Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was a devout Anglican and committed Tory, and has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”.He is also the subject of “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.
Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and attended Pembroke College, Oxford for just over a year, before his lack of funds forced him to leave. After working as a teacher he moved to London, where he began to write miscellaneous pieces for The Gentleman’s Magazine. His early works include the biography The Life of Richard Savage, the poems “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, and the play Irene.
After nine years of work, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755; it had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” The Dictionary brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary. His later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays, and the widely read tale Rasselas. In 1763, he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later travelled to Scotland; Johnson described their travels in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Towards the end of his life, he produced the massive and influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a collection of biographies and evaluations of 17th- and 18th-century poets.
Johnson had a tall and robust figure, but his odd gestures and tics were confusing to some on their first encounter with him. Boswell’s Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson’s behaviour and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome (TS), 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 recognised as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and even as the only great critic of English literature.
Who’s behind this? That’s me, Matt Kirkland. I run a bunch of vaguely literary and historical projects like this one, including:
- Dracula Daily, a time-shifted reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula via email newsletters
- The Charles Williams Library, where I designed and published collectors hardback editions of the novels of overlooked author Charles Williams
- Dumb Cuneiform, a service that will take your short message, transcribe it into cuneiform, and send you a real clay tablet in the mail
- TilmanRiemenschneider.com, a catalogue of works from the incredible medieval woodcarver with that very difficult-to-spell name