Happy Birthday, Dr. Johnson

Posted in anniversaries by Editor on September 18, 2009

Though he was actually born on 7 September 1709, Samuel Johnson himself came to think of September 18 as his birthday after England accepted the Gregorian calendar reforms in 1752. The tercentenary has been widely celebrated throughout the year with a spate of conferences and exhibitions.

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Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the Eighteenth Century

Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, 23 May — 21 September 2009

Joshus Reynolds, "Portrait of Samuel Johnson" (Huntington Library)

Joshua Reynolds, "Portrait of Samuel Johnson" (Huntington Library)

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, 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.

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An Immortal Friend: Dr. Johnson and the Royal Academy

Royal Academy of Arts (Library Print Room), London, 28 April — 2 October 2009

This display explores both private and public aspects of Samuel Johnson’s close friendship with the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It includes not only rarely seen memorabilia, evoking in particular their shared addiction to tea, but also illustrates, through a selection of prints, books and documents from the RA Library and Archive, the crucial contribution that Johnson and his literary circle made to raising the intellectual status of the newly fledged institution.

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samjohndictnryPeople tend to have their favorite entries from The Dictionary. My latest encounter with the edition compiled by Jack Lynch impressed me with the following:

abecedarian — n.s. [from the names of a, b, c, the three first letters of the alphabet.] He that teaches or learns the alphabet, or first rudiments of literature.

centuriator — n.s. [from century.] A name given to historians, who distinguish times by centuries; which is generally the method of ecclesiastical history.

fancysick — adj. [fancy and sick.] One whose imagination is unsound; one whose distemper is in his own mind.

tonguepad — n.s. [tongue and pad.] A great talker.

In addition to the wide array of terms to express derision of one sort or the other, it’s also intriguing to see the fluidity of meanings within the same word as a term moves between praise and scorn.

wiseacre — n.s. [It was antiently written wiseegger, as the Dutch wiseggher, a soothsayer.] 1. A wise, or sententious man. Obsolete. 2. A fool; a dunce.

connoisseur — n.s. [French.] A judge; a critick: it is often used of a pretended critick.

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For additional information, see the websites of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield and Dr. Johnson’s House in London. Pat Rogers’s entry on Johnson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is available here.

-Craig Hanson

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