Johnsonian Readings

1750 | 1755 | 1765 | 1775 | 1784 | 1791

from Samuel Johnson, Rambler 1 (March 20, 1750)

from Samuel Johnson, Rambler no. 60 (October 13, 1750)

Samuel Johnson, letter to Chesterfield (February 7, 1755)

Johnson worked hard on compiling what turned out to be one of the first truly modern and scholarly dictionaries of the English language. He introduced two innovations: compiling a list of not just difficult words but of regular everyday words, and illustrating the definitions with quotations of the words in use and in context by other writers. When Johnson’s Plan for the dictionary was issued in 1747 it was dedicated to Lord Chesterfield (Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield), and in the intervening eight years Chesterfield had done nothing to support Johnson in his work. However, when the dictionary was about to be published, Chesterfield published two letters in consecutive weekly issues of a periodical called The World (November 28 and December 5, 1754) in which he praised Johnson’s work in that thin, sycophantic, and pompous manner of a poor writer who doesn’t really sincerely or strongly believe what he is writing about:

I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a free-born British subject, to the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay more; I will not only obey him, like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe in him as my pope, and hold him to be infallible while in the chair; but no longer.

Johnson’s reaction to the letters is masterful: erudite and calm, but also clear and direct in its criticism. This has become one of the most famous letters that Johnson ever wrote (February 7, 1755).

from Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

some definitions from Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) illustrating how meaning or spelling has changed

from Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare (1765)

Samuel Johnson’s letter to James Macpherson about the Ossian Fraud (1775)

Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775)

letters between Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, July 2 and 4, 1784

Samuel Johnson, letter to Hester Thrale, July 2, 1784

If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do no further mischief.

If the last act is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of womankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you.

I was, I once was,

Madam, most truly yours,

Sam: Johnson.

I will come down if you will permit it.

Hester Thrale, letter to Samuel Johnson, July 4, 1784

I have this morning received from you so rough a letter in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first; his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner, and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. It is want of fortune, then, that is ignominious; the character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has been always a zealous adherent will, I hope, teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved; mine will, I hope, enable me to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received. My fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who must henceforth protect it.

I write by the coach the more speedily and effectually to prevent your coming hither. Perhaps by my fame (and I hope it is so) you mean only that celebrity which is a consideration of a much lower kind. I care for that only as it may give pleasure to my husband and his friends.

Farewell, dear Sir, and accept my best wishes. You have always commanded my esteem, and long enjoyed the fruits of a friendship never infringed by one harsh expression on my part during twenty years of familiar talk. Never did I oppose your will, or control your wish; nor can your unmerited severity itself lessen my regard; but till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi, let us converse no more. God bless you.


from James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)