Monday, June 19, 2006
Read Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson, free from Project Gutenberg
Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Among students of philosophy, Dr. Johnson is perhaps best known for his "refutation" of Bishop Berkeley's idealism. During a conversation with his biographer, Johnson became infuriated at the suggestion that Berkeley's immaterialism could not be refuted. In his anger, Johnson powerfully kicked a nearby stone and proclaimed, of Berkeley's theory, that "I refute it thus!".
Life and work
The son of a poor bookseller, Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He attended Lichfield Grammar School. On October 31, 1728, a few weeks after he turned nineteen, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. After thirteen months, however, poverty forced him to leave Oxford without taking a degree. He attempted to work as a teacher and schoolmaster, initially being turned down by the headmaster of Adams' Grammar School, Revd. Samuel Lea, but then finding work at a school in Stourbridge. Aged twenty-five, he married Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter, a widow twenty-one years his senior.
A portrait of Johnson from 1775 by Joshua Reynolds showing Johnson's intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes.
In 1737, Johnson, penniless, left for London with his former pupil David Garrick. There he found employment with Edward Cave, writing for The Gentleman's Magazine. For the next three decades, Johnson wrote biographies, poetry, essays, pamphlets, parliamentary reports and even prepared a catalogue for the sale of the Harleian Library. He continued to live in poverty for much of this time. The poem London (1738) and the Life of Savage (1745; a biography of Johnson's friend and fellow writer Richard Savage, who had shared in Johnson's poverty and died in 1744) are important works from this period.
Between 1747 and 1755, Johnson wrote perhaps his best-known work, A Dictionary of the English Language. Although widely praised and enormously influential, Johnson did not make much money from it as he had to bear the expense of its long composition. During this time, Johnson also wrote a series of semi-weekly essays under the title The Rambler. These essays, often on moral and religious topics, tended to be more grave than the title of the series would suggest. They ran until 1752. Initially they were not popular, but once collected as a volume they found a large audience. Johnson's wife died shortly after the final number appeared.
Johnson began another series, The Idler, in 1758. These were shorter and lighter than The Rambler and ran weekly for two years. Unlike his independent publication of The Rambler, The Idler was published in a weekly news journal.
In 1759, Johnson published his satirical novel Rasselas, said to have been written in two weeks to pay for his mother's funeral. At some point, however, Johnson gained a notoriety for dilatory writing; contemporary poet Charles Churchill wrote of him that "He for subscribers baits his hook / and takes your cash, but where's the book?"
In 1762, Johnson was awarded a government pension of three hundred pounds a year, largely through the efforts of Thomas Sheridan and the Earl of Bute. Johnson met James Boswell, his future biographer, the following year. Around the same time, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. By now, Johnson was a celebrated figure. He received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765, followed by one from Oxford ten years later.
In 1765, Johnson met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and Member of Parliament, and Thrale's wife, Hester. They quickly became friends and soon Johnson became a member of the family. He stayed with the Thrales for fifteen years until Henry's death in 1781. Hester Thrale's reminiscences of Johnson, together with her diaries and correspondence, are second only to Boswell as a source of biographical information on Johnson.
In 1773, ten years after Johnson had met Boswell, the two of them set out on A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, the title Johnson used for his account of their travels published in 1775. (Boswell's account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, was published in 1786.) Their visit to the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides took place while the post-Jacobite pacification was crushing the Scottish clan system and the consequent romanticisation of Gaelic culture. Johnson proceeded to attack the claims that James Macpherson's Ossian poems were translations of ancient Scottish literature, on the false basis that the Scottish Gaelic language "never was a written language." However, Johnson also aided Scottish Gaelic by calling for a Bible translation, which was produced soon afterward. Until then, Scottish Gaels had been made to use Bedell's Irish Gaelic translation.
During the 1770s, Johnson spent considerable time in Edinburgh with Boswell and Lord Monboddo, who between them
produced an extensive correspondence and mutual literary reviews.
Johnson's final major work was the Lives of the English Poets, a project commissioned by a consortium of London booksellers. The Lives, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet's work. Johnson died in 1784 and received a burial in Westminster Abbey.
Large and powerfully built, Johnson had poor eyesight, was hard of hearing and had a scarred face as a result of childhood scrofula. He also suffered from a number of tics and other involuntary movements; the symptoms described by his contemporaries suggest that Johnson may have suffered from Tourette syndrome and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder. He tended towards melancholia.
Johnson was a a devout, conservative Anglican, a staunch Tory and a compassionate man, supporting a number of poor friends under his own roof. He was an opponent of slavery and once proposed a toast to the "next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies".  He had a black manservant, Frank, whom Johnson made his heir.  He admitted to sympathies for the Jacobite cause but by the reign of George III he had come to accept the Hanoverian Succession. He remained a fiercely independent and original thinker, which may explain his deep affinity for John Milton's work despite Milton's intensely radical and, for Johnson, intolerable political and religious outlook.
Johnson's fame is due in part to the success of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell, however, met Johnson after Johnson had already achieved a degree of fame and stability, leading Boswell's biography to emphasize the latter part of Johnson's life. Consequently, Johnson has been seen more as a gruff but lovable society figure than as the struggling and poverty-stricken writer he was for much of his life.
Before arriving in London, Johnson stayed in Birmingham, where he is remembered in a frieze within the Old Square. Birmingham Central Library holds a Johnson Collection, containing around two thousand volumes of his works (including many first editions) plus literary periodicals and books about him.