HE was unique and yet typical; unlike any Englishman of his time, yet summarizing John Bull in body and soul; surpassed in every literary field (except lexicography) by his contemporaries, yet dominating them for a generation, reigning over them without raising anything but his voice.
Let us record briefly the blows that beat him into his peculiar form. He was the first child born to Michael Johnson, bookseller, printer, and stationer in Lichfield, 118 miles from London. The mother, nee Sarah Ford, was of slightly genteel stock. She was thirty-seven when, in 1706, she married Michael, who was fifty.
Samuel was a sickly child, so weak at birth that he was baptized at once, lest, dying unchristened, he should, by the laws of theology, be lodged forever in Limbo, the gloomy vestibule of hell. He soon showed signs of scrofula. When he was thirty months old his mother, though pregnant with her second son, took him on the long ride to London to be “touched for the king’s evil” by Queen Anne. The Queen did her best, but the disease cost Johnson the use of one eye and one ear, and shared with other tribulations in disfiguring his face.1 Nevertheless he grew strong in muscle and frame; and his strength as well as his bulk supported that absolutism which, as Goldsmith complained, turned the republic of letters into a monarchy. Samuel thought that he had inherited from his father the “vile melancholy which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.”2 Perhaps, as in Cowper’s case, his hypochondria had a religious as well as a physical basis; Johnson’s mother was a firm Calvinist, who thought that eternal damnation was just around the corner. Samuel suffered from fear of hell to the day of his death.
From his father he derived his Tory politics, Jacobite leanings, and a passion for books. He read eagerly in his father’s store; later he told Boswell, “I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now.”3 After some elementary instruction he passed on to Lichfield grammar school, where the headmaster was “so brutal that no man who had been educated by him sent his son to the same school”;4 however, when asked in after years how he had acquired so good a command of Latin, he answered: “My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.”5 In old age he deplored the obsolescence of the rod. “There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there, so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.”6
In 1728 his parents found means to send him to Oxford. There he devoured the Greek and Latin classics, and harassed his teachers by insubordination. In December, 1729, he hurried back to Lichfield, perhaps because parental funds ran out, or because his hypochondria had come so close to madness that he needed medical treatment. He received this at Birmingham; then, instead of returning to Oxford, he helped in his father’s shop. When the father died (December, 1731) Samuel went to work as assistant teacher in a school at Market Bosworth. Soon tiring of this, he moved to Birmingham, lived with a bookseller, and made five guineas by translating a book about Abyssinia; this was a distant source of Rasselas. In 1734 he returned to Lichfield, where his mother and brother were carrying on the store. On July 9, 1735, two months short of twenty-six, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow of forty-eight with three children and £ 700. With her money he opened a boarding school at nearby Edial. David Garrick, a Lichfield boy, was one of his pupils, but there were not enough to reconcile him to pedagogy. Authorship was fermenting in him. He wrote a drama, Irene, and sent word to Edward Cave, editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, explaining how that periodical could be improved. On March 2, 1737, he rode off to London, with David Garrick and one horse, to sell his tragedy and carve out a place for himself in the cruel world.
His appearance was against him. He was thin and tall, but with a large bony frame that made him a mass of angles. His face was blotched with scrofula and was frequently agitated by a convulsive twitch; his body was subject to alarming starts; his conversation was illustrated by odd gesticulations. One bookseller to whom he applied for work advised him to “get a porter’s knot and carry trunks.”7 Apparently he received some encouragement from Cave, for in July he went back to Lichfield, and brought his wife to London.
He was not without subtlety. When Cave was attacked in the press Johnson wrote a poem in his defense and sent it to him; Cave published it, gave him literary commissions, and joined Dodsley in issuing (May, 1738) Johnson’s London, for which they gave him ten guineas. The poem frankly imitated Juvenal’s Third Satire, and therefore emphasized the lamentable aspects of the city that the author soon learned to love; it was also an attack upon the administration of Robert Walpole, whom Johnson later described as “the best minister this country ever had.”8 The poem was in part the angry blast of a country youth who, after a year in London, was still uncertain of tomorrow’s food; hence the famous line “Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.”9
In those days of struggle Johnson turned his pen to every genre. He wrote Lives of Eminent Persons (1740), and various articles for The Gentleman’s Magazine, including imaginary reports of parliamentary debates. Since reporting of the debates was as yet forbidden, Cave hit on the expedient of pretending that his magazine was merely recording debates in the “Senate of Magna Lilliputia.” In 1741 Johnson took over this task. From general information as to the course of discussion in Parliament he composed speeches which he ascribed to characters whose names were anagrams for the main contenders in the House.10 The debates bore such an air of verisimilitude that many readers took them as verbatim reports, and Johnson had to warn Smollett (who was writing a history of England) not to rely on them as factual. Once, hearing praise of a speech ascribed to Chatham, Johnson remarked, “That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street.”11 When someone commended the impartiality of his reports, he confessed: “I saved appearances tolerably well, but I took care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it.”12
How was he paid for his work? He once called Cave a “penurious paymaster,” but he frequently professed affection for his memory. Between August 2, 1738, and April 21, 1739, Cave paid him forty-nine pounds; and in 1744 Johnson estimated fifty pounds a year as “undoubtedly more than the necessities of life require.”13 However, Johnson has been traditionally described as living in dire poverty in London in those years. Boswell believed that “Johnson and Savage were sometimes in such extreme indigence that they could not pay for a lodging, so that they wandered whole nights in the streets”;14 and Macaulay assumed that those months of penury habituated Johnson to slovenliness of dress and a “ravenous greediness” in eating.15
Richard Savage claimed, unconvincingly, to be the son of an earl, but he had become a wastrel when Johnson met him in 1737. They roamed the streets because they loved taverns more than their rooms. Boswell mentions “with all possible respect and delicacy” that Johnson’s
conduct after he came to London, and had associated with Savage and others, was not so strictly virtuous, in one respect, as when he was a younger man. It was well known that his amorous inclinations were uncommonly strong and impetuous. He owned to many of his friends that he used to take women of the town to taverns, and hear them relate their history.—In short, it must not be concealed that, like many other good and pious men [did Boswell have Boswell in mind?], … Johnson was not free from propensities which were ever “warring against the law of his mind”—and that in his combats with them he was sometimes overcome.16
Savage left London in July, 1739, and died in a debtor’s prison in 1743. A year later Johnson issued The Life of Richard Savage, which Henry Fielding called “as just and well written a piece as, of its kind, I ever saw.”17 It presaged (and was later included in) theLives of the Poets. It was published anonymously, but literary London soon discovered Johnson’s authorship. The booksellers began to think of him as the man to compile a dictionary of the English language.