Literary Tercentenary: Samuel Johnson


18 September 2009 is the birthday of English Matters, the weblog of the University of Texas at Arlington English Department. It is also the 300th birthday of Samuel Johnson. There couldn’t be a better day to start a blog devoted to the English language and everything one can make of it.

Samuel Johnson was a poet, journalist, essayist, playwright, fiction writer, biographer, conversationalist, editor, critic, raconteur, wit, devotional writer – and his most famous achievement was in none of these fields.

Dr. Johnson wrote The Dictionary of the English Language. It wasn’t the first word-list in English, nor the best-selling, nor the most exhaustive. But it defined the idea of a dictionary for centuries afterwards: a book, as Alan Alda remarked, that’s “got all the other books in it.” Johnson’s dictionary was written with style and elegance, with humanism and good judgment; with endlessly quotable definitions: and it was written by Samuel Johnson alone. The great reference work of the 21st century, Wikipedia, is written by thousands of anonymous collaborators. The great reference work of the 18th century was written by one man in longhand. The only feature common to both is that they were fueled by lots and lots of coffee.

Astonishingly, Johnson’s Dictionary is not available on-line. It is probably the last public-domain text to resist digitization. But James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the great repository of Johnson’s conversation, is on line. So is Dr. Johnson’s tragedy Irene. Johnson’s delightful intellectual fantasy Rasselas (a sort of English answer to Voltaire’s Candide) is on line. Johnson’s austere and noble poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is on line. His extraordinary collection of anecdotes and critical commentaries on his predecessors in English verse, the Lives of the Poets, is on-line. For good measure, Johnson produced an edition of Shakespeare, and while the whole thing is not on line, large sections of the prefaces are.

Dr. Johnson was the most quotable writer in the English language, perhaps ever. He was the precursor to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Steven Colbert: the great-grandfather of snark. But rather than take up my entire inaugural post with great quotes, I will cite just two.

The first concerns an error in the Dictionary. Johnson had defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse,” which apparently it’s not. When a reader called him on his mistake and asked why he’d made it, Johnson replied, “Ignorance, madam, sheer ignorance.”

The other is my favorite passage from Boswell‘s Life of Johnson. It’s in Chapter 21.

On Saturday, July 30 [1763], Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

We hear a lot these days about motives for education: credentials, job skills, a stronger economy, “excellence.” To defend and promote what we do as teachers and students of English, we have to talk the talk of active learning initiatives, continuous quality enhancement, measurable outcomes.

But Dr. Johnson is talking about something different. “Desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind.” Not desire of learning outcomes, still less of credentials, still less of amassing credits via the most convenient delivery system – but of knowledge actually worth giving what you have. We should keep Dr. Johnson’s boatman in mind. Who knows? We might get a double fare.

—Tim Morris


  1. Perhaps my favorite Johnson quotation: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

    I recently remarked that the same could be said about the prospect of teaching two sections of freshman composition.

  2. Tim, Thanks for your post, which I enjoy on so many levels. The jaded side of me, though, can’t help but have some fun thinking that as an adjunct and Ph.D. candidate . . . I am Dr. Johnson’s boatman! However, there isn’t any water to row that is more exciting or intellectually rewarding than at a University, which I suppose is the reason there is no shortage of boatpersons. “Ready all, Row!”
    Stacy Thorne

  3. alas! i’m scheduled to debut my rowing skills this spring. three Engl. 0325s developmental writing classes at the community college. “but of knowledge actually worth giving what you have” resonates the most. thanks, Professor Morris for an insightful post. looking forward to more.

    ~Renee Osborne

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