Full Name: Samuel Johnson
Also Known As: Dr. Johnson
Birthday: September 18, 1709
Birthplace: Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
Death Date: December 13, 1784 (aged 75)
Resting Place: Westminster Abbey, London
Occupation: Essayist, lexicographer, biographer, poet, critic
Samuel Johnson, affectionately known as Dr. Johnson, was a prominent English writer who lived during the early 18th century. He was a legendary literary figure in his own lifetime who made lasting contributions as a poet, biographer, lexicographer, and one of the greatest critics in the history of English literature. Johnson is considered by many to be the most distinguished man of letters in British history.
Born on September 18, 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Johnson faced significant health problems growing up, including scrofula and near blindness. Thanks to the support of a wealthy patron, he attended Oxford University, but financial struggles forced him to leave without a degree. After working as a schoolteacher, Johnson eventually moved to London in 1737 to pursue a career in writing.
Through his early journalism and poetry, Johnson gained respect among London‘s literary circles. His most iconic work, the Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1755 and immediately became the standard reference for English vocabulary and spelling. As Virginia Woolf later declared, "With the dictionary, Johnson set standards for the language which endured for over a century."
Beyond his dictionary, Johnson made major contributions across several genres. His periodical essays in The Rambler established his reputation as a moral thinker and innovative prose stylist. As a critic and biographer, he helped define the modern principles of journalism and biography that we still rely on today. By the end of his life, Johnson had become a legendary figure, honored even by King George III. He died in London on December 13, 1784 at the age of 75.
Here is a more in-depth look at the fascinating life and diverse literary accomplishments that make Samuel Johnson such an icon of English literature:
Early Life and Education
Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. His father Michael Johnson was a bookseller, and his mother Sarah Ford was 40 years old when she gave birth to Samuel. He was plagued by health issues as a child, including scrofula and near blindness that left him scarred and affected his vision his entire life.
Johnson attended Lichfield Grammar School but always felt self-conscious about his disfigured face and impoverished background. However, his brilliance was clear from an early age. A wealthy patron named Andrew Corbett funded Johnson‘s further education, allowing him to attend Oxford University‘s Pembroke College in 1728.
At Oxford, the boisterous Johnson was unimpressed by the university‘s pretentious intellectualism. He left Oxford in 1729 unable to afford the tuition. This early experience shaped his view of "ivory tower" academics disconnected from the real world.
Move to London and Literary Success
Unable to complete his degree, Johnson took on schoolteacher positions in the Birmingham area during the 1730s. Finding little opportunity there, he decided to pursue his passion for writing by moving to London in 1737.
Johnson lived in poverty early in his London years, writing frequently for The Gentleman‘s Magazine to make ends meet. Despite physical ailments and depression, Johnson immersed himself in the city‘s thriving literary community. He befriended luminaries like painter Joshua Reynolds and poet-adventurer Richard Savage.
Johnson‘s first major work was his satirical poem London in 1738, which critiqued urban life. The same year, he published a philosophical novella The Prince of Abissinia. This established his reputation as an innovative moral thinker attuned to modernity.
Johnson‘s breakthrough work was his comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. It catalogued over 40,000 words with detailed definitions and literary examples, bringing order and elegance to the unruly English language. The dictionary was a huge success, earning Johnson widespread fame.
Prolific Output in Later Years
Now a bona fide celebrity, Johnson entered his most productive period. His groundbreaking essays in The Rambler (1750-1752) pioneered a new informal, conversational prose style that influenced essayists for generations.
From 1759-1762, Johnson published the innovative fictional work Rasselas, along with scholarly editions of Shakespeare‘s plays that remain influential today. His moral fable The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia marked his creative high point as a fiction writer.
In the 1770s and 1780s, Johnson applied his critical eye to biography in works like The Lives of the Poets, his renowned series of biographical essays on giants of English poetry. He also published thoughtful travelogues and social commentary, like his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.
Johnson continued working tirelessly almost until his death in London at age 75 on December 13, 1784. His close friend James Boswell‘s famous biography The Life of Samuel Johnson cemented the writer‘s legacy for generations to come.
Legacy and Influence
Few writers have left as broad an imprint on English literature as Samuel Johnson. His dictionary standardized the English language for over a century. His literary criticism and biographical essays established models for modern journalism and non-fiction. As a poet and moral thinker, he conveyed timeless insights in a new conversational style.
From Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf, Johnson‘s influence can be seen across all eras of English literature after him. His penetrating intellect and vast contributions proved that a life wholly dedicated to the arts could leave an enduring cultural legacy. For any lover of literature and language, Johnson remains both an inspirational model and a writer who deserves to be rediscovered by each new generation.