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Samuel Johnson

(b. Sept. 7, 1709, Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire – d. Dec. 13, 1784, 8 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, London )

Gender: M

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the son of a bookseller. He was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and the King Edward VI grammar school at Stourbridge. He entered Pembroke College, Oxford, at the age of nineteen, but his family’s poverty forced him to leave the university after a year. In 1735, at the age of 25, he married Elizabeth Porter, known as “Tetty”, a 45-year-old widow with three children. He attempted to set up a school, but it attracted only three pupils, one of them the future actor David Garrick. Johnson suffered all his life from what is now considered to have been Tourette’s syndrome, which caused him to suffer from involuntary facial and physical movements, and he was considered unsuitable for employment in a public setting. He also suffered throughout his life from bouts of depression, which he called “the black dog”. He moved to London, and in 1737 he found employment with Edward Cave as a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine, and began a lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Carter, who was also a contributor to the magazine. In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with the proposal to create an authoritative dictionary of the English language. He signed a contract for 1,500 guineas, and completed the work within nine years. This major scholarly achievement made his reputation, and Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate, but his wife did not live to see it published, dying in 1752. During the time he was preparing the Dictionary, he wrote numerous other works, including a series of essays published twice-weekly as The Rambler, which included contributions from Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot. In 1756 he started a new journal, The Literary Magazine, or Universal Review, and in 1758 The Idler, which ran for two years. When Johnson’s mother died in 1759, he wrote The History of Rasselas, a short utopian fable about the pursuit of happiness, reputedly in order to raise the funds to pay for her funeral. It was immediately popular and was constantly reprinted. His next major work was an annotated edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, which he started to write in 1756, and finally appeared in 1765. In 1763, Johnson formed a group known as The Club that included his friends Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. The Club met every Monday evening, and its members also regularly attended the meetings of the Bluestocking circle. In 1765 he met Henry Thrale and his wife Hester Thrale, and he stayed with them in Streatham for the next 16 years, until Henry Thrale’s death. Hester Thrale enjoyed the notoriety that his presence brought to her, but found him a rude and demanding guest. In 1773 he travelled round Scotland with James Boswell, a tour that resulted in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. In 1777 he was commissioned by a group of publishers to write The Lives of the English Poets, a series of biographies intended to appear as a preface to selections of each poet’s work. The work was published in 1781, and his dismissive article on Lord Lyttelton led to a rift with Elizabeth Montagu; he was also believed to have spoken contemptuously of her own Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear. Johnson suffered a stroke in June 1783, and spent the rest of his life in poor health, dying on 13th December 1784. He was recognised during his lifetime as one of the greatest English men of letters, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Also known as:

  • Samuel Johnson

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Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.