Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century

May. 23, 2009Sep. 21, 2009
Library, West Hall

New exhibition celebrates Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)—one of the greatest moralists, poets, biographers, critics, essayists, and correspondents of all time—so dominated literary and intellectual life in the last half of the 18th century that the era is frequently referred to as the “Age of Johnson.”  As a conversationalist and writer he was so insightful and adept in the use of language that only Shakespeare and the Bible are quoted more often.

Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century, a new exhibition opening May 23 and continuing through Sept.  21 in the West Hall of the Library, tells the story of Johnson’s life and achievements through a display of rare books, manuscripts, and portraits drawn from The Huntington’s holdings and from the Loren and Frances Rothschild Collection.  The exhibition is curated by noted Johnson scholar O. M. “Skip” Brack, professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University.

One of the earliest English authors to make his living solely by his writings, Johnson spent his early years, after arriving in London in 1737, writing mostly for the Grub Street booksellers. Needing a large project that would produce a steady income, he accepted a commission to write an English dictionary. On April 15, 1755, after Johnson had labored over it for nine years, a consortium of London booksellers published, in two large volumes, A Dictionary of the English Language: In which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers. This colossal achievement  brought Johnson fame not only in England but across Europe.

A first edition of the Dictionary in its original binding will be one of the highlights of the exhibition.  Other treasures to be displayed are the famous “Blinking Sam” portrait of Johnson by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, a portion of one of Johnson’s diaries, and a number of personal letters.

Johnson’s prolific output  as a writer included his famous poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), more than 200 essays for his twice-weekly publication, The Rambler (1750–52), and the allegorical fable Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia (1759). His edition of Shakespeare (1765) and the Lives of the Poets (1779–81) secured his fame as a literary critic and biographer.

Brack notes that while Johnson could occasionally be difficult and argumentative, his work reveals a deeply compassionate nature.  “All of Johnson’s writings, although not often personal in an autobiographical sense, have the touch of his humanity—an essential understanding of the trials and joys of life that we all share.”


Editions of Johnson’s Works
The Essays Of Samuel Johnson: Selected From The Rambler, 1750–52The Adventurer, 1753; And The Idler, 1758–60. Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Various publishers.
Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection. Dover Books, 2005.
Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford. Princeton University Press, 1992–94. 
Lives of the Poets: A Selection. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Samuel Johnson: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Samuel Johnson, edited by Donald Greene. Oxford University Press. Various editions.
Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Yale University Press. 1958–2004.

Works about Johnson
W. Jackson Bate, Life of Samuel Johnson. Harcourt Brace, 1977.
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Various publishers.
Sir John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson. University of GeorgiaPress,  2009.
Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography. Belknap Press, 2008.
Jeffrey Meyers, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. Basic Books, 2008.
John Wain, Samuel Johnson. Viking Press, 1975.



Lecture: “Samuel Johnson and His Famous Dictionary”
May 27 (Wednesday) 7:30 p.m.
Loren Rothschild, a noted collector of the works of Samuel Johnson, will talk about how Johnson created his great dictionary. 

Lecture: “Johnson Agonistes: Portraying Samuel Johnson”
June 8 (Monday) 7:30 p.m.
Richard Wendorf, Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, will survey all of the known portraits of Johnson, including the famous portrait by Reynolds now at The Huntington. 

Lecture: “Sam and Jamie: ‘No Theory Please, We’re British’”
Sept. 9 (Wednesday) 7:30 p.m.
Paul Ruxin, a corporate lawyer and Johnson collector, will discuss the famous relationship between Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. 

All lectures take place in Friends’ Hall and are free to the public. 
No reservations required.