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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Dr Johnson

(Samuel Johnson, 1709–84)
The most omnipresent of English authors, apart from Shakespeare, because so many of his pithy sayings have been implanted in the national consciousness by *Boswell's Life.

Johnson was born in *Lichfield, son of a bookseller. At the age of three he was taken to London to be touched for the *king's evil, a condition which left him pock-marked for life. In 1735 he started a school near Lichfield, where his very few pupils included David *Garrick; and in 1737 he and Garrick rode together to London to seek their fortune.

Johnson's never materialized, though a lifetime of extraordinarily varied literary activity brought him an increasing reputation. His first success was London, a long poem in the manner of Pope, published anonymously in 1738. By 1746 he was sufficiently well known for a group of booksellers to commission the greatest single task of his life, his Dictionary of the English Language; published in 1755, it was a marked improvement on earlier dictionaries both in the clarity of the definitions and in the copious quotations, from Johnson's wide reading, which were included as examples.

Meanwhile he had been earning his keep through the essays which were his form of journalism. The Rambler appeared twice weekly for two years (1750–2) as a publication written, with very few exceptions, by Johnson alone; he followed it with two years of the 'Idler', a piece contributed weekly to the Universal Chronicle (1758–60). His poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) followed the success of London; a poetic tragedy, Irene, was acted in the same year; Rasselas (1759) had considerable impact as a philosophical fable; and his edition of Shakespeare (1765) was a prelude to his most lasting work of literary biography and criticism, The Lives of the Poets (1779–81). But more than any of this, it was Johnson's conversation and personality which fascinated a few people in his time and a great many since.

He met Boswell in 1763. The following year Johnson and Joshua Reynolds together founded The Club – a group which gathered regularly to dine. The original members included Goldsmith and Burke, while Garrick, Boswell, Gibbon and Charles James Fox were among those later elected. In that same year, 1764, Johnson met Henry Thrale, a rich Southwark brewer, and his wife Hester, who provided him for a while with an alternative home. An essentially convivial man (though moody and depressive on his own), he had now found the circle of friends through whose reports we seem to know him so well – aggressive but warm-hearted, frequently perverse and provocative in his views yet with a bedrock of wisdom, deeply serious about his Christian faith but blessed with a wit capable of undermining all pretension. He is the nation's literary *John Bull.

Of several houses occupied by Johnson in London, one is kept as a museum to him – his home from 1746 to 1759, at 17 Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street. The traditional description of him as Dr Johnson derives from honorary doctorates conferred by Trinity College, Dublin (1765), and by Oxford (1775).

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