James Boswell’s biography The Life of Johnson portrays a distinguished man of letters after whom a whole literary period was named: The Age of Johnson. To read of Johnson’s life (1709-1784) is to learn of an eminent man of learning whose love of literature, passion for truth, and genius for writing achieved extraordinary works of excellence and Herculean feats of labor. His works include the journalism of Parliamentary reports; translations of Horace; collections of essays known as The Rambler, The Idler, and The Adventurer; poetry (“The Vanity of Human Wishes,” “London”); sermons; biography and literary criticism in The Lives of the Poets (Milton, Cowley, Pope, Gray); a play by the name of Irene; a scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s plays; a short novel entitled Rasselas; and Dictionary of the English Language. As Boswell notes, even if Johnson had written nothing else besides the Dictionary, a work he singlehandedly composed in the course of ten years, he would have achieved undying literary fame.
Johnson’s breadth and depth of learning were exceptional. Boswell cites the comment of Dr. Adam Smith, “than whom few were better judges on this subject,” who remarked that “Johnson knew books more than any man alive.” Johnson related to Boswell a compliment he received from a tutor at Pembroke College in Oxford: “I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there.” The son a bookseller, Johnson acquired a love of reading from the variety of works that surrounded him in his father’s business, and his reading was broad, varied, and inclusive—classics and great books from all the many fields of learning from literature to theology. “Sir, all ancient writers, all manly,” as Johnson remarked to Boswell. Boswell writes, “Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books in his way, and inclination directed him through them.” Johnson’s extensive reading of older classics and the unmethodical, desultory habit of reading provided a bona fide education that prepared him well for his literary life.
Though it appears that Johnson specialized in lexicography by virtue of the Dictionary he labored for ten years to complete, Johnson never limited his love of knowledge and literature to any one author, historical period, or subject. The “enlarged, lively mind” that Boswell appreciated in Johnson and the wisdom in Johnson’s intelligent, witty conversation prized by all his friends testified to Johnson’s liberally educated mind and broad human interests that extended far beyond lexicography and literature. In fact, Johnson tendered his highest praise for great writers and good literature to those who transcended their particular age or a narrow topic of interest to encompass human nature and the human condition in the most universal sense. In “Preface to Shakespeare” Johnson explained that the plays passed the test of time and proved their universal appeal: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” For Johnson the test of literature’s greatness depends on its honest, authentic depiction of the nature of things, for “the mind can only repose on the stability of the truth.” The best books, Johnson argued, offer usefulness and pleasure: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” For all his scholarship and erudition Johnson was no pedant.
Johnson distinguished himself in other areas of life besides his achievements as a writer. His personal life and moral character earned the same respect as his published works. The essays that appeared in The Rambler on topics like the follies and vices of mankind all defended traditional Christian morality and perennial wisdom, earning Johnson the reputation of “great moralist.” He frequently satirized thinkers (“Projectors”) who fantasized about utopian schemes and imaginary ideas of happiness like the cult of the noble savage. Johnson’s impeccable love of truth never wavered in precision or exactness of detail, to such a degree that “The knowledge of his having such a principle and habit made his friends have a perfect reliance on the truth of everything that he told, however it might have been doubted by many others.”
This virtue of “strictness to truth” made Johnson quick to expose exaggeration and cant in all its forms. When Johnson heard anything far-fetched or utterly improbable, he reacted instantly: “It is not so. Do not tell this again.” Johnson not only exemplified integrity but instilled it in others—so much so that, as Boswell reports, “Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me . . . that all who were of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which would not have been possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.” Johnson always made clear his dislike of cant, pretension, and high-sounding nonsense. Boswell had informed Johnson of David Hume’s boast of fearlessness before death: “he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.” Johnson replies that Hume is mad, disturbed, or lying: “He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a handle, without feeling pain; would you believe him?” Johnson frequently advises Boswell to measure his words: “Don’t cant, sir.”
Johnson the literary giant and the earnest moralist was also “a clubbable man” by virtue of his relish for conversation and of his many friendships with people from all professions and social classes who remained faithful and loyal throughout the course of a lifetime. Luminaries like Adam Smith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and David Garrick were not the only members of the Johnson circle. Robert Levet, an eccentric, taciturn physician (“of a strange grotesque appearance”) who tended to the poor of London and collected small fees, formed a close friendship. Johnson also showed special affection for the poet Christopher Smart who was confined to an asylum and questioned for praying in the streets. Johnson found his eccentricities harmless, observing that “his infirmities were not noxious to society.” Johnson also formed a close relationship with the Mr. Thrale’s family, a prosperous brewer with exceptional business sense. Johnson famously said, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair”—a habit that Johnson practiced in his cultivation of old friendships by regular visits on Monday (“clean shirt day”) and his embrace of new friendships like his association with James Boswell when Johnson was 54.
Johnson also lived a heroic life that conquered many obstacles that discouraged a literary career. Inheriting a melancholic temperament that often made him prey, in Boswell’s words, to “a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery,” Johnson struggled throughout his life with loneliness as he lived the life of a bachelor after the loss of his wife, the widow Mrs. Porter (“Tetty”) in a marriage of approximately sixteen years. Suffering scrofula that affected his optical nerves, he lacked vision in one of his eyes. After two years of study at Oxford, he withdrew and never completed a degree because a benefactor withdrew his financial assistance. Destitute, Johnson withdrew from college, embarrassed when his worn shoes showed his feet and, too proud to accept new ones left by his door, “he threw them away with indignation.” In his first venture to London to seek a literary career, he often walked the streets at night out of dire poverty that could not afford lodgings. Boswell frequently notes Johnson’s “native fortitude, which amidst all his bodily distress and mental sufferings, never forsook him”—neither in his struggle for survival in London, in his Herculean literary labors, or in the final hours of his life when he refused all opiates to alleviate the pain.
For one person without a degree (the title “Dr.” was an honorary title received from Oxford) to produce some of the greatest works of literature and criticism during his age, to inspire the affection and loyalty of hundreds of beloved friends, to earn a reputation for moral excellence both in his personal life and in his writing, and to be renowned for the most sparkling and lively conversation on all occasions explains the praise he received at his death from William Hamilton: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”