Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, December 13, 2010

Today in Literary History - Samuel Johnson Dies in London


On December 13, 1784, essayist, lexicographer, biographer, and poet, Samuel Johnson died in London, England at the age of seventy-five. A devout Anglican and committed Tory, Johnson was born on September 18, 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Great Britain to Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford Johnson. Johnson has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history,” and he is the subject of “the most famous work of biographical art in the whole of literature,” James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson’s education began at the age of three, when his mother taught him to memorize and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. At the age of four, he was sent to a nearby school, and when he was six, he was sent to a retired shoemaker to continue his education. A year later, he attended Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin. It was at this time that he began to exhibit the tics and odd behavior that would greatly influence how people viewed him in later years.

Johnson excelled in his studies and was promoted to the upper school at the age of nine, however his father was deeply in debt, and Johnson’s academic future was very uncertain. He began to stitch books for his father, and spent most of his time in his father’s bookshop reading and building his literary knowledge. The family lived in poverty until his mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Harriotts, died in February 1728 and left enough money to send Johnson to college. On October 31, 1728, at the age of nineteen, Samuel Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford.

Unfortunately, after only thirteen months, Johnson was forced to leave Oxford due to a lack of funds, and he returned to Lichfield, where he worked as a teacher. Later he moved to London and began to write for “The Gentleman’s Magazine.” Johnson did, however, eventually receive his degree. Just prior to the publication of his Dictionary in 1755, Oxford University awarded Johnson the degree of Master of Arts, and he was later awarded an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1775 by Oxford University.

Little is known about Johnson’s early life – the years between 1729 and 1731 – though it seems likely he lived with his parents. He exhibited bouts of mental anguish and physical pain due to the tics and odd gesticulations that were later attributed to Tourette’s syndrome. In December 1731, Johnson’s father developed an “inflammatory fever” and died.

On September 3, 1734, Johnson’s close friend Harry Porter died, with Johnson at his side. Porter’s widow, Elizabeth Jervis Porter (known as “Tetty”) was only forty-five and had three children. Six months after Porter’s death, Johnson began to court Tetty though he was only twenty-five, and the two married on July 9, 1735 at St. Werburgh’s Church in Derby. Tetty was wealthy in her own right, and it’s likely it was she who initiated the romance with Johnson rather than he with her, as well as promising to provide for him financially. Tetty’s elder son, Jervis, was so appalled by the marriage that he severed all relations with his mother. Tetty’s daughter, Lucy, however, had liked Johnson from the beginning, and her younger son, Joseph, eventually accepted the marriage despite the age difference.

In 1735, Johnson, who was unable to find a position as a teacher due to his lack of a degree, opened his own school, Edial Hall School, with only three pupils: Lawrence Offley, George Garrick, and David Garrick, who later became one of England’s most famous actors. The venture was unsuccessful and cost Tetty a great portion of her fortune. Rather than trying to keep the failing school going, Johnson began work on his first major literary work, the historical tragedy, Irene.

In 1737, Tetty joined her husband in London, and in May 1738, Johnson’s poem, London, was published anonymously. It would be fifteen years before the name of the author would be known.

In 1739, Johnson felt so guilty about his inability to find a teaching post and the necessity of having to live on Tetty’s money, that he separated from her and left with his good friend, Richard Savage. Since both were poor, they would often sleep in taverns or “night cellars” or simply roam the streets. Though Savage’s friends tried to get him to move to Wales, Savage refused and ended up in debtor’s prison in 1743. In 1744, Johnson published Life of Mr. Richard Savage, a moving work that in the words of American biographer and critic, Walter Jackson Bate, “remains one of the innovative works in the history of biography.”

In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language and on June 18, 1746, Johnson signed a contract with William Strahan and Associates for 1,500 guineas, and Tetty joined her husband in London. Johnson believed he could complete the project in only three years – a seemingly impossible feat. He didn’t manage to complete it in three years, but he did manage in nine – still a seemingly impossible feat.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. Besides having a far reaching effect on modern English, the dictionary has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” The dictionary brought Johnson much popularity and success in life, and until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928, one hundred and fifty years later, Johnson’s was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.

During the years Johnson worked on his Dictionary, Tetty was ill much of the time, and it was feared she had a terminal illness. In 1752, she left London and returned to the English countryside where she died on March 17, 1752. On receiving word of his wife’s death, Johnson wrote a letter to an old friend that “expressed grief in the strongest manner he had ever read.” Johnson wrote a sermon in Tetty’s honor, to be read at her funeral, but for reasons unknown, Johnson’s friend refused to read it. Johnson felt guilty about the poverty in which he believed he forced Tetty to live, and he blamed himself for neglecting her. His diary was filled with prayers and laments over her death from that time until his own demise. Tetty had become his primary motivation in life, and her death greatly hindered his ability to complete his work.

On June 8, 1756, Samuel Johnson published his Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, the Dramatik Works of William Shakespeare, which argued that previous editions of Shakespeare were edited incorrectly and needed to be corrected. He was arrested for owing a debt several times while working on the project, but his debts were always paid by friends. Nevertheless, it took him seven years to finish a few annotated volumes of Shakespeare to prove his dedication to the project. Then on April 19, 1759, he published his novella, Rasselas. The “little story book,” as Johnson described it, describes the life of Prince Rasselas and Nekayah, his sister, who are kept in a place called the Happy Valley in Abyssinia. Rasselas was written in one week in order to pay for Johnson’s mother’s funeral and settle her debts, however it became so popular that there was a new edition of the work almost every year and references to it can be found in many later works, including Jane Eyre, Cranford, and The House of the Seven Gables. Immediately on its publication it was translated into five languages: French, Dutch, German, Russian, and Italian and later into nine others.

In July 1762, the twenty-four-year-old King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of 300 pounds in appreciation for his Dictionary. Although a modest amount, it did allow Johnson to live comfortably and avoid debtor’s prison for his remaining twenty-two years of life.

On May 16, 1763, Johnson met twenty-two-year-old James Boswell, the man who was to become his first major biographer, in the bookshop of Johnson’s friend, Tom Davies, and the two quickly became friends.

On January 9, 1765, Johnson was introduced to Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and an MP and his wife, Hester. Thrale and Johnson also struck up an instant friendship, and Johnson was treated as though he were a member of the Thrale family. This motivated him to continue working on his Shakespeare. Johnson lived with the Thrales for seventeen years, until Henry Thrale’s death in 1781, and Hester Thrale’s documentation of Johnson’s life during that time has become an important source of biographical information.

On October 10, 1765, Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was finally published as The Plays of William Shakespeare, In Eight Volumes, To which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson. The first edition of one thousand copies quickly sold out, and a second was printed. Johnson’s innovation was to create a set of corresponding notes that allowed readers to identify the meaning behind many of Shakespeare’s complicated passages or ones that Johnson felt had been transcribed incorrectly.

On August 6, 1773, eleven years after his first meeting with Boswell, Johnson left to visit him in Scotland. In 1775, Johnson would publish his account of this trip as A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. While the work was meant to document the struggles of the Scottish people, it also praised many of the unique facets of Scottish life.

On May 3, 1777, Johnson wrote to Boswell that he was busy preparing a “little Lives” and “little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets.” Tom Davies, William Strahan, and Thomas Cadell had asked Johnson to create what would be Johnson’s final major work, the Lives of the English Poets, for which he asked 200 guineas, significantly less than what he could have demanded. The work, which was completed in March 1781, was much larger than originally expected, and the entire collection was published as six volumes.

While Lives of the English Poets was a success, Johnson was unable to enjoy this success to the fullest due to the death of Henry Thrale on April 4, 1781. Hester Thrale quickly became romantically interested in the Italian singing master, Gabriel Mario Piozzi, and Johnson was forced to leave the Thrale home. On January 17, 1782, another friend of Johnson’s, Robert Levet died, and shortly after, Johnson, himself caught a cold and bronchitis and was ill for several months.

By August, Johnson had recovered his physical health, and on October 6, 1782, he attended church for the final time in his life, in order to say goodbye to his former residence with the Thrales and to his former life. Although Hester Thrale had sold the home she’d shared with her husband (and the home in which Johnson had resided), she didn’t abandon Johnson completely. Johnson, at Hester’s request, accompanied the family on a trip to Brighton from October 7th to November 20, 1782. On his return to London, his health began to fail.

On June 17, 1783, Johnson’s poor circulation resulted in a stroke, and he wrote to his neighbor that as a result, he had lost his ability to speak, though he regained this ability two days later. Johnson, though, feared that he was dying.

By this time, Johnson also suffered terribly from gout for which he had surgery. His remaining friends, among them, Fanny Burney, came to keep him company as he was confined to his room from December 14, 1783 until April 21, 1784.

By May, Johnson’s health had begun to improve and he traveled to Oxford with Boswell on May 5, 1784. By July, most of Johnson’s friends were dead. Of those still living, Boswell had returned to Scotland and Hester Thrale had by this time become engaged to Piozzi. Feeling alone, Johnson expressed a desire to die in London and returned there on November 16, 1784. His final days were filled with mental anguish and delusions. When his physician, Thomas Warren asked him if he was feeling any better, Johnson replied, “No, Sir, you cannot conceive with what acceleration I advance towards death.”

On December 13, 1784, Johnson fell into a coma and died at approximately 7:00 pm. He was buried on December 20, 1784 at Westminster Abbey.

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