He was the most dominant figure of the eighteenth century literary world. The renown of Samuel Johnson was due in part because of his moral essays, poetry, and prayers, in part because of his remarkable Dictionary of the English Language, and in part because of his amazing novel Rasselas. But in spite of all his carefully composed contributions to the prose of his native land, he may have never attained the stature that places him in the same rank as Shakespeare and Milton were it not for his famous trip to Scotland with his friend and biographer, James Boswell.
Born in Litchfield in 1709, the son of a failed bookseller, Johnson struggled throughout his early life against the ravages of poverty. Though he demonstrated a precocious mind and a prodigious literary talent, he was unable to complete his education at Oxford, and instead began his lifelong labors as a hack freelance writer in London for a series of newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers. As a result, he became phenomenally prolific and adept at virtually every genre, from criticism, translation, poetry, and biography to sermons, parliamentary reports, political polemics, and dramatic stage plays. Though his work was recognized as brilliant, he was never quite able to climb out of the miry privation that seemed to bog him down throughout his life.
At last, when he was nearly fifty, he received a commission to produce a dictionary. Over the course of the next seven years, he single-handedly took on the great task of comprehensively documenting English usage--which when completed, set the standard for etymology forever afterward. The work was indeed, stunning. Each word was not only carefully and succinctly defined, but illustrated from classic or poetic literature. It is the only dictionary I use--despite the plethora of language tools that have been released in the years, decades, and centuries since it was first published.
The dictionary earned Dr. Johnson a royal allowance which enabled him to pay off the bill collectors and to live with a modicum of ease. It was during this season of his life that he first met James Boswell, a Scottish ne’re-do-well and spendthrift who had already spent half a lifetime squandering his father’s considerable estate on the pleasure of the flesh. Johnson was a pious, thoughtful, bookish, and venerable elder statesman. Boswell was an impetuous, ingratiating, bombastic, and irreverent young Turk. But amazingly, the two men struck up a fast friendship.
By that time, Johnson was nearly incapacitated with gout, corpulence, and arthritis. By all accounts he was built for a stationary life--overweight and slovenly, asthmatic and awkward. First impressions of him always surprised people. He was big-boned, six feet tall, stout, and stooped. Over a crop of wiry, frizzy hair he wore varying, ill-fitting wigs in unfetching shades of gray. His short-sightedness led to his reading so close to lamps and candles that the wigs frequently bore scorch marks.
Despite the fact that he was eloquent of speech and elegant of mind, he was hardly a fit candidate to become a dominating literary figure. But Boswell would see to that. Over the next several years, the unlikely pair carried on a conversation that, when documented in Boswell’s biographies and journals, would enchant the world. And thus, an unlikely star in the already brilliant English literary constellation was born.