Biography of Samuel Johnson, 18th Century Writer and Lexicographer

Reinvented literary criticism and created the first English dictionary

Samuel Johnson portrait
Samuel Johnson portrait.

Historical / Getty Images

Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709—December 13, 1784) was an English writer, critic, and all-around literary celebrity in the 18th century. While his poetry and works of fiction—though certainly accomplished and well-received—are not generally regarded among the great works of his time, his contributions to the English language and the field of literary criticism are extremely notable.

Also notable is Johnson’s celebrity; he is one of the first examples of a modern writer achieving great fame, in large part for his personality and personal style, as well as the massive posthumous biography published by his friend and acolyte James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Fast Facts: Samuel Johnson

  • Known For: English writer, poet, lexicographer, literary critic
  • Also Known As: Dr. Johnson (pen name)
  • Born: September 18, 1709 in Staffordshire, England
  • Parents: Michael and Sarah Johnson
  • Died: December 13, 1784 in London, England
  • Education: Pembroke College, Oxford (did not obtain a degree). Oxford conferred a Master's degree on him after the publication of A Dictionary of the English Language.
  • Selected Works: "Irene" (1749), "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (1749), "A Dictionary of the English Language" (1755), The Annotated Plays of William Shakespeare" (1765), A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland" (1775)
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Porter
  • Notable Quote: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."

Early Years

Johnson was born in 1704 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. His father owned a bookshop and the Johnsons initially enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Johnson’s mother was 40 years of age when he was born, at the time considered an incredibly advanced age for pregnancy. Johnson was born underweight and appeared quite weak, and the family did not think he would survive.

Dr. Johnson Birthplace in Litchfield, Staffordshire, England Victorian Engraving, 1840
Antique engraving of Dr. Johnson's birthplace in Litchfield, Staffordshire, England. Victorian engraving, 1840. bauhaus1000 / Getty Images

His early years were marked by illness. He suffered from mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis. When treatments were ineffective, Johnson underwent an operation and was left permanently scarred. Nonetheless, he grew into a highly intelligent boy; his parents often prompted him to perform feats of memory to amuse and astound their friends.

The family's financial situation deteriorated and Johnson began to write poetry and to translate works into English while working as a tutor. The death of a cousin and a subsequent inheritance allowed him to attend Pembroke College at Oxford, though he did not graduate because of his family’s chronic lack of money.

From a young age, Johnson was plagued by a variety of tics, gestures, and exclamations—apparently beyond his direct control—that disturbed and alarmed the people around him. Although undiagnosed at the time, the descriptions of these tics have led many to believe that Johnson suffered from Tourette Syndrome. However, his quick wit and charming personality ensured that he was never ostracized for his behavior; in fact, these tics became part of Johnson’s growing legend when his literary fame was established.

Early Writing Career (1726-1744)

  • A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735)
  • London (1738)
  • Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744)

Johnson began work on his only play, Irene, in 1726. He would work on the play for the next two decades, finally seeing it performed in 1749. Johnson described the play as his "greatest failure" despite the fact that the production was profitable. Later critical assessment agreed with Johnson’s opinion that Irene is competent but not particularly brilliant.

After leaving school, the family’s financial situation worsened until Johnson’s father died in 1731. Johnson sought work as a teacher, but his lack of a degree held him back. At the same time, he began working on a translation of Jerónimo Lobo's account of the Abyssinians, which he dictated to his friend Edmund Hector. The work was published by his friend Thomas Warren in the Birmingham Journal as A Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735. After several years working on a few translation works which found little success, Johnson secured a position in London writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1737.

It was his work for The Gentleman’s Magazine that first brought Johnson fame, and shortly afterwards he published his first major work of poetry, "London." As with many of Johnson’s works, "London" was based on an older work, Juvenal’s Satire III, and describes a man named Thales fleeing London’s many problems for a better life in rural Wales. Johnson did not think much of his own work and published it anonymously, which sparked curiosity and interest from the literary set of the time, although it took 15 years for the author’s identity to be discovered.

Johnson continued to seek work as a teacher and many of his friends in the literary establishment, including Alexander Pope, attempted to use their influence to have a degree awarded to Johnson, to no avail. Penniless, Johnson began to spend most of his time with the poet Richard Savage, who was jailed for his debts in 1743. Johnson wrote Life of Mr. Richard Savage and published it in 1744 to much acclaim.

Innovations in Biography

At a time when biography chiefly dealt with famous figures from the distant past, observed with appropriate seriousness and poetic distance, Johnson believed biographies should be written by people who knew their subjects, who had, in fact, shared meals and other activities with them. Life of Mr. Richard Savage was in that sense the first true biography, as Johnson made little effort to distance himself from Savage, and in fact, his closeness to his subject was very much the point. This innovative approach to the form, portraying a contemporary in intimate terms, was highly successful and changed how biographies were approached. This set off an evolution leading to our modern-day concept of the biography as intimate, personal, and contemporaneous.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary, which was first published in 1755, on display in London, circa 1990. Epics / Getty Images

A Dictionary of the English Language (1746-1755)

  • Irene (1749)
  • The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)
  • The Rambler (1750)
  • A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
  • The Idler (1758)

At this point in history, there existed no codified dictionary of the English language regarded as satisfactory, and Johnson was approached in 1746 and offered a contract to create such a reference. He spent the next eight years working on what would become the most widely-used dictionary for the next century and a half, eventually supplanted by the Oxford English Dictionary. Johnson’s dictionary is imperfect and far from comprehensive, but it was very influential for the way Johnson and his assistants added commentary on individual words and their usage. In this way, Johnson's dictionary serves as a glimpse into 18th-century thinking and language use in a way that other texts do not.

Closeup of pages from early editions of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of English Language including handwritten notes on margins.
Closeup of pages from early editions of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of English Language including handwritten notes on margins. Walter Sanders / Getty Images

Johnson put immense effort into his dictionary. He wrote a lengthy planning document setting out his approach and hired many assistants to perform much of the labor involved. The Dictionary published in 1755, and the University of Oxford conferred a Master’s degree on Johnson as a result of his work. The dictionary is still regarded highly as a work of linguistic scholarship and is frequently quoted in dictionaries to this day. One of the major innovations that Johnson introduced to the dictionary format was the inclusion of famous quotes from literature and other sources to demonstrate the meaning and use of words in context.

The Rambler, The Universal Chronicle, and The Idler (1750-1760)

Johnson wrote his poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes" while working on the dictionary. The poem, published in 1749, is again based on a work by Juvenal. The poem did not sell well, but its reputation rose in the years after Johnson’s death, and is now regarded as one of his best works of original verse.

Johnson began publishing a series of essays under the title of The Rambler in 1750, eventually producing 208 articles. Johnson intended these essays to be educational for the up-and-coming middle class in England at the time, noting that this relatively new class of people had economic affluence but none of the traditional education of the upper classes. The Rambler was marketed to them as a way of buffing their understanding of the subjects often brought up in society.

A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds
A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynoldss, after the original by James William Edmund Doyle. From l-r are James Boswell, Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton the Younger and Oliver Goldsmith. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1758, Johnson revived the format under the title The Idler, which appeared as a feature in the weekly magazine The Universal Chronicle. These essays were less formal than The Rambler's, and were frequently composed shortly before his deadlines; some suspected he used The Idler as an excuse to avoid his other work commitments. This informality combined with Johnson’s great wit made them extremely popular, to the point where other publications began reprinting them without permission. Johnson eventually produced 103 of these essays.

Later Works (1765-1775)

  • The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765)
  • A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775)

In his later life, still plagued by chronic poverty, Johnson worked on a literary magazine and published The Plays of William Shakespeare in 1765 after working on it for 20 years. Johnson believed that many early editions of Shakespeare’s plays had been poorly edited and noted that different editions of the plays often had glaring discrepancies in vocabulary and other aspects of the language, and he sought to revise them correctly. Johnson also introduced annotations throughout the plays where he explained aspects of the plays that might not be obvious to modern audiences. This was the first time anyone had attempted to determine an "authoritative" version of the text, a practice that is common today.

Johnson met James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer and aristocrat, in 1763. Boswell was 31 years younger than Johnson, but the two men became very close friends in a very short time and remained in touch after Boswell returned home to Scotland. In 1773, Johnson visited his friend to tour the highlands, which were regarded as a rough and uncivilized territory, and in 1775 published an account of the trip, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. There was in England at the time a deep interest in Scotland, and the book was a relative success for Johnson, who had been awarded a small pension by the king by this time and was living much more comfortably.

Autograph: Dr Samuel Johnson, 1781
Letter from Dr Samuel Johnson to Warren Hastings, Governer-General of Bengal, asking for his support concerning a projected translation of Ariosto by John Hoole, Auditor at the India House. 29 January 1781. Signed: Dr Samuel Johnson. Culture Club / Getty Images

Personal Life

Johnson lived with a close friend named Harry Porter for a time in the early 1730s; when Porter passed away after an illness in 1734, he left behind his widow, Elizabeth, known as "Tetty." The woman was older (she was 46 and Johnson 25) and relatively wealthy; they married in 1735. That year Johnson opened his own school using Tetty’s money, but the school was a failure and cost the Johnsons a great deal of her wealth. His guilt over being supported by his wife and costing her so much money ultimately drove him to live apart from her with Richard Savage for a time in the 1740s.

When Tetty passed away in 1752, Johnson was wracked with guilt for the impoverished life he had given her, and often wrote in his diary about his regrets. Many scholars believe that providing for his wife was a major inspiration for Johnson’s work; after her death, it became increasingly difficult for Johnson to complete projects, and he became almost as famous for missing deadlines as he did for his work.

Death

Johnson suffered from gout, and in 1783 he had a stroke. When he had somewhat recovered, he traveled to London for the express purpose of dying there, but later left for Islington to stay with a friend. On December 13, 1784 he was visited by a teacher named Francesco Sastres, who reported Johnson’s last words as "Iam moriturus," Latin for "I am about to die." He fell into a coma and died a few hours later.

Legacy

Johnson’s own poetry and other works of original writing were well-regarded but would have slid into relative obscurity if not for his contributions to literary criticism and the language itself. His works describing what constituted "good" writing remain incredibly influential. His work on biographies rejected the traditional view that a biography should celebrate the subject and instead sought to render an accurate portrait, transforming the genre forever. The innovations in his Dictionary and his critical work on Shakespeare shaped what we have come to know as literary criticism. He is thusly remembered as a transformative figure in English literature.

In 1791, Boswell published The Life of Samuel Johnson, which followed Johnson’s own thoughts on what a biography would be, and recorded from Boswell’s memory many things that Johnson actually said or did. Despite being subjective to a fault and larded with Boswell’s obvious admiration for Johnson, it is regarded as one of the most important works of biography ever written, and elevated Johnson’s posthumous celebrity to incredible levels, making him an early literary celebrity who was as famous for his quips and wit as he was for his work.

Titlepage of 'The Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD' by James Boswell.
Titlepage of 'The Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD' by James Boswell. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

Sources

  • Adams, Michael, et al. “What Samuel Johnson Really Did.” National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/septemberoctober/feature/what-samuel-johnson-really-did.
  • Martin, Peter. “Escaping Samuel Johnson.” The Paris Review, 30 May 2019, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/05/30/escaping-samuel-johnson/.
  • George H. Smith Facebook. “Samuel Johnson: Hack Writer Extraordinaire.” Libertarianism.org, https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/samuel-johnson-hack-writer-extraordinaire.