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He was one of the most important English writers of the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ranks right up with William Shakespeare and G.K. Chesterton as among the most quoted prose stylists in the English language. Indeed, it has long been traditional to refer to the second half of the eighteenth century as the Age of Johnson.
Interestingly though, he is usually remembered not so much as a writer but as a conversationalist and as a personality — mostly due to the brilliant account of his life written by his friend, companion, and ne’er-do-well, James Boswell, in 1791. For a long time, thanks largely to a glowing critical review by Thomas Macaulay in 1831, Boswell’s biography actually eclipsed Johnson’s own writings. In fact, many of the most memorable lines in the quotation dictionaries and anthologies come not from his works but from his biographer’s recollection of his conversation. Boswell was able to put Johnson in a very small club — whose members include authors like Socrates, Chatterton, and Proust — whose most famous works were written by someone else.
Born in Litchfield in 1709, the son of a failed bookseller, Johnson struggled throughout his early life against the ravages of poverty. From the books in his father’s shop he had found comfort and instruction, preparing him for his role as the century’s greatest man of letters. He had received an excellent introduction to classical literature at the Lichfield and Stourbridge Grammar Schools. The combination of his education and his privation enabled him to become phenomenally prolific and adept at virtually every genre. Though his work was recognized as brilliant, he was never quite able to climb out of the miry penury that seemed to bog him down throughout most of 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 in the dictionary was not only carefully and succinctly defined, but illustrated from the classics, popular contemporary culture, or the vast body of poetic literature.
Eventually, the dictionary would earn Dr. Johnson a royal allowance, which enabled him to pay off the bill collectors and to live with a modicum of ease. But while he undertook the task, he was only barely able to keep the wolf from the door. It was during this difficult transitional season of his life when he first met Boswell, a noble Scottish sluggard, reprobate, and spendthrift who had already spent half a lifetime squandering his father’s considerable estate on the pleasures of the flesh. Johnson was a pious, thoughtful, bookish, and venerable elder statesman. They made for quite a pair.
His astonishing acquaintance with the whole range of classical letters is evident in both his dictionary and his prose works. It is what makes his work so compelling, even to this day. Perhaps the greatest influence of that wide ranging experience in the classics may be seen in his remarkable morality tale Rasselas. It was written in 1759, before the success of his dictionary wrenched him out of dire poverty. He dashed it out during the evenings of a single week in order to raise the necessary funds to pay for his mother’s funeral. In some ways, it was a book that could have been composed only under the duress of grief and privation.
The story has been described by some critics as “a string of apophthegms in vacuo.” In other words, it has been accused of being little more than a loosely structured narrative contrived to showcase a series of observations about human nature — where the characters are stiff symbols, plot lines are mere excuses for the sundry discourses, and long philosophical discussions are imposed upon the dialog with little concern for literary integrity. In some respects, this observation may be true — but it hardly detracts from the brilliance of the work. Johnson was quite cognizant of the structural purposes of the work. It was never intended to be a romance or a thriller. It is a novel of ideas. Rasselas is filled with all the epistemological, eschatological, and belletristic speculations one might expect from a man who spent every waking moment in the company of the great classics of Western Christendom pondering the etymology of words and the difficulties of life in the modern world. It simultaneously affords readers a perspective of the roots of antiquity while critiquing the impulse to modernity — and all from a distinctly Christian worldview. In a single narrative quest, it realizes the essential questions of both the Western philosophical tradition and the English literary tradition.
At the same time, Rasselas is a great story. It is a page-turning read. And that is quite a feat for such a profound theological treatise.