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Creator / Samuel Johnson

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"He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade. Also, what the fuck am I reading?"

Let Obſervation with extenſive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the buſy Scenes of crouded Life...
Dr. Samuel Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 (7 September on the Julian calendar) – 13 December 1784) was an English writer, noted for his Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, his political and social conservatism, his gruff irascibility, and his confident literary and moral judgement. His works include A Dictionary of the English Languagenote  (which included such famous definitions as "NETWORKAny thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections" and "OATSA grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"); critical work, including an important annotated edition of the works of William Shakespeare; essays, published mostly in The Rambler and The Idler; Parliamentary reports, at a time when reporting on debates in Parliament was technically illegal note ; several poems (one of which, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is awesome); and a novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. He also wrote a popular book about his travels in Western and Northern Scotland, which many of his English contemporaries regarded as a remote, exotic, and rather scary place. He also wrote a play, Irene, which was very successful at the time but which has almost never been performed since its 1749 premiere, because it's come to be seen as very boring.

Although Johnson's views of black people were as paternalistic as any white man's of the time, he loathed slavery; when once asked to give a toast, he shocked the room with "Here's to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies!" He hated the American revolutionaries not just for their disloyalty to the Crown but also for (as he saw it) the unforgivable hypocrisy of clamoring for "liberty" while denying it to their slaves, famously asking in his pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny (which also provided the first half of our page's image caption), "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" He himself left his entire estate (less a few legacies) to his black servant, Frank Barber, who had been born a slave.

As a critic, Johnson believed strongly in logic and decorum (in the 18th-century sense of probable characterization) in literary works; moreover, he believed that they should be judged on moral as well as artistic grounds. He was a firm Classicist who wrote many poems in Latin himself, and insofar as the incipient Romantic movement crossed his radar at all, he had a strong distaste for it. The Romantics returned the disfavour, disparaging him as "Ursa Major — the Great Bear"; Elizabeth Browning wrote of his Lives of the English Poets that he "wrote the lives of the poets and left out the poets!"note  Later writers such as T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett have been admirers of Johnson's work, especially for its emphasis on the importance of enduring suffering.

He suffered from scrofula ("the King's Evil") in his childhood, and was touched by Queen Anne for it — one of the last Real Life instances of Medical Monarch.

Some modern writers have suggested that Johnson suffered from obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Doctors with historical interests, however, are generally agreed that his symptoms are much more like Tourette's Syndrome than OCD. In fact, contemporary accounts of his life and self described his various tics and eccentricities so vividly that it resulted in one of the most widely agreed-upon posthumous diagnoses in history, with the general consensus among neuropsychologists being that not only did Johnson most likely have Tourette's, but it also significantly aided in his greatness as a writer and critic. He also suffered from extreme bouts of depression that made him fear for his sanity and beg his friend Hester Thrale to "chain him up" if he ever did go insane. At least one 20th-century writer took that to mean that he was having an S&M affair with her.

His fans called him the Great Cham (i.e. Khan) of Literature, and his fame during his lifetime was such that he was badgered by friends, acquaintances, and even the general public on everything from career advice to funeral inscriptions. These days he's chiefly known nowadays through James Boswell's Life of Johnson, which is considered the greatest biography in English.note  Such are the vagaries of fame.

Of course, he is also best known nowadays for the meme that consists of a painting of him used as an Image Macro with the words "What the fuck am I reading?" The actual reason for his scrutinizing the book he's reading is because Samuel Johnson had very poor eyesight (especially in his left eye) and was believed to be near-sighted, though he still did not wear glasses.

Tropes associated with Dr. Samuel Johnson or found in his works:

  • Black-and-White Morality: He discusses this at length, and advocates for its use in non-fantastic fiction, in The Rambler #4.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Widely considered this both in his time and beyond, being a highly eccentric man with various odd, vivid tics— most likely indicative of Tourette's Syndrome (which was not identified in his lifetime)— that his peers saw as disconcerting upon first meeting him, but also having a boundless mental energy that resulted in incredible levels of creativity as both a writer and a critic.
  • Creator Backlash: He experienced this with his only play, Irene. He worked on it for 23 years and confidently expected it to be a big hit. When it was finally produced it was successful, but nobody ever did it again. Years later, Johnson was at a party where someone was reading from it. After listening for a while, Johnson left the room. A friend followed and asked him what was wrong. He said "Sir, I thought it had been better."
  • Defector from Paradise: A History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia is a fictionalized account of the titular prince's despair at being kept in the Happy Valley and given everything he could ever want. He eventually manages to escape his homeland and goes to Egypt. His dissatisfaction is best exemplified in the page's quote.
  • Gentleman Snarker: He was one in conversation, which is the main reason why Boswell's biography of him is so entertaining. The first thing Johnson ever said to Boswell was a snark, when the man who introduced them, knowing Johnson's mild prejudice against Scottish people, maliciously informed Johnson that Boswell was Scottish:
    Boswell: Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.
    Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.
  • Gilded Cage: Where Rasselas lives in the opening.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: His journals and diaries are full of it.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: With Boswell, who was 31 years younger, though it's downplayed because Boswell was also a grown man by the time they met. Also with David Garrick, the most famous actor of his day — Garrick had actually been a pupil at Johnson's short-lived school, and the pair travelled to London together to seek their fortunes.
  • It Will Never Catch On: His pronouncement on Tristram Shandy:
    "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last."
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Johnson loved cats and is known to have owned several; one of them, Hodge, was immortalised in a passage of Boswell's Life of Johnson and is today commemorated by a statue which stands in Gough Square in London. Johnson personally went out to buy oysters for Hodge note , feeling that Frank Barber (his servant) would find such a job demeaning.
  • Knight in Sour Armour: He was profoundly religious, which is probably the only thing which stopped him from putting on the Jade-Colored Glasses. He was enough of an idealist to believe that people should try as hard as they could to be good, and enough of a cynic to believe that they would usually fail.
  • Language Drift: Discussed extensively in his preface to his Dictionary. He says that if one cannot combat such an inevitable process, then one can at least provide future readers with the means of figuring out what people of the past were saying. As it turns out, his Dictionary has ended up being credited with being one of the texts that helped slow the rate of change that English experienced afterward.
  • Likes Older Women: His wife, Tetty, was 21 years older than him. He was devoted to her and heartbroken by her death.
  • Rich Boredom: Rasselas' motive.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: He's notorious for this, but since fewer people have read his work than have read about him, most people never find out that his writing, especially his poetry, is a good deal leaner, clearer and wittier than this trope suggests. He was known to lampshade his own fondness for pompous Latinate words: according to Boswell, Johnson described the failure of a play as "It had not wit enough to keep it sweet." He then caught himself and rephrased it: "It had not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction." In general he was aiming to write dignified English, and most of the time he succeeded.
  • Stealth Insult: The Letter to Chesterfieldnote  has one at the end, using the conventions of 18th-century letter writing to declare his independence from patronage covertly:
    [...] for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with such exaltation,
    My Lord,
    Your lordship's most humble,
    most obedient servant,
    SAM. JOHNSON.note 
  • Take That!: He had many targets. From The Life of Richard Savage, this one (once you figure it out) is against cynicism in general:
    The Knowledge of Life was indeed his chief Attainment, and it is not without some Satisfaction, that I can produce the Suffrage of Savage in favour of human Nature, of which he never appeared to entertain such odious Ideas, as some who perhaps had neither his Judgment nor Experience have published, either in Ostentation of their Sagacity, Vindication of their Crimes, or Gratification of their Malice.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: He seems to have been this to his biographer, James Boswell.
  • You Keep Using That Word: In his Dictionary, Johnson defined the word "pastern" as "the knee of a horse".note  When asked by a lady how he had come to misdefine the word so badly, he replied, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."

Appearances in fiction

  • The Just Vengeance by Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • "Ink and Incapability", an episode of Blackadder the Third, memorably played by Robbie Coltrane.
  • Robbie Coltrane reprised this role in Boswell & Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles, a 1993 dramatisation of Johnson and Boswell's visit to Scotland that tends to go for Rule of Funny over Rule of What Actually Happened. Co-starring John Sessions as Boswell, it's notable for being the last episode of The BBC's anthology drama series Screen Play.
  • The Judgement of Dr. Johnson by G. K. Chesterton.
  • Both Johnson and his friend Boswell make an appearance towards the end of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
  • In Vanity Fair, Miss Pinkerton makes much of having met Dr. Johnson in her youth, and gives a copy of his dictionary to favoured students — she is much shocked when Becky Sharp hurls her copy back in disdain.
  • The fictional thoughts of Johnson on modern-day phenomena can be found on Twitter:
    "iPad (n.) Mister JOBS' ornate Picture-Frame, rever'd and pric'd as if it were a Window 'pon the SOUL"
  • Dr Sam: Johnson, Detector (1948) is a series of short stories by Lillian de la Torre in which Johnson becomes the eighteenth-century equivalent of a detective. Since Sherlock Holmes calls Watson his Boswell, these stories turn Boswell into The Watson.
  • He's a supporting character in John Buchan's 1923 historical novel Midwinter which is set at the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion - a period of Johnson's life that's missing from Boswell's biography.
  • Johnson is the resident Deadpan Snarker of John Kendrick Bangs' "Associated Shades" novels (which take place in the Afterlife and are basically Massive Multiplayer Crossovers of all the historical and fictional characters Bangs found interesting).
  • The main character of the comic spy novel Q Clearance idolizes Johnson and keeps a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson on him at all times.