Sameul Johnson

Many readers of gonzo wonder whether or not there really was a Dr. Johnson. Indeed, there was. He was a rather fiery stout man, said to be cantankerous and humourous in his writing. He is closely associated with James Boswell, who wrote his biography. The following passage comes from a hefty Eng Lit text from 1967.

If you would like to discuss Samuel Johnson, Frank has set up a group to do that at Yahoo!Groups, and of course check out the Wikipedia entry on him. I find it easier to link to Wikipedia these days because it means less link checking for me :-)

Doctor Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was the literary dictator of the last half of the eighteenth century. A picturesque figure - huge, shambling, scarred of face, thunderous of voice and slovenly of dress - Johnson drew about him the most talented men of his age. He was the oracle of the famous Literary Club which included David Garrick, the actor; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter; Oliver Goldsmith, the poet and novelist; Richard Sheridan, the dramatist; Edmund Burke, the statesman and defender of America - and James Boswell, his biographer. Today we know Johnson best through Boswell's biography. In fact, Boswell is far more widely read than Johnson himself, whose importance resided partly in his personal influence. He could talk fluently and learnedly on practically any subject. He molded the taste of his age with his conversation, and to this day we prize his critical judgements on men of letters.

Johnson in his early career waged a constant struggle against poverty. He was brought up in the country town of Lichfield, where his father was a bookseller, poor in money but rich in reading fare. Sam was a proud young man. At Oxford he once threw away a much-needed pair of shoes given to him by a fellow student because he could not take charity. As a schoolteacher at Lichfield he was impatient, and he finally journeyed a hundred miles to London, sharing one horse with his pupil, David Garrick, who became the most famous actor of the time. In London, Johnson was unsuccessful in selling his writing, which included poetry, biography, and essays, and he took to hack writing. Slowly he gained recognition, mainly from his famous Dictionary, his paper The Rambler, and his Lives of the English Poets. Yet he remained poor, and his one novel, Rasselas, was written in four days to pay the expense of his mother's funeral. At fifty three he was relieved, finally, by a pension from George III. From Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, we get a rounded picture of the man; he was a gruff and stern man but a kindly one and supported in his house a number of poor and unfortunate people, inclduing Mrs. Williams, his old, half-blind housekeeper, who is reputed to have used her thumb to judge whether the guests' teacups needed refilling!


Some of Johnson's definitions are famous for showing his prejudices, his errors, his use of big words to define a fairly simple term, and, at times, his humour.

Excise duty: a hateful tax levied by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Pension: an allowance made to anyone without an equivalent [service of equal value]. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

Pensioner: a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master [when Johnson took a pension, critics reminded him of his definition. He replied, "I wish my pension were twice as large that they might make twice as much noise".]

Tory: one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the Sate and the apolitical hierarchy of the Church of England; opposed to a Whig.

Whig: the name of a faction.

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.

Grub Street: the name of a street in London, much inhavited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub Street.

Pastern: the knee of a horse [on being asked by a lady, why he defined it thus, he said, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance"]. The opposite of a pastern is a hock, the hind joint of the horse.

Network: anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections.


Note: Compare to almost letter by HST in The Proud Highway ;-)

February 7, 1755

My Lord:

I have been lately informed by the proprieter of the World that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honor which , being very little accustomed to favors from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your addresss, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre [The conquerer of the conquerer of the world] - that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well ploeased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The Shepard in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached the ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron with Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should not conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation.

My Lord,
Your Lordships most humble,
Most obedient servant,
Sam. Johnson