A Monument to the Mother Tongue

Englishman Samuel Johnson’s work helped define the English language for readers on both sides of the Atlantic

HUMANITIES, Spring 2020, Volume 41, Number 2

Last year, without much fanfare, Yale University Press completed one of the longest-running literary projects in American publishing, bringing out the last of a 23-volume edition of the works of Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century Englishman renowned for his essays, poetry, and lexicography.

The Yale series wasn’t produced in exact sequence, so it was volume 20, a collection of Johnson’s reviews, prefaces, and ghost writings, that brought the project to completion when it was published on January 8, 2019, capping an effort begun in 1955.

Started during the Eisenhower administration, the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson spanned generations of scholars, requiring a literary leap of faith. Would Johnson (1709–1784) still have an audience when the definitive version of his writings finally came to fruition?

Yale’s team needn’t have worried. More than half a century after the project’s launch, Johnson’s profile seems as high as ever, as the arrival of other Samuel Johnson books in recent publishing seasons has made clear. In 2018, Oxford University Press released Samuel Johnson, editor David Womersley’s nearly 1,300-page omnibus edition of Johnson’s best work. Last year, Leo Damrosch’s The Club, an account of Johnson’s memorable social circle, attracted widespread critical acclaim, recognized by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year.

“Johnson, in fact, has much to say to our age, and he says it better than most of our modern thinkers,” scholar Henry Darcy Curwen noted in 1963. Curwen’s remark seems equally true today, although the sheer abundance of books by and about Johnson presents a challenge. With so much Johnson material in circulation, where’s a newcomer to begin?

For the novice Johnsonian, Dr Johnson said . . . , a slender collection of his choice comments on everything from old age to books, idleness to insults, and fame to vanity, is a good place to start. Reading this pamphlet-sized compendium, totaling just under 40 pages, is like flipping through Johnson’s mental Rolodex, offering a cursory, convivial survey of his sizeable intellect.

Here we meet Johnson as he was popularly known: the witty, self-made social commentator, famous for greeting big questions at street level. There’s a pungency to his pronouncements that invites comparisons to the wry sensibility of Benjamin Franklin, who showed a debt to Johnson in the proverbs he offered in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Both men, says Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, were “more comfortable exploring practical thoughts and real-life situations than metaphysical abstractions or deductive proofs.”

Take, for example, Johnson’s thoughts on advice: “Vanity is so frequently the apparent motive of advice, that we, for the most part, summon our powers to oppose it without any accurate enquiry whether it is right.”

Johnson’s remark about the even distribution of mortality is just as cutting: “It may be said that disease generally begins that equality which death completes.” His conclusion about vanity, like so many of Johnson’s insights, sounds so timely that it could have been snipped from this morning’s newspaper: “We always think ourselves better than we are, and are generally desirous that others should think us still better than we think ourselves.”

The two women who compiled Dr Johnson said . . . , Margaret Eliot and P. G. Suarez, became intimately familiar with his legacy while working at his former home at 17 Gough Square in London, which is now open as an historical site. The house was empty and in bad shape when philanthropist and Liberal Member of Parliament Cecil Harmsworth bought it in 1911, restoring it for public visitors.

In acquiring Johnson items for the home’s collection, Harmsworth insisted that they reflect, as the museum’s website puts it, “the cheery home of an impoverished writer.” Although he achieved some measure of financial security in old age because of a royal pension, Johnson struggled to make ends meet most of his life.

Born in Lichfield, England, in 1709 to a poor bookseller, Johnson learned early that the literary trade and poverty often keep close company. He gained admittance to Oxford but could afford to stay only a year, and health problems posed other hardships. An infection during infancy had damaged his eyesight. Johnson also suffered from tics, as well as behavior that today might be diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder, such as his scrupulous avoidance of pavement cracks. Depression touched his life, too.

Novelist and playwright Fanny Burney described what it was like to be in Johnson’s presence: “His mouth is in perpetual motion, as if he was chewing—he has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers, and twisting his hands—his body is in continual agitation, seesawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion.”

Physically and mentally restless, Johnson seemed inevitably drawn to the kinetic culture of London, where he moved in 1737, after marrying Elizabeth Porter. In the city he grew to love—famously declaring that if one is bored with London, one is bored with life— Johnson refined his skills as a poet and magazine essayist. What Johnson would write about Joseph Addison, an earlier English essayist, could easily describe his own style: “As a teacher of wisdom he may be confidently followed, . . . he appears neither weakly credulous nor wantonly sceptical; his morality is neither dangerously lax nor impractically rigid. . . . Truth is shown sometimes as the phantom of a vision; sometimes appears half-veiled in an allegory; sometimes attracts regard in the robes of fancy; and sometimes steps forth in the confidence of reason. She wears a thousand dresses, and in all is pleasing.”

Johnson’s essays don’t so much reveal new truths as affirm familiar ones, prompting the reader to nod in recognition of a shared human condition. As Johnson wrote in one of his essays, his readers “more frequently need to be reminded than informed.”

Consider the opening of Johnson’s 1758 essay on political partisanship, which seems as freshly contemporary as when it was written more than two and a half centuries ago:

Credulity, or confidence of opinion too great for the evidence from which opinion is derived, we find to be a general weakness imputed by every sect and party to all others, and indeed by every man to every man.

Of all kinds of credulity, the most obstinate and wonderful is that of political zealots; of men, who, being numbered, they know not how nor why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow.

Though Johnson’s calmly argued essays might be read—or perhaps misread—as an exercise in above-it-all detachment, he wasn’t the sort of writer who took pleasure in keeping the world at arm’s length. Solitude, an abiding resource for so many literary artists, seemed alien to his constitution.

History reflexively records him, of course, as the top banana in an iconic duo, paired with James Boswell, the protégé whose Life of Samuel Johnson memorialized him in the most acclaimed biography of all time.

But Boswell’s biography, published in 1791, isn’t merely the record of an acolyte remembering his idol. The common image of Johnson, one no doubt popularized by many who have never really read Boswell’s Life, is that of a self-appointed pundit dispensing endless proverbs from his coffee-house perch. But Johnson’s famed formulations flowed from engaged debate, sometimes with Boswell, but also with an informal community of British intellectuals that came to be known as The Club. Its members included philosopher Edmund Burke, economist Adam Smith, and historian Edward Gibbon.

What Johnson craved, more than admiration, was argument, a critical crucible for shaping his literary art. Here’s how Boswell memorably described Johnson’s creative vision:

His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.

A measure of emotional friction—sometimes bracing, often burdensome—informed Johnson’s family life as well. His marriage was a muddle, with the couple living apart much of the time until Elizabeth’s death in 1752. Despite his precarious finances, Johnson had a habit of taking troubled friends under his roof. “They included,” Damrosch writes, “a learned but irritable blind lady, an unlicensed medical practitioner who treated the poor, a woman who had been his late wife’s companion, and a reformed prostitute. Though they helped to assuage Johnson’s loneliness, they were hardly a congenial lot.”

Johnson’s generosity invites us to consider a passage in Rasselas, a kind of allegory that he published in 1759 about a mythical prince who argued that to know contentment, it was vital to regularly connect with suffering. As the prince tells a listener, “I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness.”

That sense of struggle also runs through his poems, which aren’t as celebrated as his essays, though they do frequently end up in anthologies. Typical of their sensibility are these lines from “London,” his 1738 homage to his adopted city: “This mournful truth is everywhere confessed / Slow rises worth by poverty depressed.”

The notion of genius stymied by lack of money was a continuing theme of Johnson’s life in the years he pursued, with uneven resources and little help, the publication of his master work, a major new dictionary of the English language. He embarked on the project in 1746 and didn’t finish until 1755, nearly a decade later. That a visually impaired writer with little money would take up such a huge project was audacious, to say the least, but Johnson toiled away in the top floor of his Gough Square residence, often singeing his wig when he got too close to the candlelight.

Centuries later, Johnson’s Dictionary is best known as an entertainment, since he would often defy our typical conception of a reference volume by inserting subversive humor into his definitions. His lexical inside jokes have become classics, a number of them stemming from his snobbish put-downs of the Scottish as rubes. Boswell, who was himself Scottish, got the last word on the subject, noting in his biography Johnson’s “capricious and humorous indulgence” in the Dictionary.

Perhaps Johnson’s most-quoted entry concerns oats, which he defines as a “grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Johnson defines a patron as one “who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.” Politically conservative and a Tory, Johnson used his Dictionary to take a few swipes at the rival Whigs, too. He defines a leader as a person “at the head of any party or faction: as the detestable (Thomas) Wharton was a leader of the whigs.”

Johnson sometimes directed the biting humor of the Dictionary inward, perhaps most notably when he defined a lexicographer as a “harmless drudge.” Such verbal vinegar makes Johnson’s Dictionary a durable piece of fun. While its mammoth size discourages casual reading, several anthologies, including a Penguin Classics edition edited by David Crystal, offer a lively distillation of choice material for the layman, a nice diversion for a rainy day.

Crystal, a renowned linguist, readily admits that perusing a dictionary might sound dull: “Who, apart from lexicographers suffering from withdrawal symptoms, would ever want to read for pleasure a selection of entries from a dictionary?”

Johnson was almost never dull, although Crystal argues that beyond its puckish asides, the Dictionary is also a valuable piece of scholarship. The influence of Johnson’s work “on English dictionary-making was immense,” Crystal notes, “reaching across the Atlantic (where his Dictionary became the standard reference for over fifty years) and extending into the end of the nineteenth century, when James Murray’s [Oxford] English dictionary bowed respectfully in its direction.”

For the English, Johnson’s Dictionary was something else: a great monument to the mother tongue, as epic in its own way as the skyline of London itself. Johnson’s work as a Shakespeare scholar, as well as his massive critical survey of English verse, The Lives of the Poets, affirmed his stature as a literary lion. He received honorary advanced degrees from Trinity College in Dublin and the University of Oxford, prompting admirers in later years to call the man who had never finished college “Dr. Johnson.”

In 1762, King George III granted him a royal pension of 300 pounds a year, which Johnson accepted to remedy his money worries, though he had ruefully defined “pensioner” in his Dictionary as a “slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master.”

Whatever his reservations about official privilege, Johnson’s fellow citizens knew that his only master was the English language he’d done so much to celebrate. After he died on December 13, 1784, Johnson was interred in Westminster Abbey, occupying the Poets’ Corner where many of his country’s most revered writers are memorialized.

Over at Johnson’s former home on Gough Square, though, talk of his passing is discouraged. When Harmsworth, who secured the house as a historical treasure, was offered the chance to acquire Johnson’s death mask for the property’s collection, he declined it as too gloomy. Look out the home’s windows these days, and you see a towering nearby office building, a testament to how much London has changed since Johnson’s time. What hasn’t changed is Johnson’s presence in the world of letters, with softcover anthologies like Curwen’s A Johnson Sampler and editor Donald Greene’s Samuel Johnson: The Major Works still drawing readers.

“No one but a blockhead,” the lifelong freelancer Johnson famously declared, “ever wrote, except for money.”

But Johnson, it turns out, also ended up writing himself into posterity. “Such was Samuel Johnson,” his old friend Boswell wrote in concluding his Life, “a man, whose talents, acquirements and virtues, were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.”