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Samuel Johnson Biography

Early Life

Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was born on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The son of a bookseller, Johnson’s early life was marked by challenges, including health issues (he likely had tuberculosis) and financial constraints. Nonetheless, these adversities didn’t deter him from his passion for reading and learning.

Academic Pursuits

Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1728. Although he left without a degree due to financial difficulties, his time at Oxford had a profound influence on his intellectual development.

Career Beginnings and Marriage

He began his career as a teacher and later tried his hand at starting a school, though it wasn’t successful. In 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, who was 20 years his senior. Their relationship, while marked by affection, also faced challenges, particularly due to Tetty’s health issues.

“A Dictionary of the English Language”

One of Johnson’s most monumental works, the dictionary, published in 1755, took nine years to complete. Unlike other dictionaries of the time, it was exhaustive and illustrated with quotations from the widest range of sources. While not the first English dictionary, its breadth, methodology, and style made it the most authoritative and set a standard for future lexicographers.

Literary Achievements

Beyond the dictionary, Johnson was a poet, essayist, critic, and biographer.

He was one of the most prominent figures in English literature and produced a wide range of works spanning various genres. Here’s a comprehensive list of his notable works:


  1. London (1738)
  2. A Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)
  3. Irene (1737) – A tragic play


  1. A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) – This monumental work established Johnson’s reputation as a lexicographer and scholar.
  2. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) – A philosophical tale exploring the nature of human happiness.

Essays and Periodicals

Johnson’s essays in periodicals are some of his most significant contributions to English prose:

  1. The Rambler (1750-1752) – A series of essays on various topics.
  2. The Adventurer (1753-1754) – Another series of essays, though Johnson was not the only contributor.
  3. The Idler (1758-1760) – A less regular publication of essays, touching on a range of subjects.

Biographical and Critical Works

  1. The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-1781) – This work, commonly referred to as The Lives of the Poets, is a series of biographical and critical studies of poets.
  2. Preface to Shakespeare (1765) – A significant work of literary criticism where Johnson defends the artistry of Shakespeare against his critics.

Other Notable Works and Contributions

  1. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) – A travel narrative detailing his journey with James Boswell.
  2. A Letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of Chesterfield (1755) – A declaration of his independence from the patronage system.

Collaborations and Edited Works

  1. The Works of William Shakespeare (1765) – An edited edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
  2. Various sermons, which were attributed to Johnson after his death.
  3. Contributions to The Gentleman’s Magazine in the early stages of his career.

It’s essential to note that this list represents the highlights of Samuel Johnson’s prolific output. He penned numerous other minor works, essays, prefaces, and reviews during his lifetime. Additionally, his posthumously published Prayers and Meditations (1785) and numerous letters provide further insights into his thinking and personality.

The Johnsonian Circle

Johnson was a central figure in the London literary scene. His home became a hub for a circle of writers, intellectuals, and artists, including Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith. His friendship with James Boswell, a Scottish diarist, led to one of the most famous biographies ever written: “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (1791).

Later Life and Legacy

Johnson faced several health issues in his later years, including a stroke in 1783. He passed away on December 13, 1784.

His legacy is profound. He was more than a lexicographer; he was a moralist, critic, and raconteur whose work shaped English literature and thought. The Samuel Johnson Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards, is a testament to his enduring impact on the literary world.

Samuel Johnson’s influence on English literature, lexicography, and criticism cannot be overstated. His wit, wisdom, and insights into human nature continue to resonate, making him one of the most celebrated figures in English literary history.

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