and contradictions in human life, yet he is always in search of the central and universal, for whatever is unchanging in man's experience. His prose is elaborate and richly orchestrated, and he seems to have tried to enlarge the language of moral philosophy by using scientific and technical terms.

Johnson's interest in specialized vocabularies can be easily explained. In 1746 he had, with the help of six assistants, begun work on a dictionary of the English language. The project was finally completed in 1755. Johnson had originally tried to interest Lord Chesterfield in becoming patron for this vast project, but he did little to help Johnson until help was no longer needed. Johnson wrote Chesterfield a public letter in which he declared the author's independence of noble patronage. Johnson's Dictionary is probably the most personal work of its kind that will ever be compiled; though Johnson received help from others, it was not the work of a committee. His own definition of lexicographer was a "writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," yet the work bears his personal stamp: it is notable for the precision of its definitions, for its appreciation of the paramount importance of metaphor in use of language, and for its examples, which draw on Johnson's reading in 200 years of English literature.

Johnson's Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia appeared in 1759, the year of the publication of Voltaire's Candide, a work which it somewhat resembles. Both are moral fables concerned with an innocent young man's search for the secret of happiness. The young Prince Rasselas, accompanied by his sister and the philosopher Imlac, leaves his home in the Happy Valley and interviews men of different kinds in the hope of discovering how life may best be lived. Disillusioned at last, Rasselas returns to his old home. Though Johnson was given to fits of idleness, he could at other times work with great facility; he wrote Rasselasin the evenings of one week to pay for the expenses of his mother's funeral. The work was immediately successful; six editions appeared during Johnson's lifetime and also a number of translations.

Years of Success and Fame

In 1762 Johnson, though he had been anti-Hanoverian in his politics, accepted a pension of £300 a year from George III. A year later he met James Boswell, the 22-year-old son of a Scottish judge. Boswell became Johnson's devoted companion; he observed him closely, made notes on his conversation, and eventually wrote the great biography of his hero. Boswell's Johnson is a formidable and yet endearing figure: bulky, personally untidy, given to many eccentricities and compulsions, in conversation often contentious and even pugnacious, a man of great kindness who delighted in society but was also the victim of frequent black moods and periods of religious disquiet. In 1773 Boswell persuaded Johnson, who pretended a stronger dislike of the Scots than he actually felt, to join him in a tour of Scotland, and there are records of the trip made by both men— Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's journal.

In 1764 Johnson and the painter Joshua Reynolds founded a club whose members eventually numbered some of the most eminent men of the time; they included the writer Oliver Goldsmith, Johnson's old pupil David Garrick, the economist Adam Smith, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. In 1765 Johnson met Mr. and Mrs. Henry Thrale. He was a well-to-do brewer, and in the Thrales' home Johnson found a refuge from the solitude which had oppressed him since his wife's death in 1752. In 1765 Johnson published an eight-volume edition of the works of Shakespeare; in his "Preface" Johnson praises Shakespeare for his fidelity to nature and defends him against the charge that his failure to observe the three classical unities was a limitation on his achievement.

Last Years

Johnson's last great literary enterprise, a work in 10 volumes, was completed in his seventy-second year; it is the Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, better known as the Lives of the Poets. Itisa series of biographical and critical studies of 52 English poets, the earliest being Abraham Cowley; it is a magisterial revaluation of the course of English poetry from the early 17th century until his own time by a man whose taste had been formed by the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope and who was thus in varying degrees out of sympathy with the metaphysicals and John Milton, as he was with the more "advanced" writers of his own time. Even when he deals with writers whom he does not much like, Johnson shows his genius for precise definition and for laying down fairly the terms of a critical argument.

Johnson's last years were saddened by the death of his old friend Dr. Robert Levett (to whom he addressed a beautiful short elegy), by the death of Thrale, and by a quarrel with Mrs. Thrale, who had remarried with what seemed to Johnson indecorous haste. In his last illness Johnson, always an amateur physician, made notes on the progress of his own disease. He died on Dec. 13, 1784, in his house in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, edited by Edward L. McAdam, Jr., and others (9 vols., 1958-1971, and still in progress), will eventually supersede all earlier editions. The Letters of Samuel Johnson was edited by R. W. Chapman (3 vols., 1952). The Poems of Samuel Johnson was edited by David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam, Jr. (1941). The best edition of Lives of the Poets is by George B. Hill (3 vols., 1905). A convenient one-volume edition of James Boswell's Life of Johnson was edited by Robert William Chapman (1953). Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson (1944), is a reliable modern biography. James Lowry Clifford, Young Sam Johnson (1955), is an account of Johnson's life before he met Boswell.

Critical studies particularly recommended are Walter Jackson Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955), and Matthew J. C. Hodgart, Samuel Johnson and His Times (1962). Aspects of Johnson's career and thought are examined in Donald Johnson Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson (1960); Maurice J. Quinlan, Samuel Johnson: A Layman's Religion (1964); Arieh Sachs, Passionate Intelligence: Imagination and Reason in the Work of Samuel Johnson (1967); Paul Kent Alkon, Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline (1967); and Paul Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971). A useful guide to the literature on Johnson is James Lowry Clifford and Donald J. Greene, Samuel Johnson: A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies (1951; rev. ed. 1970). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-johnson-0

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-johnson-0

Johnson, Samuel

Samuel Johnson

Born: September 18, 1709
Litchfield, Staffordshire, England
Died: December 13, 1784
London, England

English author and lexicographer

The writings of the English author and lexicographer (an author or editor of a dictionary) Samuel Johnson express a deep respect for the past combined with an energetic independence of mind. The mid-eighteenth century in England is often called the "Age of Johnson."

Early life

Samuel Johnson was born in Litchfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709, the son of Michael Johnson and Sarah Ford. His father was a bookseller, and Johnson owed much of his education to the fact that he grew up in a bookstore. Johnson was plagued by illness all his life. As a child he suffered from scrofula (an infection of the face that causes scars), smallpox, and partial deafness and blindness. One of his first memories was of being taken to London, England, where he was touched by Queen Anne (16651714) (the touch of the ruler was then thought to be a cure for scrofula).

Johnson was educated at the Litchfield Grammar School, where he learned Latin and Greek. He later studied with a minister in a nearby village from whom he learned a valuable lessonthat if one is to master any subject, one must first discover its general principles, or, as Johnson put it, "but grasp the Trunk hard only, and you will shake all the Branches." In 1728 and 1729 Johnson spent fourteen months at Pembroke College, Oxford. Too poor and embarrassed by his poverty, Johnson could not complete the work for a degree. Johnson supported himself with teaching jobs after his father died in 1731. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow some twenty years older than him. Still trying to find a way to make a living, Johnson opened a boarding school, which had only three pupils. One of them was David Garrick (17171779), who would eventually become a famous actor.

Making his name

In 1737 Johnson went to London to work for Edward Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament did not then permit reports of its debates, and Cave published a column called "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput"the name is taken from the first book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels for which Johnson, among others, wrote re-creations of actual parliamentary speeches. Johnson also published London, a Poem (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), two "imitations" of the Roman writer Juvenal (c. 60c.140). In 1749 Johnson completed Irene, a play in verse, which was produced by Garrick and earned Johnson £300 (about $436).

In the early 1750s Johnson, writing at the rate of two essays a week, published two collections, The Rambler (175052) and The Adventurer (175354). He also continued work on a dictionary of the English language, a project he had begun in 1746 with the help of six assistants. The project was finally completed in 1755. Although he received help from others, Johnson's Dictionary is probably the most personal work of its kind that will ever be put together. His own definition of lexicographer was a "writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," yet the work bears his personal stamp: it is notable for its precise definitions and for its examples, which draw on Johnson's reading of two hundred years of English literature.

Years of success and fame

Johnson's Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, a moral fable (a mythical story that usually teaches a lesson about life) concerned with an innocent young man's search for the secret of happiness, appeared in 1759. The work was immediately successful; six editions and a number of translations appeared during Johnson's lifetime. In 1762 Johnson accepted a yearly pension of £300 from King George III (17381820). A year later he met James Boswell (17401795), the son of a Scottish judge. Boswell became Johnson's devoted companion and eventually wrote the great biography of his hero.

In 1765 Johnson met Henry Thrale, a well-to-do brewer, and in the Thrales' home Johnson found an escape from the solitude he had experienced since his wife's death in 1752. In 1765 Johnson published an eight-volume edition of the works of William Shakespeare (15641616). In 1773 James Boswell persuaded Johnson to join him in a tour of Scotland, and both men recorded their tripJohnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's journal.

Johnson's last great work, the ten-volume Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (better known as the Lives of the Poets ), was completed when he was seventy-two. It is a series of biographical and critical studies of fifty-two English poets. Johnson was saddened in his last years by the death of his old friend Dr. Robert Levett, by the death of Thrale, and by a quarrel with Thrale's widow, who had remarried with, what seemed to Johnson, inappropriate haste. Johnson died on December 13, 1784, in his house in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

For More Information

Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Reprint, Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998.

Clark, Jonathan, and Howard Erskine-Hill, eds. Samuel Johnson in Historical Context. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Clifford, James Lowry. Young Sam Johnson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Samuel Johnson. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1944.

Lipking, Lawrence I. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-0

"Johnson, Samuel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-0

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), American clergyman and educator, was the first Anglican minister in Connecticut and first president of King's College, later Columbia University.

Samuel Johnson was born in Guilford, Conn., on Oct. 14, 1696. His father was a deacon. A precocious student, Samuel acquired a fondness for Hebrew at the age of 6. He was unable to enter grammar school until the age of 11, but at 14 he was admitted to the Collegiate School (now Yale) at Saybrook, Conn. Even before graduating in 1714, he began teaching school at Guilford. When Yale moved to New Haven in 1716, he was made a tutor. For the first 2 years he taught the three lower classes alone, introducing students to the works of two prominent Englishmen—philosopher John Locke and scientist and philosopher lsaac Newton.

However, Johnson's relations with his students were unhappy. A student contingent presented a petition complaining of the "Public Expositions & Disputations & Managements of the Tutors" Johnson was singled out as the worst. Although the Yale Corporation found him guiltless, he tendered his resignation in September 1719 and accepted a call to the pulpit of neighboring West Haven.

Johnson continued to use the growing resources of the Yale library, which had recently acquired the latest English works, including several volumes of liberal Anglican theology. He read and discussed these works with his classmate Daniel Browne and with Yale's new president, Timothy Cutler, and the three developed doubts concerning the validity of the "Congregational Way." In September 1722 the three men announced their misgivings at commencement, launching the "Great Apostasy." Soon after, they sailed to England, where they obtained Anglican ordination. A year later Johnson returned to Stratford, Conn., as the first Anglican minister to the colony and remained the only one for 3 years. On Sept. 23, 1725, he married Charity Nicoll, a widow, and became guardian of her two sons.

The work of propagating and defending the Anglican persuasion in New England consumed 30 years of Johnson's life. As the acknowledged intellectual and ecclesiastical leader of the movement, he was asked to become the head of the new King's College in New York City in 1753. In 1754 he moved his family to New York and began a decade as president of the college.

In a colonial culture of rampant denominationalism, King's College was chartered as a nonsectarian institution with a mixed board of trustees. The only Anglican requirements were that the president always be of the Church of England and that the daily prayers be conducted from the Book of Common Prayer. On Sundays the students attended the church of their choice.

The enrollment was small—only eight boys graduated in the first class of 1758—and the fees were the highest in the Colonies. The boys' median age at entrance was 15, and the attrition rate was high. But this was fertile ground for Johnson. As he advertised in the New York Gazette in 1754, "the chief thing that is aimed at in this college is to teach and engage the children to know God in Jesus Christ, and to love and serve Him in all sobriety, godliness, and righteousness of life, with a perfect heart, and a willing mind."

Johnson taught the first-year class himself so that he might "carry them through the New Testament in its Greek original, and not only make them understand the words but the things, explaining all difficult passages, and giving them a clear understanding of the whole scheme of Christianity." And he ensured that his graduates would have a greater understanding of the "New Philosophy" than he had by devoting three-fourths of the sophomore and junior class curriculum to mathematics and science.

Unfortunately Johnson's personality and probably his well-known disparagement of colonial culture robbed him of success. "He did not figure greatly as a president," wrote President Ezra Stiles of Yale, "but it does not seem to have been for want of Learning. Dr. Johnson was an excellent Classical Scholar—he had few equals in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He was good at the Sciences, easy and communicative, was eminent in Moral Philosophy," as he demonstrated in his book Elementa philosophica (1752). Nevertheless, Stiles concluded, "Some Geniuses, with half the Observation and Reading of Dr. Johnson, would make ten times greater Men."

When Johnson's second wife died of smallpox in 1763—a previous outbreak had carried off his first wife, son, and stepdaughter—he lost the heart to continue and retired to his parish in Stratford. He died on Jan. 6, 1772.

Further Reading

Herbert and Carol Schneider edited Samuel Johnson, President of King's College: His Career and Writings (4 vols., 1929). Johnson's work as president of King's College is recounted in Horace Coon, Columbia: Colossus on the Hudson (1947). His importance as a philosopher is ably discussed in Robert Clifton Whittemore, Makers of the American Mind (1964).

Additional Sources

Carroll, Peter N., The other Samuel Johnson: a psychohistory of early New England, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-johnson

"Samuel Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/samuel-johnson

Johnson, Samuel (English author)

Samuel Johnson, 1709–84, English author, b. Lichfield. The leading literary scholar and critic of his time, Johnson helped to shape and define the Augustan Age. He was equally celebrated for his brilliant and witty conversation. His rather gross appearance and manners were viewed tolerantly, if not with a certain admiration.

Early Life and Works

The son of a bookseller, Johnson excelled at school in spite of illness (he suffered the effects of scrofula throughout his life) and poverty. He entered Oxford in 1728 but was forced to leave after a year for lack of funds. He sustained himself as a bookseller and schoolmaster for the next six years, during which he continued his wide reading and published some translations. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior, and remained devoted to her until her death in 1752.

Johnson settled in London in 1737 and began his literary career in earnest. At first he wrote primarily for Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine—poetry and prose on subjects literary and political. His poem "London," published anonymously in 1738, was praised by Pope and won Johnson recognition in literary circles. His Life of Savage (1744) is a bitter portrait of corruption in London and the miseries endured by writers. Also of note are his long poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and his essays in the periodical The Rambler (1750–52).

Later Life and Works

Johnson's first work of lasting importance, and the one that permanently established his reputation in his own time, was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first comprehensive lexicographical work on English ever undertaken. Rasselas, a moral romance, appeared in 1759, and The Idler, a collection of his essays, in 1761. Although Johnson enjoyed great literary acclaim, he remained close to poverty until a government pension was granted to him in 1762. The following year was marked by his meeting with James Boswell, whose famous biography presents Johnson in exhaustive and fascinating detail, often recreating his conversations verbatim.

In 1764 Johnson and Joshua Reynolds founded "The Club" (known later as The Literary Club). Its membership included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, and Boswell. The brilliance of this intellectual elite was, reportedly, dazzling, and Dr. Johnson (he had received a degree in 1764) was its leading light. His witty remarks are remembered to this day. He was a master not only of the aphorism—e.g., his definition of angling as "a stick and a string, with a worm on one end and a fool on the other" —but also of the quick, unexpected retort, as when, while listening with displeasure to a violinist, he was told that the feat being performed was very difficult: "Difficult," replied Johnson, "I wish it had been impossible!"

In 1765 Johnson met Henry and Hester Thrale, whose friendship and hospitality he enjoyed until Thrale's death and Mrs. Thrale's remarriage. In that same year Johnson's long-heralded edition of Shakespeare appeared. Its editorial principles served as a model for future editions, and its preface and critical notes are still highly valued. In the 1770s Johnson wrote a series of Tory pamphlets. His political conservatism was based upon a profound skepticism as to the perfectibility of human nature. Although personally generous and compassionate, he held that a strict social order is necessary to save humanity from itself.

In 1773 he toured the Hebrides with Boswell and published his account of the tour in 1775. Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779–1781), his last major work, comprises ten small volumes of acute criticism, characterized, as is all of Johnson's work, by both classical values and sensitive perception. Dr. Johnson, as he is universally known, was England's first full-dress man of letters, and his mind and personality helped to create the traditions that have guided English taste and criticism.

Bibliography

Besides the classic biography by Boswell, see biographies by Sir John Hawkins (1787; ed. by B. Davis, 1961; ed. by O. M. Brack, Jr., 2009), J. W. Krutch (1944), J. L. Clifford (1955), W. J. Bate (1977), D. Greene (upd. ed. 1989), R. DeMaria, Jr. (1993), P. Martin (2008), J. Meyers (2008), and D. Nokes (2009); critical studies by W. J. Bate (1955), R. B. Schwartz (1971), P. Quennell (1973), J. T. Boulton, ed. (1978), P. Fussell (1986), N. Hudson (1988), D. Greene (2d ed., 1990), and G. S. Gross (1992); H. Hitchings, Defining the World (2005); R. DeMaria, Jr., and G. J. Kolb, ed., Johnson on the English Language (2005); J. L. Clifford, Johnsonian Studies, 1887–1950 (1951; supplement, 1962); J. L. Clifford and D. J. Greene, A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies (1970); D. Greene and J. A. Vance, Bibliography of Johnsonian Studies, 1970–1985 (1987); J. Lynch, Bibliography of Johnsonian Studies, 1986–1998 (2000).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Samuel (English author)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Samuel (English author)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-english-author

"Johnson, Samuel (English author)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-english-author

JOHNSON, Samuel

JOHNSON, Samuel [1709–84]. English lexicographer, critic, poet, and moralist, who achieved through his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the model of his own writings pre-eminence in his lifetime as an authority on the language. Such comprehensive scholarly works as his edition of SHAKESPEARE (1765) and The Lives of the English Poets (1779–81) drew, like his DICTIONARY, on an encyclopedic knowledge of the authors of his age.

The Dictionary, commissioned by a group of London book-sellers, was in part a response to a widely felt need in the late 17c and early 18c for stability in the language and for canons of correctness in usage. As a language of scholarly communication, English was seen to lack the permanence and concision of LATIN, and the efforts of the French and Italian Academies in bringing about improvements in the vernacular were known and envied. Proposals, especially c.1660–1710, for establishing an English ACADEMY to ‘fix’ the language had come to nothing, and on publication of the Dictionary he was accorded the status of a one-man academy.

Work on the Dictionary took eight or nine years, and was carried out mainly in the large garret at Johnson's house in Gough Square, London. He is thought to have used an interleaved copy of Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum as a foundation word list and had the help of some half a dozen amanuenses, who copied out the quotations which he had chosen. Johnson's perception of his task as a lexicographer changed while the Dictionary was in hand. When he published the Plan of an English Dictionary (1747), he saw himself as a verbal critic, condemning barbarous words and expressions, and guarding the purity of the language. But in the Preface (1755), he disclaimed that intention, saying that all the stubborn uncertainties of usage were not to be blamed on him, since his task was not to form, but merely to record the language.

Johnson's influence

The influence of his work on the development of the language has been widely assumed but cannot be proved and is difficult to assess. In particular, it is often held to have fixed English, spelling; printers' spelling had, however, been established largely in the modern form before 1700, and where Johnson differed from it in his dictionary entries (as in words such as logick and errour) his recommended form has often failed to survive. It is nonetheless likely that, through the countless abbreviated and miniature editions running well into the 19c, the Dictionary played a role in propagating a standard spelling among the less literate and in forming and restraining the writings of the educated. Earlier monolingual dictionaries were mainly concerned with ‘hard’ words: the bookish, Latinate, and technical vocabulary of Renaissance English. Except sometimes in providing etymologies, they were non-historical and paid little regard to literary usage. Johnson differed in seeking to illustrate the meanings of words by literary quotation. He favoured the usage of the preceding century, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden alone accounting for a third of all quotations. The arrangement of his citations is chronological, and Johnson commonly surpasses his predecessors in the elegance of his definitions: enchant ‘to subdue by charms or spells’; graceful ‘beautiful with dignity’; insinuative ‘stealing on the affections’. It can be said that Johnson provided a powerful but conservative model of language usage for at least a century after his time. See ENGLISH IN ENGLAND, JOHNSONESE, JOHNSONIAN, JOURNALISM, PHILOLOGY, PHRASAL VERB, PROSE, SPELLING REFORM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"JOHNSON, Samuel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"JOHNSON, Samuel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel

"JOHNSON, Samuel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel

Johnson, Samuel

Johnson, Samuel (1709–84). Johnson was the son of a bookseller in Lichfield (Staffs.). He attended local schools before spending just one year at Pembroke College, Oxford, 1728–9. His early attempts at teaching failed, but he married the widow Elizabeth Porter at this time (1735). The hard life of Grub Street in London beckoned him next, but it was some years before he was regularly commissioned by Edward Cave, proprietor of the Gentleman's Magazine, to report parliamentary debates and undertake book translations. Johnson wrote his fine poem London at this time (1738), containing the line, ‘Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.’ In 1746–55 Johnson worked on his Dictionary, the first full collation of the English language and a masterpiece of prose. He composed The Vanity of Human Wishes in 1749 and lost his wife three years later. To pay for his mother's funeral, Johnson wrote Rasselas (1759) in one week; it is possibly his finest work, a profound novel upon ‘the choice of life’. Between the larger works Johnson composed periodical moral essays under the title of the Rambler, the Idler, and the Adventurer. In 1762, Lord Bute bestowed upon Johnson a pension of £300 a year, ending his financial difficulties. He met Boswell in the following year, received a doctorate from Dublin in 1765, and met George III in 1767. After receiving his pension Johnson's literary output was smaller, but he produced his masterly edition of Shakespeare (1765), Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), undertaken with Boswell, and Lives of the Poets (1779–81). In addition, he wrote a number of political pamphlets in defence of the government, most notably its policy towards the American revolutionaries. Johnson's religious writings were published posthumously as Prayers and Meditations (1785), underlining his reputation as a devout Christian.

Much of Johnson's fame comes from his personality and conversation. To list his friends is to list many of the leading cultural figures of the 18th cent., painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, novelist Oliver Goldsmith, politician Edmund Burke, and actor David Garrick. All of these were members of the celebrated Literary Club, of which Johnson was a founder; many of the splendid discussions that took place there were recorded by Boswell in his incomparable Life of Johnson (1791). Johnson was a ferocious opponent in debate, but kind and understanding in daily life, loyal to friends, and sympathetic to their shortcomings. His house in London was filled with the needy and upon his death he bequeathed it to his black servant Frank Barber. Johnson was plagued by depression, loneliness, and ill-health, but fought valiantly against them, aided by Hester Thrale, perhaps his closest friend. Politically, he was a Tory, but despite declaring, ‘the first Whig was the Devil,’ he had many Whig friends. To many Samuel Johnson has become the personification of the 18th cent.

Andrew Iain Lewer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel

"Johnson, Samuel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel

Johnson, Samuel (American clergyman, educator, and philosopher)

Samuel Johnson, 1696–1772, American clergyman, educator, and philosopher, b. Guilford, Conn., grad. Collegiate School (now Yale), 1714; father of William Samuel Johnson. He became a Congregationalist minister, but in 1722 joined the Church of England. In 1724 he opened the first Anglican church in Connecticut at Stratford, remaining its minister until 1754, when he became the first president of an Anglican institution, King's College (now Columbia), in New York City. He resigned in 1763 to return to Stratford. A friend and correspondent of the English philosopher George Berkeley, Johnson became the principal exponent in America of Berkeleian idealism. His chief work was Ethica (1746), republished in an enlarged edition by Benjamin Franklin as Elementa Philosophica (1752).

See H. and C. Schneider, ed., Samuel Johnson … His Career and His Writings (4 vol., 1929, repr. 1972); B. Redford, ed., The Letters of Samuel Johnson (2 vol., 1994); biography by E. L. Pennington (1938); study by J. J. Ellis (1973).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Samuel (American clergyman, educator, and philosopher)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Samuel (American clergyman, educator, and philosopher)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-american-clergyman-educator-and-philosopher

"Johnson, Samuel (American clergyman, educator, and philosopher)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-samuel-american-clergyman-educator-and-philosopher

Johnson, Dr Samuel

Johnson, Dr Samuel (1709–84) English lexicographer, poet, and critic. Most notable among his prolific array of works is the Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which established his reputation. He also produced a collection of essays, The Idler (1758–61), and an edition (1765) of the plays of Shakespeare. A discerning critic and trenchant conversationalist, he was co-founder with Joshua Reynolds of ‘The Club’ (1764), later known as ‘The Literary Club’. James Boswell's life of Johnson contains invaluable biographical detail.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johnson, Dr Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Johnson, Dr Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-dr-samuel

"Johnson, Dr Samuel." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/johnson-dr-samuel