The Life of Samuel Johnson

views updated

The Life of Samuel Johnson

by James Boswell


A biography set in eighteenth-century England and Scotland; first published in London in 1791.


The poor son of a bookseller, Samuel Johnson becomes the leading literary figure of his generation. He wins renown for his witty conversation and vigorous, combative intellect—traits that his younger friend James Boswell depicts in vivid, dramatic, often humorous detail.

Events in History at the Time of the Biography

The Biography in Focus

For More Information

James Boswell (1740-1795) was a young, fun-loving, aristocratic, would-be man-about-town when he came to London from his native Scotland in 1762. He soon became a compulsive writer, beginning a detailed journal in which he recorded virtually every significant event or conversation of his daily life. Among the many London celebrities the 22-year-old Boswell sought out was the 5 3-year-old literary giant Samuel Johnson (1709-84), whom he met in May 1763. The two then began a friendship that lasted until Johnson’s death. Outside of his journals (discovered in the twentieth century) and his writings about Johnson, Boswell’s best known literary work is An Account of Corsica(1768), in which he describes the Italian island and its struggles for independence from Genoa. In 1773, Boswell and Johnson traveled to the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides, a voyage that Boswell later immortalized in the Journal oja Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LLD. Based on his (heavily revised) diary of the trip, the Journal was published in 1785, the year after Johnson’s death, and is considered by some to be Boswell’s masterpiece. The Life of Samuel Johnson, regarded by many as the finest biography ever written, has given the world an unforgettable portrait of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a prolific writer—a poet, a lexicographer, a biographer, a playwright, and an essayist—yet Boswell’s biography focuses not on Johnson’s works but on the personality and the opinions of the leading literary figure of his day.

Events in History at the Time of the Biography

Whigs and Tories, Hanoverians and Jacobites

Samuel Johnson was born during the reign of England’s last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne (ruled 1702-14), the daughter of James II. A Catholic, James II had been overthrown in 1688, in favor of his elder daughter Mary, a Protestant, and her Dutch husband, Prince William of Orange. The pair ruled Britain jointly until Mary’s death in 1694. On William’s death in 1702, Mary’s younger sister Anne, also a Protestant, succeeded to the throne, but faced the threat of continuing attempts by her male Catholic Stuart relatives to reclaim the monarchy. Supporters of these attempts, who backed first James II and then his son and grandson (James and Charles, respectively), were called “Jacobites” (from Jacobus, Latin for James).

Closely involved in these events was the emergence of political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. Most Jacobites were Tories (though not all Tories were Jacobites). Generally more conservative than the Whigs, they represented the landed aristocracy and gentry. Tories tended to espouse values regarded as “traditional”: the divine right of kings through legitimate succession, strong distinctions of social rank, and the supremacy of the Established or Anglican Church. Samuel Johnson, a lifelong Tory, appears to have been a devout Anglican and a Jacobite, as well as a staunch advocate of social rank, an assessment that is open to some debate. In any case, the Whigs, by contrast, represented the growing middle class: merchants, bankers, and other businessmen, whose wealth was based on cash rather than land and who sometimes had little sympathy for conventional distinctions of social rank. They were often non-Anglicans (called Dissenters or Nonconformists) and tended to support the power of Parliament over that of the monarch. With the exception of a brief period during the reign of Queen Anne, the Whigs dominated British politics for most of the eighteenth century.

The Whigs found a natural ally in George Ludwig, elector of Hanover. (An elector was a prince entitled to elect the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.) Though a German prince, he was also the closest Protestant Stuart relative in the line of succession, and on Anne’s death in 1714, the Whigs secured the British throne for him. Despite sporadic Jacobite opposition, the Hanoverian dynasty would hold the throne until 1837.

Old and Young Pretenders

The first Jacobite rebellion under the Hanoverians occurred in 1715, only a year after George I came to the throne. James II’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart (often called “the Old Pretender” or James III, though he was never crowned), landed with troops in Scotland in December of that year. Within a few months, however, he was forced to flee as the uprising collapsed. James’s son Charles Edward Stuart, called “the Young Pretender” or “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” revived the Jacobite cause with a final rebellion 30 years later, in 1745-46, which also ended in failure and flight. These Jacobite revolts had the glamorous air of a lost cause that pitted a “true” principle—the legitimate succession of the monarchy—against overwhelming odds. In fact, The True Briton was the name of the leading Jacobite journal, a phrase that Samuel Johnson echoed in the poem “London” (1738), his earliest literary success, which was also a violent attack on the Whigs. “Here let those reign, whom Pensions can incite,” Johnson wrote, implying that the Whigs who controlled the king and his court kept power through the distribution of pensions, or annual subsidies given by the king (Johnson in Clark, p. 145). Another of Johnson’s early works was an anonymously published biography of the poet Richard Savage, who had celebrated the 1715 revolt and attacked the Hanoverian succession in several poems written at the time of the revolt. Savage died in jail in 1743.

Religion played a complex and ambivalent role in the Jacobite struggle. The Stuarts’ Catholicism brought them support from France and Ireland, Catholic lands that also had political reasons for opposing England. In contrast, the strongly Presbyterian Scotland supported the Jacobites solely for national reasons—the Stuarts had originally been Scotland’s royal house. Similarly, the Stuarts’ Catholicism did not necessarily preclude support for them in Protestant England; Anglicans could present themselves as supporting their divinely sanctioned monarch despite religion rather than because of it. This helped the English Jacobites perpetuate their cause by allowing them to claim a certain disinterested moral superiority, but in the end it also limited Jacobite support in England, whose populace included many that refused to back a Catholic ruler. One of the Jacobites’ major strengths was thus also their greatest weakness.

The Seven Years’ War

The Jacobite cause was only one factor in Britain’s long-running conflict with France, a struggle that was renewed in the middle of the eighteenth century after several decades of uneasy peace. Indeed, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745-46 (which included an abortive French invasion of England that ended when the French ships were wrecked in a storm) was only one campaign in a Europewide conflict, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). This war, in which France, Prussia, and Spain opposed Britain, Austria, and Holland, proved inconclusive. Far more decisive was the war that followed, in which France and Britain (and their respective allies) again opposed each other. Called the “Seven Years’ War” in Europe, where it lasted from 1756-63, it is known as the “French and Indian War” in North America, where battles were fought beginning in 1754. As its two branches indicate, this war’s consequences reached well beyond Europe. However, the contest boiled down to one between Britain and France, each with its vast colonial possessions. Britain won decisively, and took not only France’s North American territory in Canada, but also French possessions in India. This was the final stage in Britain’s emergence as the world’s leading naval and colonial power.

The Seven Years’ War also marked the end of significant support for Jacobite aspirations in Britain. Instead, a new patriotic fervor grew out of Britain’s victories and her expanded global influence, a fervor that was given a boost in 1760 by the death of King George II and the accession of his son George III, who was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs to be regarded as an Englishman rather than a German. Writing in the 1770s, Johnson voiced the proud sentiments of many former Jacobites, as well as those of the Whigs who had led the nation through the war: Britain had won a great triumph in which “France was disgraced and overpowered in every quarter of the globe … and the name of an Englishman was reverenced through Europe” (Johnson in Clark, p. 190).

The American Revolution

In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, Britain’s colonies in the United States of America grew steadily more dissatisfied with British rule, particularly when measures such as the Stamp Act (1765) imposed a heavy tax that was unpopular with the colonists. While the British government intended the tax to help defray the cost of defending the colonies (as Britain had in the Seven Years’ War), the colonists resented being taxed when they were not represented in Parliament. “No taxation without representation” was the famous cry, to which many Englishmen responded with sympathy. Johnson found himself in a minority among his friends when he published a vituperative attack on the colonists entitled “Taxation no Tyranny” (1775); the piece was commissioned by government ministers, but even they were compelled to tone it down before publication. Far from his earlier Jacobite refusal to acknowledge the Hanoverians’ right to the throne, Johnson now castigated the colonists for denying “the authority of their lawful sovereign” (Johnson in Clark, p. 226). His rigid hostility to America and Americans (amusingly


“When a man is tired of London,” Boswell records Johnson as saying, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” (Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 233). The three decades from roughly 1750 to 1780, often called the “Age of Johnson,” brought dramatic changes to the writer’s beloved city. Its population was booming, and would double over the eighteenth century—from an estimated 500,000 in 1700 to well over a million in 1800. Before 1750, only London Bridge spanned the Thames River, so that ferries and barges constantly crossed from one side to the other, limiting passenger and cargo transportation within the city itself. Beginning in 1750 with Westminster Bridge, half a dozen new bridges were built, allowing greater expansion to the south; new docks went up in the east, as well as new housing in the north and the stylish west By the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 (incidentally the year in which Boswell met Johnson), London could claim to be the world’s financial capital. Always important in English social life, it now enjoyed an uncontested preeminence in literature and the arts as well as in politics and finance. At the center of the city’s glittering cultural life Johnson reigned supreme. His friends included fashionable portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, playwright Oliver Goldsmith, historian Edward Gibbon, political writer Edmund Burke, and actor David Garrick. They formed the Literary Club, meeting for dinner and long (often combative) discussions on politics and other matters at one of the city’s many lively coffee houses or taverns.

recounted by Boswell) continued after the surrender of General Cornwallis, the British commander, to U.S. General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.

Boswell and Johnson together

In arguing about America with Johnson, Boswell held fast to his own opinions, but at other times he is said to have shown “traces of conscious submissiveness and unconscious resentment” toward his friend (Brady, p. 163). For the most part, though, theirs was a warm, familiar relationship. Johnson, 31 years older than Boswell, became his mentor. The son of noted jurist Lord Auchinleck, Boswell would eventually become a lawyer himself, then forego this avocation to write and rewrite The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Boswell admired Johnson for his writings and for his ability to put his finger precisely on the pulse of a matter and speak his mind. For his part, Johnson relished Boswell’s mental quickness and good humor, though at first Boswell struck him as a confused and rather lonely young man. In fact, the friendship had a deep emotional component for both parties, Johnson gratified by Boswell’s unflagging interest in him and Boswell by his mentor’s deep affection. So often did Boswell seek reassurance of it that Johnson was in fact moved to grumble: “You always seem to call for tenderness. My regard for you is greater almost than I have words to express, but I do not choose to be always repeating it” (Johnson in Brady, p. 161). Drawn to drink and women, Boswell looked up to Johnson, admonishing himself in his journals to develop strength of mind and character, to “be Johnson” (Bate, p. 361). Over the years the two discussed love, drink, sex, melancholy, uses of the orange peel, the source of the English language. Boswell is believed to have taken notes on their talks for entries in his journal, which covered these and other matters. Sometimes he probably drew off from company to jot down what had just been said, but mostly he made memos at night of the goings-on of the day, coming back to them later to write full-blown entries. He wrote up his entry for October 1, 1776, for example, on October 17, 1776, working from notes—“as I allways do” (Johnson in Scott, p. 35).

Close but not without ripples, the 21-year friendship saw moments of disharmony. Boswell risked rebuke to hear his mentor speak on various subjects, and Johnson delivered it up, sometimes treating the younger man roughly. Annoyed by his questions, Johnson once declared that Boswell’s company was enough to drive a man out of his own house. Boswell mostly tolerated such outbursts and ultimately the friendship endured. One day the two touched on the topic of biography. Boswell wondered whether a biographer should mention his subject’s vices and personal idiosyncrasies. In Johnson’s opinion, this would be a questionable practice. Clearly The Life of Samuel Johnson delves into Johnson’s idiosyncrasies, though to what degree Boswell’s high esteem for Johnson affects the objectivity of the portrait remains unknown.

The Biography in Focus

Contents summary

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. His parents were not young when he was born and would have only one other child, Nathaniel, who died at age 24. Samuel’s father, Michael Johnson, was a marginally successful bookseller who owned a shop in Lichfield and also opened a stall in the nearby city of Birmingham every market day. It is widely believed that Johnson’s lifelong tendency toward depression, or “a vile melancholy” came from his father (Samuel Johnson, p. 35). From his mother, Sarah Ford, “a woman of distinguished understanding” and piety, he developed a strong religious faith (Samuel Johnson, p. 36). The precocious little boy also displayed “that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him” when he turned on and pummeled “as well as his strength would permit” a school teacher who protectively tried once to escort him home because of his severe near-sightedness (Samuel Johnson, p. 38). Aside from his poor vision, as a boy Johnson also contracted scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph glands), known as the “king’s evil” because the touch of a monarch was thought to cure it. His mother actually took her son to London, where she succeeded in having him touched by Queen Anne, but to no avail. The disease left him blind in one eye and disfigured by facial scars.

In school Johnson’s imposing intelligence and prodigious memory were matched only by his laziness. He would often put off his work until the last minute and then do it all in a single spurt. Though he was uncommonly large, his poor sight kept him from joining his friends in games—which suited his laziness, as he told Boswell later. It did not, however, stop him from exploring the books in his father’s store, where he read randomly but voraciously, as he told Boswell, “all ancient writers, all manly” (Samuel Johnson, p. 43). His father did not have enough money to send him to university, but a wealthy schoolmate of his promised to support him there, so at 19 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. A teacher at the college told him that his undirected reading had made Johnson “the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there” (Samuel Johnson, p. 43). “Johnson knew more books than any man alive,” the same teacher later told Boswell (Samuel Johnson, p. 46). However, he rarely read a book all the way through, possessing an uncanny talent for dipping into it and “seizing at once what was valuable,” as Boswell puts it (Samuel Johnson, p. 46). He used this technique throughout his life. He particularly loved to read poetry and composed poems himself.


Like many of his countrymen, Boswell sympathized with the American cause, but Johnson could be counted on to erupt into torrents of abuse when the subject arose in conversation: “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging” (Samuel Johnson, p. 176); “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American” (Samuel Johnson, p. 247).

His friend, however, failed to honor the promise to support him, and after three years Johnson was forced to leave Oxford. His father, now insolvent, could not help him financially, and Johnson found menial work in a local school. Quitting the unpleasant job after a few months, he drifted, staying with a friend in Birmingham for six months and then renting a room there before returning to Lichfield in 1734. He set up a private school near Lichfield, but the only students he attracted in the year-and-a-half of its existence were David Garrick, the future famous actor, and his brother George, plus one other boy. He wed a widow named Elizabeth Porter, who was nearly twice his age, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1752. Apparently “Tetty” was not particularly well liked by some of Johnson’s friends: “I have seen Garrick exhibit [imitate] her,” Boswell reports, “by his exquisite talent for mimickry, so as to excite the heartiest bursts of laughter” (Samuel Johnson, p. 52). After the failure of his school, Johnson decided to try his luck in London; by coincidence Garrick went to the city at the same time to finish his education and become a lawyer, though he soon gave up those plans for the stage. Johnson was working on a play called Irene(about a Christian slave girl in the court of a Turkish sultan), which he tried unsuccessfully to get produced. It would not be performed until 1749 when Garrick, by then in charge of the prestigious Drury Lane Theater, produced it.

Johnson found work writing articles for a popular periodical called The Gentleman’s Magazine, which provided income while he worked on other projects, like his poem “London,” which was published in 1738. Then in 1744 he published his biography of Richard Savage, collecting the old Jacobite’s life story as he and Savage, both in a state of poverty, wandered the streets of London.


Johnson’s was the first English dictionary that attempted to be J comprehensive and precise in its definitions, while incorporating quotations from well-known authors to illustrate them. It was modeled on a French dictionary produced by the French Academy, which (Boswell relates) took its 40 members 40 years to finish. When Boswell asked how Johnson could intend to do it in three years, Johnson replied, “Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman” (Samuel Johnson, p.60). While the Dictionary is a work of serious lexicography, Johnson’s personality crept into some of the best known definitions: oats, for example, are “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people” excise is defined as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities” and a lexicographer is “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge” (Samuel Johnson, pp. 345, 81).

Johnson’s modest publishing success was far outstripped by the meteoric rise of Garrick, who shot to fame and fortune almost overnight. During the years of the Jacobite rebellion (1745-46), Johnson published little, an inactivity that Boswell supposes may have been out of “sympathetick anxiety” with the revolt (Samuel Johnson, p. 58). Or, Boswell goes on, Johnson may already have been planning the compendium that would consume much of his time in coming years: his “arduous and important work, his DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE” (Samuel Johnson, p. 59). A group of booksellers gave him an advance for the work, but the expenses (he had to hire six copyists to help compile it) left little for him to live on. Still, work on the dictionary kept him busy for some years; when finally published in 1755, it brought him the fame and literary reputation he sought.

Johnson continued other projects while working on the Dictionary, publishing a poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in 1749. In that year he also got into a dispute with Garrick over his play, Irene, which Garrick wished to edit for production. The play was a flop despite Garrick’s editing, but Johnson took his failure philosophically, saying that the public knew best. The following year he began a periodical in the tradition of The Tatler and The Spectator(famous magazines of an earlier generation), calling it The Rambler. Johnson wrote the magazine alone, putting out two editions a week for two years, from March 1750 to March 1752. In the same month that he ended the magazine, Johnson’s beloved wife died, leaving him (as his servant Francis Barber told Boswell) “in great affliction” (Samuel Johnson, p. 71).

The success of his Dictionary in 1755 brought him an honorary Master’s degree from Oxford as well as immediate fame. However, Johnson still had very little income, having long since spent all of the advance he had received for the Dictionary. He continued writing articles for various periodicals, and resumed work on an older project for which he had been unable to find financial support—an annotated edition of Shakespeare. In 1757 he began another periodical, The Idler, which Boswell describes as having “less body and more spirit” than The Rambler; in some of the issues, Johnson addresses his own laziness, describing “the miseries of idleness, with the lively sensations of one who has felt them” (Samuel Johnson, p. 85). Like those in the earlier periodical, these pieces were usually hastily written at the last minute.

Johnson’s mother died in 1759, when he was 50 and she was 90; it distressed him that he had not been to see her for several years, though he had diligently sent her money that he could hardly afford. Soon afterward, hoping to settle his mother’s debts and also pay for her funeral, Johnson wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, completing the short novel during the evenings of a single week. (Although Boswell does not describe the novel’s reception, it became and remains Johnson’s most widely read work.) In 1762, two years after coming to the throne, King George II bestowed on Johnson an annual pension of £300 a year, enough to live on modestly. Johnson wondered if it was proper to accept the customary honor for public service, since in his Dictionary he had sardonically defined pension as “pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country” (Samuel Johnson, p. 345). Joshua Reynolds, the painter, assured him that his definitions hardly applied to him personally.

The following year, 1763, was for the 22-year-old Boswell “a memorable year; for in it I had the happiness to obtain the acquaintance of that extraordinary man whose memoirs I am now writing” (Samuel Johnson, p. 93). From this point, the account becomes much more detailed, so that the last 20 years of Johnson’s life take up two thirds of the book. The tone of the biography changes as Boswell’s personal observations play a larger part, and he relates scene after scene of entertaining Johnsonian conversation. Their first meeting, however, was anything but auspicious. The Scottish Boswell, aware of Johnson’s well-known prejudice against his native land, was self-conscious and awkward, and the big, bearlike Johnson got off several witticisms at Boswell’s expense. Boswell relates his own embarrassment without flinching, as is typical of his technique throughout the biography, in which he is willing to show himself openly, almost enthusiastically, in an unflattering light. Despite his discomfiture, Boswell called on Johnson a few days later. He found the famous writer’s apartment, furniture, and clothing “sufficiently uncouth … but these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment he began to talk” (Samuel Johnson, p. 97). Johnson welcomed him, and the two soon became friends. As he had hoped, Boswell found himself joining Johnson and his literary friends for long evenings of wine and talk at the Mitre tavern or the Turk’s Head coffee house, Johnson’s favorite haunts. But Boswell’s father put an end to his dissipated but enjoyable life in London by enjoining his son to study for the law; agreeing, Boswell made plans to go abroad to study and travel. He persuaded Johnson to see him off, and the two journeyed to Harwich, where Boswell embarked for Holland. They made their goodbyes and promised to write. “As the vessel put out to sea, I kept my eyes on him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestick frame in his usual manner: and at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared” (Samuel Johnson, p. 122).

It was in 1764, while Boswell was traveling in Europe, that Johnson and his friends founded the Literary Club, meeting weekly at the Turk’s Head. Using Johnson’s daily journal as his guide, Boswell records Johnson’s growing dissatisfaction with his own laziness since receiving the pension. The following year, Johnson met a couple, the Thrales, with whom he became intimate friends. Henry Thrale, a well known brewer, and his vivacious wife Hester, lived in a magnificent house just outside London at Streatham, where Johnson would often go for long visits. In that same year, 1765, he also published his long-awaited edition of Shakespeare. Boswell returned in February. In 1767 “one of the most remarkable events of Johnson’s life” occurred: he enjoyed a long conversation with the king, who sought him out while Johnson was conducting research in the royal library (Samuel Johnson, p. 133). “I find it does a man good to be talked to by his Sovereign,” Johnson reported to his fascinated friends, after recounting the conversation in detail (Samuel Johnson, p. 136).


One of the most famous passages in The Life of Samuel Johnson concisely illustrates Johnson’s trenchant wit. Johnson and Boswell were discussing the philosophical ideas of George Berkeley, who questioned the objective existence of matter, when Boswell remarked that Berkeley’s argument was hard to refute. “I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered,” Boswell writes, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus”’ (Samuel Johnson, p. 122)

In 1773 Johnson joined Boswell for a strenuous tour of Scotland, which Johnson enjoyed despite his famous bias against the Scots. Boswell refers the reader to his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides for further information. Johnson and Boswell continued their social rounds through the 1770s, which Boswell reports in vignette after small vignette: conversations on literature, art, politics, death (which Johnson feared immensely), and drinking (Johnson had begun abstaining, saying that he found moderate drinking impossible). A characteristic episode occurred in 1776, when Boswell brought Johnson together at a dinner party with another friend of his, the radical politician John Wilkes. The two men were polar opposites in every respect, and had attacked each other in print, but they had never met. Knowing that Johnson would probably refuse to meet Wilkes if approached directly, Boswell took advantage of Johnson’s “spirit of contradiction” and relayed the invitation to the dinner party, but pretended to remember at the last minute that Wilkes would be there as well, suggesting that perhaps Johnson would prefer not to attend after all (Samuel Johnson, p. 217). As Boswell had hoped, Johnson then insisted on going—which he did, getting along very well with Wilkes, with whom he enjoyed several jokes at Boswell’s expense.

Johnson wrote little until 1779-81, when he produced his last major work, The Lives of the Poets, consisting of biographic and critical sketches of the major English poets. In 1783 Johnson suffered a stroke and his health began declining sharply, though his conversation, Boswell assures us, was as vigorous and lively as ever. Samuel Johnson died on December 13, 1784, at age 75.

A question of “character”

The critic Ralph W. Rader observes that “the subject of Boswell’s life is not the life of Johnson but the character of Johnson as revealed in the facts of his life” (Rader in Bloom, p. 11). “Character” is indeed a central concept of the biography, both in the sense of personality (as above) and in the older sense of social reputation, or status. It is in this latter sense that Boswell uses the word most often. For example, in discussing whether Christian values permit dueling over honor, Johnson argued that “a man may shoot a man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who invades his house” (Samuel Johnson, p. 299). In another conversation, Boswell wondered why Johnson, with his great talents, was not dissatisfied that “he was not called to some great office, nor had attained to great wealth”; Johnson, irritated, responded that the subject was inappropriate: “Nobody … has a right to talk in this manner, to bring before a man his own character …” (Samuel Johnson, p. 287).

“Character” in this sense is thus closely linked to social status, which in British society was most often determined by class. Johnson’s lowly origins did not prevent him from holding highly conservative views about the value of social rank, which he firmly believed was a social necessity. Responding to the idea that social distinctions should be based on merit alone, Johnson replied dismissively:

Why, Sir, mankind have found that this cannot be. Were that to be the only distinction among mankind, we should soon quarrel about the degrees of it. Were all distinctions abolished, the strongest would not long acquiesce, but would endeavor to obtain a superiority by their bodily strength.... A man is born to hereditary rank; or his being appointed to certain offices, gives him a certain rank. Subordination tends greatly to human happiness....

(Samuel Johnson, p. lll)

This description does allow for flexibility in social “subordination,” for some recognition of merit in the assignment of status. The stage career of Johnson’s lifelong friend David Garrick offers a colorful example. When Garrick began his career, “players” (as actors were called) occupied a low rung on the social ladder. By the time of his death in 1779, Garrick’s own great wealth and celebrity had brought his profession greater respectability. As Johnson put it, “Here is a man who has advanced the dignity of his profession. Garrick has made a player a higher character” (Samuel Johnson, p. 241).

Garrick’s personal “character,” of course, has little to do with his public “character” but the same cannot be said of Johnson, whose public reputation derived directly from his brilliant, quirky personality, as expressed in both his writings and his life. While generous, frank, moral, and compassionate on the outside, Johnson, as shown in Boswell’s biography, was a privately troubled man, given to constant self-recrimination and gloominess. Johnson himself faults his tendency to keep scrutinizing his own behavior—“I resolve,” he wrote in his diary for September 18, 1764, “[t]o drive out vain scruples.… God help me … to combat scruples” (Johnson in Bate, p. 381). It is Boswell’s understanding of the deep connection between the man’s public and private “characters” that lends his portrait of Johnson such force.

Sources and literary context

Boswell’s primary source for The Life of Samuel Johnson was Johnson himself, and the most vivid scenes are those in which Boswell is present. Boswell relied upon his extensive journals, and he included numerous letters between Johnson and himself in his text. He also interviewed others and used any notes or correspondence, usually quoting verbatim, that they had saved in order to fill in gaps in his knowledge. The genre of biography was developing rapidly in the eighteenth century, as exemplified by the biographical works of Johnson himself and others, and Boswell stands squarely within this tradition, even as he expands the possibilities inherent in it (by including letters, for example, or the notes of others). Johnson’s reputation was such that even during his lifetime it was clear that he would be an apt subject for biography. Within a few years of his death, two of his friends, the former Hester Lynch Thrale (who had remarried an Italian singer named Piozzi after her husband’s death) and Sir John Hawkins, published their own versions of Johnson’s life. Hawkins had known Johnson longer than Boswell, and Hester Lynch Piozzi had known him more intimately. Lynch Piozzi’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson appeared in 1786, and Hawkins’s Life of Samuel Johnson in 1787. In trying to find a publisher for his own much more detailed book, Boswell was admonished that the two earlier works had saturated the market and that the public was losing interest. Several times in The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell slights both authors, describing them unflatteringly, correcting their versions of events.

Boswell himself sought to portray Johnson differently from the others, by writing his life in scenes, like a drama. In keeping with the effort, he took some dramatic license—exaggerating Johnson’s use of “Sir” at the beginning of a remark, for example, and calling him Dr. Johnson, when “Mr.” was the title Johnson himself seems to have preferred. The effort turned out to be an unceasing endeavor; the apparently unsatisfied Boswell released a second edition of the biography in 1793, and was hard at work on a third when he died in 1795.

Publication and reception

Since its publication, some critics of The Life of Samuel Johnson have insisted that its worth resides solely in the greatness of its subject, and that Boswell’s contribution was merely that of a sort of secretary. Many more, however, have seen Boswell as a great artist and writer in his own right. By the 1830s there were critics, like the historian Thomas B. Macaulay, who claimed that Boswell’s portrait surpassed the historical Johnson himself in interest:

Boswell’s book has done for him [Johnson] more than the best of his own books could do. The memory of other authors is kept alive by their works. But the memory of Johnson keeps many of his works alive. The old philosopher is still among us in the brown coat with the metal buttons, and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming with his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being who has been more than seventy years in the grave is so well known to us. (Macaulay in clingham, p. 3)

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.

Black, Jeremy. The Politics of Britain, 1688-1800. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

_____. An Illustrated History of Eighteenth Century Britain, 1688-1793. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Ed. Christopher Hibbert. London: Penguin, 1986.

Brady, Frank. James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1755. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Clark, J.C.D. Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion, and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Clingham, Greg. Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Personal History of Samuel Johnson. London: Longman, 1971.

Hyde, Mary Morley Crapo. The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1972.

Lipking, Lawrence I. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Scott, Geoffrey. “The Making of the Life of Johnson as Shown in Boswell’s Fist Notes.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Ed. James L. Clifford. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970.

About this article

The Life of Samuel Johnson

Updated About content Print Article