The leading literary scholar and critic of his time, Johnson helped to shape and define the Augustan Age. He was equally celebrated for his brilliant and witty conversation. His rather gross appearance and manners were viewed tolerantly, if not with a certain admiration.
Early Life and Works
The son of a bookseller, Johnson excelled at school in spite of illness (he suffered the effects of scrofula throughout his life) and poverty. He entered Oxford in 1728 but was forced to leave after a year for lack of funds. He sustained himself as a bookseller and schoolmaster for the next six years, during which he continued his wide reading and published some translations. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior, and remained devoted to her until her death in 1752.
Johnson settled in London in 1737 and began his literary career in earnest. At first he wrote primarily for Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine—poetry and prose on subjects literary and political. His poem "London," published anonymously in 1738, was praised by Pope and won Johnson recognition in literary circles. His Life of Savage (1744) is a bitter portrait of corruption in London and the miseries endured by writers. Also of note are The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and his essays in the periodical The Rambler (1750-52).
Later Life and Works
Johnson's first work of lasting importance, and the one that permanently established his reputation in his own time, was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first comprehensive lexicographical work on English ever undertaken. Rasselas, a moral romance, appeared in 1759, and The Idler, a collection of his essays, in 1761. Although Johnson enjoyed great literary acclaim, he remained close to poverty until a government pension was granted to him in 1762. The following year was marked by his meeting with James Boswell, whose famous biography presents Johnson in exhaustive and fascinating detail, often recreating his conversations verbatim.
In 1764 Johnson and Joshua Reynolds founded "The Club" (known later as The Literary Club). Its membership included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, and Boswell. The brilliance of this intellectual elite was, reportedly, dazzling, and Dr. Johnson (he had received a degree in 1764) was its leading light. His witty remarks are remembered to this day. He was a master not only of the aphorism—e.g., his definition of angling as "a stick and a string, with a worm on one end and a fool on the other"—but also of the quick, unexpected retort, as when, while listening with displeasure to a violinist, he was told that the feat being performed was very difficult: "Difficult," replied Johnson, "I wish it had been impossible!"
In 1765 Johnson met Henry and Hester Thrale, whose friendship and hospitality he enjoyed until Thrale's death and Mrs. Thrale's remarriage. In that same year Johnson's long-heralded edition of Shakespeare appeared. Its editorial principles served as a model for future editions, and its preface and critical notes are still highly valued. In the 1770s Johnson wrote a series of Tory pamphlets. His political conservatism was based upon a profound skepticism as to the perfectibility of human nature. Although personally generous and compassionate, he held that a strict social order is necessary to save humanity from itself.
In 1773 he toured the Hebrides with Boswell and published his account of the tour in 1775. Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779-1781), his last major work, comprises ten small volumes of acute criticism, characterized, as is all of Johnson's work, by both classical values and sensitive perception. Dr. Johnson, as he is universally known, was England's first full-dress man of letters, and his mind and personality helped to create the traditions that have guided English taste and criticism.
Besides the classic biography by Boswell, see biographies by J. W. Krutch (1944), J. L. Clifford (1955), Sir John Hawkins (1787; ed. by Bertram Davis, 1961), and Donald Greene (1970); critical studies by W. J. Bate (1955), R. B. Schwartz (1971), Peter Quennell (1973); J. L. Clifford, Johnsonian Studies, 1887-1950 (1951; supplement, 1962), James T. Boulton, ed. (1978), Paul Fussell (1986), and Nicholas Hudson (1988); J. L. Clifford and D. J. Greene, A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies (1970).