Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, is perhaps the greatest single 'man of letters' in English literary history. He is often now known as Dr Johnson; to his contemporaries he was Dictionary Johnson; and to the next century he was known as "The Great Cham" [of English Letters]. He wrote works of verse, factual and fictional prose and a drama, and vast quantities of journalism. His lasting fame, apart from having inspired one of the central works of English biography (Boswell's 'Life'), is owed to his Dictionary, of 1755; but other works of scholarship include his edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765).

He was born in Lichfield. His early life was not conspicuously fortunate - he had several illnesses that marked him for life, and his schoolteachers appeared "very severe, and wrong-headedly severe" (Boswell). His greatest fortune was in his father's trade as a bookseller - the boy read widely and voraciously - and a gift of money that allowed him to study at Oxford for just over a year. (He never earned a degree.) After various attempts at 'schoolmastering', when one of his pupils was the famous actor (and lifelong friend) David Garrick, he went to London to be a writer. In this career, he began as a 'Grub-street' hack, or 'literary drudge', first gaining regular employment as a contributor to The Gentleman's Magazine, to which he contributed parliamentary reports, book reviews, and miscellaneous pieces between 1738 and 1745. From 1750 to 1752, Johnson published two essays a week in a series called The Rambler. Journalism continued with some 30 papers contributed to The Adventurer (1752-54), and more than 100 essays in the Universal Chronicle under the name of The Idler (1758-60). This pseudonym hints at his lifelong tendency to 'melancholia', or depression, partly caused by his incorrigible sense of his own laziness and lack of worth. But his output was prodigious.

His greatest poems are Latinate in form and in inspiration. London: in imitation of the third satire of Juvenal (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes: the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, imitated show the influence on him of classical Latin satire. His prose works include the fictions The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe [sic] and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), and many biographies, including a series of Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of [about 50 of] the English Poets (the Lives of the Poets, 1779, 1780 and 1781). His verse tragedy called Irene was written 1736-7, and published and performed (produced by Garrick) in 1749.

Much of the information in this page is derived from, or checked in, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.