The Man of Letters – A Tribute to Samuel Johnson

by |September 18, 2014

Samuel Johnson, widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the English language, was born on this day in 1709. We’ve put together a few facts about the man described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”

– Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, and remains arguably the most influential work in the English language. Pulitzer-prize winning writer Walter Jackson Bate believed the dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.”

– Despite being one of the most respected scholars of his time, Johnson lived much of his life in poverty, and on the 16th of March 1756 was arrested for an outstanding debt of £5 18s.

– Johnson believed in portraying biographical subjects accurately and including any negative aspects of their lives. Because of his insistence on accuracy in biography, Johnson had to struggle against a society that was unwilling to accept biographical details that could be viewed as tarnishing a reputation. He always believed biographies should not be limited to the most famous and that the lives of lesser individuals, too, were significant.

– When it came to Shakespeare’s plays, Johnson emphasised the role of the reader in understanding language: “If Shakespeare has difficulties above other writers, it is to be imputed to the nature of his work, which required the use of common colloquial language, and consequently admitted many phrases allusive, elliptical, and proverbial, such as we speak and hear every hour without observing them”.

– He was an opponent of slavery on moral grounds, and once proposed a toast to the “next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies”

– Despite being known as “Dr. Johnson”, he despised the title and in his final years was often found drinking in taverns with working men who knew him only as ‘Sam’.

– Johnson hated the Scots, with Hester Thrale once observing: “We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch and indeed to be abused by them in return.”

– Despite being a man of letters, Johnson hated long novels, criticizing Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa despite praising much of the novel. Johnson believed only three novels written before his death could have been longer. Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

– James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is often cited as the greatest biography ever written, much of its success attributed to Johnson’s encouragement of Boswell to write an honest account of him.

The Life of Samuel Johnson

by James Boswell

‘Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner; but no man alive has a more tender heart’

In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the towering figures of English literature is revealed with unparalleled immediacy and originality, in a biography to which we owe our entire knowledge of the man himself. Through a series of wonderfully detailed anecdotes, Johnson emerges as a sociable figure, vigorously engaging and fencing with great contemporaries such as Garrick, Goldsmith, Burney and Burke, and of course with Boswell himself. Yet anxieties and obsessions also darkened Johnson’s private hours, and Boswell’s attentiveness to every facet of Johnson’s character makes this biography as moving as it is entertaining.

In this new and unabridged edition, David Womersley’s introduction examines the motives behind Boswell’s work, and the differences between the two men that drew them to each other. It also contains chronologies of Boswell and Johnson, appendices and comprehensive indexes, including autobiographical details

Grab a copy of The Life of Samuel Johnson here

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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