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Arts and Literature

Brute Johnson: A Critical Look at the Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, L.L.D.,

A Short Biography on Samuel Johnson, LLD.
More commonly known as Dr. Johnson.

Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr Johnson, is one of England’s best known literary figures. He was a poet, essayist, biographer, lexicographer and a critic of English Literature. Dr Johnson is the most quoted English writer after Shakespeare, and has been described as one of the outstanding figures of 18th-century England.

Son of a poor bookseller, Michael Johnson, and his wife Sarah Ford, Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18th (O.S. September 7th) 1709. On 31 October 1728, he entered Pembroke College in Oxford, as a fellow-commoner. After thirteen months, however, poverty forced him to leave Oxford without taking a degree and he returned to Lichfield. Just before the publication of his Dictionary, Oxford University awarded Johnson the degree of Master of Arts. In 1775, Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate.

He attempted to work as a teacher and schoolmaster, finding work at a school in Stourbridge. He describes this time as being some of the most repetitive days of his life, and that it was pointless to teach grammar. At age twenty-five, he married Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, a widow of twice his age. His first work published in 1735 was a translation from the French of Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia.

In 1736, Johnson established a private academy at Edial, near Lichfield. He had only three pupils – one of which was David Garrick, actor, playwright, producer, and most famous actor of his day, as well as Dr. Johnson’s close friend. In this same year Samuel Johnson began the writing of his first major work there, the historical tragedy Irene, which was later produced by Garrick in 1749.

In 1737, Johnson left for London with his former pupil David Garrick. There he found employment with Edward Cave writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine. For the next three decades Johnson wrote biographies, a handful of poetry, essays, pamphlets and parliamentary reports

Between 1745 and 1755, Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language. It was assumed by Johnson himself that the project would take approximately three years. During the decade he worked on “the Dictionary”, Johnson, needing to augment his precarious income, also wrote a series of semi-weekly essays under the title The Rambler. In 1759, Johnson published his philosophical novella Rasselas, written in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral and settle her debts.

In July 1762 the twenty-four year old King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 necause of his literary achievements. Johnson met James Boswell, his biographer, the following year.

Johnson’s final major work was the Lives of the English Poets, a project commissioned by London booksellers. The Lives, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet’s work. Johnson died in 1784 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Johnson’s fame is due in large part to the enormous success of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Boswell, however, met Johnson after Johnson had already achieved a degree of fame and stability, leading Boswell’s biography to emphasize the latter part of Johnson’s life.

When the Life of Johnson was published in 1791 it at once commanded the admiration that Boswell had sought for so long. Its style was revolutionary at the time, as it directly incorporated conversations that Boswell had noted down at the time for his journals. He also included far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to. Instead of writing a respectful and dry record of Johnson’s public life, in the style of the time, he painted a vivid portrait of the complete man. It is still often said to be the greatest biography yet written. Dr. Johnson’s long-lasting fame owes much to the work.

Johnson the Brute

Samuel Johnson is one of the most well-known literary men to educated English speakers. His essays in The Rambler, which dealt with societal issues, and in The Idler, which dealt with the same topics as The Rambler but do so with a lighter tone, were some of the most widely read circulations of the time. Although he only wrote a handful of poems, his crowning poetical achievement, London, was revered as being one of the best in the language, even by Alexander Pope. His few prose narratives more often than not inspire readers to think about their own selves in a reflective light, and his critical and biographical work Lives of the English Poets is considered a masterpiece, both critical and biographical. Furthermore, his authoritative A Dictionary of the English Language was the text that defined English for over 150 years. Based on his literary accomplishments alone, it is possible that Johnson would have been remembered as a great writer. However, it was “three years after Samuel Johnson trudged up to London [that] there was born in Edinburgh, in 1740, the man who was to bring him greater fame than he could have dared to hope for” (Evans, v). This man is James Boswell. Samuel Johnson’s current status as one of the most well-known English writers of any age comes not from his own works, but from his biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, also known as The Life.

Thanks to Boswell’s Life, Samuel Johnson is remembered mostly as a lecturer instead of a writer. This is because for a long period of time, “and thanks largely to a review by Macaulay in 1831”, Boswell’s Life was by far more popular than Johnson’s own writings, to the extent that “many of the famous lines in the quotation dictionaries come not from his [Johnson’s] works but from Boswell’s recollection of his conversation” (Lynch, Jack). Boswell’s recollection of Johnson’s life “has put Johnson in a very small club — authors whose most famous works were written by someone else” (Lynch, Jack).Boswell did not find it easy to acquire Johnson as a subject for his biography. However, Boswell was forceful when obtaining his acquaintances, to the point that he could be considered a pest. It is said that in 1760, Boswel “visited London and found town life so much to his liking that only the strongest measures were able to get him back home”, however, once he did return “he began to force his company on every available celebrity and to dabble in literature” (Evans, v). Boswell does not introduce himself or attempts to charm his would-be acquaintances; he pesters them until they accept him. The same happened when “he [Boswell] journeyed to France, where he forced himself on Voltaire and Rousseau” (Evans, vi). In November 1762, this forceful young man “set out for the continent by way of London where he was resolved to become acquainted with Mr. Samuel Johnson, the great dictator of letters” (Evans, v). Although he had an abrupt reception and “he himself confessed that had not his ardor been uncommonly persevering he would have abandoned forever all hope of knowing Johnson better” (Evans, vi), Johnson, thus, took a liking to him. It was thanks to Boswell’s brute forcefulness that he was able to become acquainted with, and write the biography of, Dr. Johnson. Boswell knew Johnson to such an extent, and engaged in research about Johnson, that he went as far as to say that “he [Johnson] will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived” (Boswell, 14).  Boswell lives up to his promise, showing readers not only Johnson’s public life and literary accomplishments, but the human side of the literary mastermind, the real Johnson, the bias Johnson, the insensible Johnson, the Brute Johnson.

Many of the historical figures, other than Johnson and Boswell, often comment on Johnson’s many sentimental traits; however, readers of Boswell’s Life are more often treated to a view of an insensible, bias, and overall brutish Johnson during his young age, and a heavily opinionated bad-tempered old man during his later years.

Johnson’s physical aspect closely resembles that of an oger, to the point that  “Mr. Boswell called Johnson a ‘Bear’” (Evans, vii). Furthermore, Boswell describes Johnson’s physique and manners as that of a brute. There are the direct descriptions:

His gigantic, unwieldy body, his slovenly clothes, his squinting eyes, scrofulous scars, cramps and convulsions, his loud voice with its Staffordshire burr […] of rolling heavily to and fro  when preparing a rental and of blowing away the demolished fragments of his opponent’s argument with a violent exhalation.  We are shown his stern piety, his impetuous temper […], his indolence, and his terrifying melancholia. (Evans, x)

Of course, to label a person as a brute simply because of their appearance is unfair; however, Johnson’s attitudes often overlap that of a brute. Some even say that “Johnson’s attitude is the same attitude that leads to lynchings and witch-burnings” (Maxwell). Some of the more colorful moments of Johnson’s brute behavior are “Johnson pairing his fingernails to the quick and then scraping his knuckles with the penknife until they bled, Johnson hurling lemonade out the window because the waiter put a lump of sugar in it with dirty fingers, Johnson smiling with a soft, humorous satisfaction as he pushed a dead cat over a waterfall” (Evans, xi). This kind of behavior is not that of a warm, kind person, but that of someone who holds a grudge against the world, or has become disappointed in it, as Johnson had been. One of Johnson’s more famous quotes states “as I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly. (Moncur) This kind of outlook on life led Johnson to be bias, insensible, and barbaric at times.

Although the reader of Boswell’s life is not treated to Johnson’s bias too often, as Boswell spends most of his pages on depicting an intellectually superior Johnson, there are two prominent cases when Johnson’s bias cannot be denied. When asked by Dr Adams how long it would take to finish his dictionary Johnson replied: “Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in 3 years.”  Dr. Adams replied that the french academy, which consists of forty members, took 40 years to compile their dictionary, yet Johnson replies that “Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred as 3 to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman” (Boswell, 54). In other words, one Englishman is worth five hundred thirty three and one third

Frenchmen. Even though Johnson did not correctly apply the mathematical principles to his equation (if he was comparing the work of 40 Frenchmen in 40 years to the work of 3 Englishmen in 3 years the proportion should have been 1,600 to 9, which would mean that one Englishman, in Johnson’s estimate, is worth 177.7 Frenchmen), in completing the Dictionary in ten years Johnson proved that, at least as far as lexicography goes, he is worth 53.3 Frenchmen. Regardless of his accomplishments,  such a condescending attitude demonstrates his bias towards the French, which translates into racism. The second prominent instance of discrimination is evident when Boswell mentions that “in his dictionary he has quoted no authors, whose writing have a tendency to hurt sound religion and morality” (Boswell, 54). Ethnic bias and religious bias are not the markings of a sensible man, but of a brute. Johnson might have been a highly educated and eloquent brute, but a brute nonetheless.

His brutishness is further demonstrated in his insensibility towards others, specially his wife. Readers of The Life will seldom see Johnson be considerate to others, the only case [in the Abridgment used] being when through his letters he rescued a young Negro from being press-ganged on-board a ship. Still, the way that he treats most people, at least during his young age, shows a great lack of empathy. Johnson states that “love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise” (Moncur). Even though he thought in this way, he still decided to get married, which shows that he was either a fool, a wise man who had just committed a folly, or someone who married because of interest. Given the treatment of his wife on their wedding morning, it is likely that Johnson married because of the third option. Boswell states that when Johnson went to London, “He made some valuables acquaintances there, amongst whom where Mr. Porter, a mercer, whose widow he afterward married”. Johnson married the widow of an acquaintance. When Johnson went to ask for his mothers consent to marry Mrs. Porter, double his age, his mother disagreed “but Mrs Johnson knew too well the ardor of her sons temper, and was too tender a parent to oppose his inclinations” (Boswell). Not even his mother dared stand up to a young Johnson. Boswell then proceeds to narrate the following event regarding Johnson’s wedding day:

I have had from my illustrious friend the following curious account of their journey to church upon their nuptial morn. “Sir, she had read the old romances and had got into her head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her lover like a dog.  So , sir, at first she told me that I rode to fast, and she could not keep up with me; and , when I rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged behind.  I was not to be made the slave of  caprice;  and I resolved to begin as I meant to end.  I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight.  The road lay between two hedges, so I was sure she could not miss it; and I contrived that she should soon come up with me.  When she did, I observed her to be in tears” (Boswell, 31)

Johnson made his wife cry on the day of her wedding. This is clearly the behavior of an insensible, brutish man. Even though Boswell states that their marriage was a happy one there is no evidence to this othe than his prayers and meditations. Johnson’s insensibility towards women comes across not only with his wife, but with other women as well. Boswell states that while in the company of Sir Joshua Reynolds,  “the ladies were regretting the death of a friend, to whom they owed great obligations; upon which Reynolds observed ‘you have however the comfort of being relieved from a burden of gratitude’ […] Johnson defended it in his clear and forcible manner […] the consequence was that he went home with Reynolds and supped with him. (Boswell, 67) Both Reynolds and Johnson are openly saying that the death of their friend is not so big of a loss, since now they don’t have to pay whatever favor it is they owed. In this case the reader has to wonder how would Johnson have felt if he had lost a friend to whom he was indebted. Evans agrees that “we often see Johnson intolerant and rude-dismissing Lady Diana Beauclerk angrily from the conversation: “The woman’s a whore, let’s hear no more on’t”, and insulting Sir Joshua Reynolds: “Sir, you’re drunk, I will not talk with you”” (Evans, xi). Even Johnson himself admits to his insensibility, when speaking about his first few days in college, according to Boswell, he states that:

Indeed I did not attend him much the first day I came to college I waited upon him and then staid away four. On the six, mister Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered, I had been sliding in Christ Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor. BOSWELL that, sir was great fortitude of mine. JOHNSON no, sir, stark insensibility. (Boswell, 22)

Johnson’s ethnic and religious bias and utter lack of any real sensibility lead him to behave like a brute. The most eminent instance of Johnson’s brute behavior is when “Johnson one day knocked Osborne [a book seller] down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck.” This was a story that was told, but Boswell obtained the real story from Johnson: “Sir, he was impertinent to me and I beat him.  But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber” (Boswell, 45). Samuel Johnson, tall, fat man of brute strength, beat a man with a folio and stepped on his neck because he ‘was impertinent’. Johnson’s intolerant, violent behavior is something that is repeated over and over in the pre-1763 chapters of the book. It is evident even in infant Johnson. Boswell writes that “it is told, that, when a child of three years old, he [Johnson] chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it.” Afterward, the story goes, Johnson tells his mother some verses in the memory of the duck. Boswell’s research produces that his mother told the tale, but on Johnson’s authority he refutes the story by stating that Johnson’s father made the verses. However, Johnson never denys killing the animal.

Johnson states that when he was a young man, he “was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they [his classmates of Pembroke College] mistook for frolic. I was miserly poor and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority” (Boswell, 25). Furthermore, the Bishop of Dromore writes: “I have heard from some of his contemporaries that he was generally seen lounging at the college gate, with a circle of young students round him, whom he was entertaining with wit, and keeping from their studies, if not spiriting them up to rebellion against the college discipline” (Boswell, 25) During his later life, “Johnson, upon all locations, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod” (Boswell, 19). In other words, Johnson was a depressed, rebellious young man who, when grown up, would aprove of beating others. These are not the makings of a sensible man, but those of a brute. Evan agrees that “Johnson had explosive moments” He states that it was thanks to Boswell that they made it back safely from the tour/journey of Scotland.

This is a part of Johnson, a brute character whose intellect, during the 18th century, was considered above that of anyone else. This is the dark part of Johnson. Even though Boswell always takes Johnson’s side, it cannot be denied that many of the behavioral patterns displayed by Johnson, like making his wife cry and beating a man with a book, are those of a brute, not those of a sane man. Regardless, this Brute Johnson is prominently displayed only throughout the pre-1763 chapters of the book, before Boswell met Johnson personally. After Boswell meets Johnson in person, his image shifts to that of a wise, yet sometimes boring, and extremely condescending old man whose biggest weight behind his arguments is his own opinion; however, that is a topic for a different paper.


Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Abridged Modern Library College Edition. New York: Mc Graw Hill, 1965.

Frandzen, Thomas. “James Boswell.” A Guide to James Boswell. 2006. Copenhagen Business Schoo. 21 Oct 2007 <http://www.jamesboswell.info/>.

Gross, Maxwell. “Berkeley, Johnson, and Common Sense.” Right Reason. 2005. Ektopos. 21 Oct 2007 <http://rightreason.ektopos.com/archives/2005/03/berkeley_johnso.html>.

Lynch, Frank. “Samuel Johnson’s Biography.” The Samuel Johnson Sound Byte Page. 2007. Sound Byte. 21 Oct 2007 <http://www.samueljohnson.com/briefbio.html>.

Lynch, Jack. “Samuel Johnson.” Jack Lynch’s Home Page. Rutgers University. 21 Oct 2007 <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Johnson/>.

Moncur, Michael. “Samuel Johnson Quotes.” Quotations Page. 2007. Quotations Page. 21 Oct 2007 <http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Samuel_Johnson>.

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