Samuel Johnson is, next only to William Shakespeare
, perhaps the most quoted of English
writers. The latter part of the 18th century
is often (in English-speaking countries, of course) called, simply, the Age of Johnson
He was born in September 1709 in Lichfield, England (near Birmingham), and died in December 1784 in London. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller in Lichfield.
In 1728 he went to Pembroke College, Oxford. His mother paid for the first year, but his other sources of financing fell through, so he had to drop out after just the one year.
In 1737 he went to London with his pupil, David Garrick, hoping to complete and sell his tragedy, Irene (pronounced eye-REE-nee) and make a living as a writer. He had no luck with it. Irene finally appeared, thanks to Garrick's help, in 1749. In the meantime, he took miscellaneous writing jobs: he wrote biographies (including the Life of Savage), political satires (Marmor Norfolciense), and a series of reports called Debates in Parliament for Gentleman's Magazine from 1741 to 1744. His first hit came in 1738 -- a poem called London, an imitation of a satire by the Latin poet Juvenal. (His other famous poem is The Vanity of Human Wishes from 1749.)
In 1745 he published Observations on Macbeth as a specimen of an edition of Shakespeare he was hoping to produce. In 1746, when that fell though, he settled on the plan of publishing a dictionary. A Dictionary of the English Language brought out in 1755 is often called the first English dictionary. It wasn't. It was, perhaps, the most important dictionary, and was certainly the dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared a century and a half later.
While working on the Dictionary, he published a series of periodical essays; something like a modern magazine or newspaper column. It was called The Rambler, and appeared twice a week from 1750 to 1752 and eventually amounted to 208 essays. He later contributed 29 papers to The Adventurer and wrote several pieces for The Idler.
In 1759 he wrote Rasselas, an oriental tale, a short work of fiction (about a hundred pages in most modern editions), but few scholars call it a novel. It was written to defray the costs of his Mother's funeral. Around this time he also kept himself busy writing some 40 sermons, mostly for his friend John Taylor, most of which would not see publication until 1788, at which time neither his name nor contribution was mentioned. He had managed to make a living from his writing, but was never what anyone would call rich. The ministry of George III gave him a pension of £300 a year in 1762.
James Boswell came to London in 1762, and he met his hero, Samuel Johnson, in May 1763. From then until Johnson's death in 1784, they spent only around 240 days together. In 1773 he finished the fourth edition of his Dictionary and went on a trip with Boswell through the Hebrides, which was described in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775 and Boswell discussed in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson in 1785. In spite of the relatively few days spent together, Boswell collected the anecdotal material for his Life of Samuel Johnson in this period.
The edition of Shakespeare's works he first touched on in 1745 appeared in eight volumes in 1765. In the 1770s, he returned to miscellaneous and political writings, few of which would ever catch the attention of amateur readers. But between 1779 and 1781 came a series originally called Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, better (but inaccurately) known today as The Lives of the Poets.
In 1784 Johnson died, and in 1791, James Boswell wrote what was, and is, the definitive biography of Johnson's life.