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Samuel Johnson Biography And Visits

Dr Johnson's House, Gough Square, London


History is often the story of certain individuals who are picked out for special attention. Certain leaders, generals, thinkers, artists, inventors, or whoever it might be, are described in ways that make it seem as though they shape events, and reflect widely upon what happens in history. In some ways this style of biography of famous figures derives from a very old tradition. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, biography became a tool to glorify figures considered to set a religious example to ordinary people. History itself was seen in terms of telling a story of an individual who would illustrate moral lessons. The actual facts of an individual's life came second. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that biography began to consider people as individuals, with flaws as well as good qualities. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words "biography" and "autobiography" entered English in the late seventeenth century. The decades that followed were a time when biography became more sophisticated, and a time when the idea of a "special" person became more complicated. There was still a need to believe in special people worthy of unusual attention. But there was also a sense that it was increasingly difficult to define who those people were. It was in the life of scholar and writer Samuel Johnson that this confusion can be seen playing itself out. Crucially, Johnson was to be the subject of one of the most famous biographies in history, written by a Scot named James Boswell, who met and befriended Johnson late in his life. The biography Boswell eventually wrote looked at the nature of judging an individual and their worth from every angle.




Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield - this image is copyright free

Samuel Johnson was born on 18th September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller. The house where he was born in the market square in Lichfield still stands, and is now a museum dedicated to Johnson - the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. After early schooling in Stourbridge young Samuel returned home and spent two years reading anything that came his way. He found books by Petrach behind some apples on a shelf, and read them. "In this irregular manner... I had looked into a great many books, which are not commonly known at the universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put in their hands by tutors; so when I came to Oxford, Dr Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the university that he had ever known come there" (Life Of Johnson P44).

From the beginning Johnson seems to benefit from not being told the normal differences between what is considered important and unimportant. In the eyes of Dr Adams his new student was uniquely qualified for a place at Pembroke, because he had never been told which books to read and which to leave alone.


Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford on 31st October 1728. It was during a college vacation that the first symptoms of a life long mental disorder began to show themselves. There seemed to be elements of depression, and perhaps Tourettes Syndrome. Johnson also had severe financial problems, which in 1731 forced him to leave Pembroke before he had completed his degree. Michael Johnson's book business had failed, and he died soon after in December 1731. Samuel worked in a school for a few months, and hated it. He then moved to Birmingham, worked for a bookseller, and met a local woman, a widow named Elizabeth Porter. Although Mrs Porter was twice the age of her young admirer, they married in July 1735. Johnson set up a small school, but was not happy as a school master, and in March 1837 he and his wife moved to London and lived just off the Strand. In London work was found on Gentleman's Magazine, first editing, and then writing parliamentary reports. This work was not well paid, and with his marriage probably becoming strained, Johnson would often walk the night time streets of London, frequently in the company of poet Richard Savage. Johnson was to write a biography of Savage, and here we see the new uncertainty as to who is important in society and who isn't. Savage wasn't a great poet. He was much better at drinking and having a good time with his friends. When he was advised that he was getting too old for this kind of life Savage moved to Bristol and tried to settle down. Unable to turn his back on his old, dissipated ways, Savage ended up dying in a debtors' prison in 1743. This was the man who Johnson honoured with a biography, an "innovative work" in the opinion of Johnson scholar Walter Jackson Bate (see Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate P180). It was innovative in the sense that the subject for a successful biography was a dissolute poet who died in a debtors prison, and is best known as the subject of a biography rather than for anything he actually did or wrote. Measurements of human importance were changing.



The front door of the house in Gough's Square - now known as Dr Johnson's House - where the Dictionary Of The English Language was compiled

In 1747 Johnson got his big break. He was commissioned by a group of booksellers to compile the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language. The fee was £1565, out of which it was necessary to hire six secretaries to assist with the work. In Gough Square, just off Fleet Street, a house had an upper floor converted into a studio where the work could progress - a house which still survives as Dr Johnson's House. The over-confident author claimed he could deliver the book in three years, but it was actually to take nine years of labour to finish the two huge volumes. During this time Johnson continued to work on magazine articles, published a newspaper called The Rambler, and staged an unsuccessful play called Irene, produced by actor David Garrick, who had been one of Johnson's pupils in his school master days. He also, in March 1752, had to face the trauma of his wife's death. It was after all of this, after, in fact, most of the major events for which his life is remembered, that Johnson met James Boswell. Boswell was a young Scot, wondering what to do with his life, coming to London to escape his overbearing father who wanted him to hurry up and train as a lawyer. Johnson was Boswell's hero, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts Boswell managed to meet the object of his adoration in a London book shop in May 1763. In a scene recognisable from today's cult of celebrity, Boswell describes himself becoming incoherent with nerves at this first meeting: Boswell is introduced by an actor friend, Thomas Davies, who knew Johnson.

"Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, - he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, "Look my Lord it comes" (Life Of Johnson P277). Boswell had pictured his hero living in a "state of solemn elevated abstraction" and now here in front of him was the great man. Inevitably the reality did not quite match the image. Looking at Johnson more closely at a meeting a few days later Boswell noted: "His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled powdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose: his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers" (Life Of Johnson P281). Boswell had to cope with seeing the reality behind the image he had built up, and though he never stopped admiring Johnson, he did see him as a real person and not some kind of ideal, as biographers from an earlier age would have tended to do.

With a firm friendship established, Boswell began to keep detailed notes of his meetings with Johnson. In many ways the days of Johnson's work had already passed. He had his pension of £300 a year from the government in recognition of services, and to be honest most of Boswell's book chronicles chats in various taverns. The fascinating thing about these conversations is the way the idea of individual human importance is studied in such detail. Sometimes standard ideas of human importance will be turned on their heads. For example there is a passage, quoting from an essay, describing Johnson amusing himself by watching people in the street. He does not laugh at those who are poor or infirm, but at those with pretentions of importance:

"He that stands to contemplate the crowds that fill the street of a populous city, will see many passengers whose air and motion it will be difficult to behold without contempt and laughter; but if he examine what are the appearances that powerfully excite his risibility, he will find among them neither poverty nor disease, not any involuntary or painful defect. The disposition to derision and insult is awakened by the softness of foppery, the swell of insolence, the liveliness of levity, or the solemnity of grandeur; by the sprightly trip, the stately stalk, the formal strut, and the lofty mien; by gestures intended to catch the eye, and by looks elaborately formed as evidences of importance" (Life Of Johnson P155).

On the other hand Johnson is certainly no republican. He defends the aristocracy at any opportunity, even if they might be the ones amusing him by strutting and preening their way along London streets. It is in conversations about this that we see how contradictory ideas of human worth are in Boswell's book. Johnson, chatting to Boswell in the Turk's Head coffee house in the Strand one day in July 1763, challenges the fancy modern idea that merit should be valued over fortune and inherited rank. They were talking about undeserving aristocrats having more money than clever writers. Boswell didn't know if this was fair. Johnson has none of it: "Suppose a shoe maker should claim an equality with me" says Johnson. The shoemaker is not paid as much as Johnson even though, as the disgruntled shoemaker says: "mankind could do better without your books, than without my shoes". The argument between the writer and the shoemaker could go on all day, and never be settled either way. Even today when we work much more on the basis of merit, it is still difficult to work out which kind of merit should take precedence over another. In place of this confusion Johnson suggests we accept inherited social gradations, not because a lord is better than a writer or a shoemaker, but because inherited rank is a convenient fiction to stand in for a sense of social distinction which can never be agreed on: "Thus, Sir, there would be a perpetual struggle for precedence, were there no fixed invariable rules for the distinction of rank, which creates no jealousy, as it is allowed to be accidental" (Life Of Johnson P317).

So after all of this it seems impossible to say who qualifies as an important person and who doesn't. The same confusion can be applied to places. Johnson for example thinks that the big showy places in London are all very well, but "... if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts" (Life Of Johnson P298). In fact the whole idea of importance stops meaning anything. When Boswell worries that his journal includes too many minor incidents, Johnson says: "There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible" (Life Of Johnson P307). Johnson himself loved the apparently inconsequential. He wrote a famous essay defending the drinking of tea, which moved Boswell to observe that this essay "shews how very well a man of genius can write upon the slightest subject" (Life Of Johnson P 222). By the end of his book, in December 1784, with its subject's health worsening daily, it is fitting that Boswell should say: "It is not my intention to give a very minute detail of the particulars of Johnson's remaining days, of whom it was now evident, that the crisis was fast approaching, when we are meant to 'die like men, and fall like one of the princes' "(Life Of Johnson P1378). The quote is from Psalm 82. It sums up the whole feeling of the book that men and princes are the same, even in a society that values the difference between a man and a prince. Samuel Johnson had a massive biography written about him, but in a sense anyone could be valued in this way and share in this attention. At the beginning of The Life of Johnson Boswell mentions a woman who became fixated with Johnson's father, and moved to Lichfield to be near him. Michael eventually agreed to marry her, but by then it was too late, and the poor woman died, seemingly of depression. Michael paid for a tombstone at Lichfield Cathedral which reads:

Here lies the body of

Mrs Elizabeth Blaney, a stranger

She departed this life

20 of September, 1694

By the time you get to the end of Life of Johnson you can't help but feel that even Elizabeth Blaney has a part to play in the world. As Johnson says, each constituent part of St Paul's Cathedral means nothing on its own, but put all those parts together, and you get St Paul's Cathedral (Life Of Johnson p311). This was the passing of an age where the Church told people what and who was important. Increasingly a sense of value was to become relative and fluctuating. Nothing and nobody could really ever claim importance by default again, at the same time as an importance is revealed in everyone and everything.

Samuel Johnson died on 13th December 1784. James Boswell spent his last troubled years drinking too much and writing his Life Of Johnson. It was published to great acclaim in 1791, after which Boswell's mental and physical health rapidly declined. He died in May 1795.