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Samuel Johnson

September 18, 1709, marks the birthday of Dr. Samuel Johnson, English poet, essayist, critic, journalist, lexicographer, conversationalist, and society figure who is remembered as one of the outstanding men of 18th-century life and letters. 

Born in Lichfield, England, he was the son of a bookseller, and he learned to love reading at an early age.  His childhood wasn't very pleasant, though.  It was marred by poor health that included a tubercular infection affecting both his sight and his hearing and a face scarred by scrofula. 

Johnson was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford.  His father died in 1731, leaving the poverty-stricken family to fend for itself.  Young Johnson's studies at Oxford were cut short, and he returned to Lichfield, where he was struck by a deep depression that marred him for life. 

He worked as a teacher at the grammar school in Market Bosworth and published his first essays in the Birmingham Journal.  In 1735, he married Mrs. Elisabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior.  They started a school at Edial, near Lichfeld, but the school did poorly.  Johnson's lack of degree and convulsive mannerisms hindered his success as a teacher.  Two years later, the couple moved to London where he worked for Edward Cave, founder of The Gentleman's Magazine.  When he applied to a publisher for employment, he was found unfit for the job.  "You had better get a porter's knot and carry trunks," he was advised.

Johnson is best known for writing the Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Lives of the Poets (1781).  The dictionary took him more than nine years to complete.  He did it mostly by himself with the aid of six secretaries and with little financial support.  It became the standard English dictionary for the next 150 years.  It was the first dictionary to use quotations to illustrate word usage. 

In the dictionary were 114,000 quotations from other writers, with more than 40,000 words, including: cynosure, equator, category, habeas corpus, hypostasis, marasmus, meridian, atrophy, pestilence, honeysuckle, scorpion, and zenith.  Johnson said, "their accents should be settled, their sounds ascertained, and their etymologies deduced."  He is also famous as the subject of James Boswell's biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). 

In addition to his Dictionary and the philosophical romance of The Prince of Abyssinia (1759), Johnson published essays in The Adventurer (1752-54) and The Idler (1758-60).  He wrote a number of political articles, biographies of Sir Thomas Browne and Roger Ascham, and several Universal Chronicle articles.

In 1762, King George III awarded Johnson an annual pension that improved his financial circumstances.  Now he could afford to spend his time in coffee houses in conversation and in idleness.  In 1763, the the young Scot James Boswell, who later became his biographer and with whom he formed one of the most famous friendships in literary history.  Johnson traveled with Boswell in 1773 to Scotland and published his observations in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

Johnson continued his travels, next visiting Wales with Hester Lynch Thrale, a wealthy brewer who also accompanied him to Paris in 1775.  It was Johnson's only visit to the Continent. 

Johnson's biographical essays of English poets, published in 1781 as The Lives of the Poets, saw the author's abandonment of his pompous style full of long abstract words.  He wrote in short words in a style that was sufficiently learned but still comprehensible.  Perhaps his most memorable quote is, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

Johnson spent the summer of 1784 exploring Lichfield, Birmingham, and Oxford but returned to London in a deep state of depression.  He died during the night of December 13 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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