Who am I thinking of?
He influenced authors ranging from Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Nabokov, Beckett and Rex Stout.
He is the only English writer, at least since the Renaissance, to have an age named after him.
C.S. Lewis said that the biography written about our mystery man was one of the ten books that had influenced him most.
Some believe that he is the first person in history that can be diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome.
He was partially blind and partially deaf.
A very large and strong man, he was once attacked by a group of ruffians in the streets of London and was able to fight them all off until the police arrived and arrested them. After that he carried a walking club. (Alexander Pope, 4’6”, carried pistols and walked with a great Dane!)
He was the pioneer of modern biography.
He was the pioneer of modern literary criticism.
He was the most outspoken critic of the Ossian poems, declaring them to be forgeries. (These were incredibly popular poems that sparked the Celtic Revival and fueled the Romantic Revolution. The hero of the longest epic poem was Fingal, and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was named in part after him.) When MacPherson, the publisher of the poems, and, as our hero claimed, their author, threatened to attack him on his visit to Scotland our protagonist dared him to do his worst. Our man then went out and pulled up a tree, cut the roots off, leaving a large knob at the end and used this as his walking stick as he perambulated Scotland. MacPherson never touched him. (Our man was in his 60s and MacPherson a large man in his 40s.)
He only wrote one novel, but he wrote it in the evenings of one week to pay for his mother’s funeral without revising or rereading it. In fact, he would send the sheets to the printers as soon as he finished writing them. (Years later, he found it in a used bookstore and read it then.)
In this novel he talks about a place where heirs to the throne of Abyssinia were secluded from the world. It was called Happy Valley, and our Happy Valley (here in Utah) was named after it.
When someone took his seat at the theater, he picked up the chair with the offender still sitting in it and threw both together into the orchestra pit.
When someone said that the reason he didn’t like puns was perhaps because he couldn’t make them, he responded, “Sir, if I were punish-ed by every pun I shed there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.” (Spoken with a broad Staffordshire accent, in which pun is said “poon” it is virtually perfect.)
He founded a club in London that exists to this day.
He went to Oxford, but didn’t attend many lectures, preferring instead to incite the other students to revolt against authority.
He encouraged many upcoming authors, many of them women, including Mary Wollestonecraft.
He went from being nearly homeless and sleeping in the street to being sought out by the leading people of his time, including the King of England!
He wrote the first great dictionary of the English language all by himself.
The answer, if you haven’t guessed it yet, is Samuel Johnson.
Often known as Dr. Johnson, he went from absolute obscurity as a hack writer in Grubstreet to be the greatest literary man of the age, giving his name, in fact, to the Age of Johnson.
In this post I will give a brief biography taking us up to the dictionary and in the next I will finish it up and talk about his influence on books as varied as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Born a sickly infant who took a long time to cry and breathe, (his aunt said he was such a poor baby that if she had seen him crying on a garbage heap she would not have picked him up — she sounds like one of Bertie Wooster’s aunts!) he contracted scrofula, a form of tuberculosis, from his wet nurse and spent the next six years of his life with a cut in his arm held open with a thread to help drain the infection. The scrofula blinded him completely in one eye, partially in the other and damaged his hearing also, and left him very scarred.
A legacy allowed him to attend Oxford but when the funds ran out he had to leave without completing his degree. At this point he fell into a deep depression that would affect him for the rest of his life, and it coincided with the onset of symptoms that many now believe indicated that he had Tourette’s Syndrome: a variety of ticks, verbal and physical, compulsive behavior among others.
His father, who was a bookseller and advanced in age, asked him one day to man the book stall in the nearby town of Uttoxeter but Johnson refused and his father had to go himself. He died soon after. Johnson was haunted by this, and decades later, when he found himself in Uttoxeter, he took off his hat and stood in the rain for over an hour suffering the jeers of the passerbys. This, he explained to his friend Boswell, was his penance for disobedience. (This episode fascinated Hawthorne and we will come back to it again when we discuss Johnson’s legacy in our next post.)
He went to London to seek his fortune as a writer and joined the staff of Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine. (This was perhaps the first periodical to call itself a magazine, the word referring originally to a warehouse or storage area, as it still does for that matter, at least in martial circumstances.) It was through his work writing miscellaneous pieces that the booksellers (publishers) came to know him so that when they decided to combine their forces to finance an English dictionary to rival those of the foreign academies Johnson was the man they thought of. Now we arrive at the dictionary, perhaps the greatest work of scholarship ever achieved by one man working under as difficult of conditions as Johnson was.
To be continued…