Johnson was born at Lichfield on 18 September, 1709, where his father was a small bookseller. Although “miserably poor” and subject to fits of melancholy that were at times divided only by a thin partition from madness, and cursed by a kind of St. Vitus’s dance and a scrofulous affliction, which had disfigured his face and deprived him of the use of one eye, Johnson determined to “fight his way by his literature and his wit.” Because of his poverty he was forced to leave Pembroke College, Oxford, after only four terms and became an under-master at a grammar school at Market Bosworth and, later, in Birmingham, supported himself by translating for the booksellers. At Birmingham he met Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, a widow twenty years his senior, whom he married in 1735. His wife brought him £800 and with this he opened a school for young gentlemen near Lichfield. But he never had more than eight pupils, of whom the Garrick brothers were two. In 1737 he went to London with Garrick and offered his tragedy Irene to Drury Lane without success. He became a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine and its parliamentary reporter from 1740 to 1743. His poem London was published in 1738, and next year The vanity of Human Wishes. In 1744 he wrote his powerful Life of Savage, followed a year later by his first contribution to Shakespeare criticism (Miscellaneous Observations on Macbeth). The Plan of his great Dictionary, inscribed to Lord Chesterfield, appeared in 1747. Two years later Garrick produced Irene at Drury Lane. His chief recreation being a good dinner enlivened by good talk, Johnson founded about this time his first club at the King’s Head in Ivy Lane. Mrs. Johnson died in 1751, to be mourned for many years by her husband. In 1755 the Dictionary was ready for publication and Chesterfield, who had ignored the original prospectus, hailed Johnson in the World as the dictator of the English language. In reply Johnson sent him the famous letter on patronage. With the accession of George III in 1762, Johnson received a pension of £300 a year and was thenceforward no longer compelled to “write for bread.” Next year he met James Boswell, his biographer. His edition of Shakespeare appeared in 1765 and the Lives of the Poets in ten volumes from 1779 to 1781. A tour of the Scottish Highlands in Boswell’s company resulted in A Journey to the Western Isles (1775). His friendship with Henry Thrale began about 1759, and the Thrale’s fine house at Streatham Park was, until 1782, Johnson’s principal asylum. The Thrales, he said, “soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.” In 1782 his health rapidly declined, and he died after an attack of dropsy on 13 December, 1784, at Bolt Court, Fleet Street. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

W. P. Courtney and D. Nichol Smith, A Bibliography of Samuel Johnson, 1915; supplemented by R. W. Chapman, 1938. Contemporary accounts ed. by Hugh Kingsmill, Johnson Without Boswell, 1940; Bertrand H. Bronson, Johnson Agonistes, 1946. Lives by: James Boswell, 1791; Leslie Stephen, 1878; Hugh Kingsmill, 1933; J. C. Bailey, 1944; C. E. Vulliamy, 1946.

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