The life of Dr Johnson, told through five pieces of biographical trivia
1. Samuel Johnson was known to drink up to 25 cups of tea in one sitting. Johnson (1709-84) took his eating and drinking seriously, as his prodigious tea habit testifies. According to his first – and still most celebrated – biographer, James Boswell, ‘Doctor’ Johnson (he only acquired the first of his honorary doctorates in 1765, ten years after his famous dictionary was published) would refuse to listen to anyone else at the dinner table until he had satisfied his appetite, ‘which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.’ Johnson is reckoned to have been an alcoholic, too. These days, we might say he had an addictive personality: addicted to drink (possibly), to eating, to reading (ever since he first read and fell under the spell of Hamlet as an eight year-old, while living above his father’s bookshop in Lichfield), and – above all – to work. He also collected orange peel, possibly for some (unknown) medicinal remedy. (When Boswell pressed him for more details, the good doctor replied, ‘Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.’)
2. As a boy of 3, Samuel Johnson trod on a duckling. He composed an epitaph for it: ‘Here lies good master duck whom Samuel Johnson trod on.’ Whether this was due to his famously poor eyesight is not known. Certainly, later in life, he repeatedly came close to setting his wig on fire, from leaning too close to the candle while reading at night.
A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good. – Samuel Johnson
3. A young Samuel Johnson was turned down for a teaching job because it was feared his ‘way of distorting his face’ would scare the pupils. Instead, Johnson set up his own school, in his hometown of Lichfield. Unfortunately he had only three pupils enrol at the school when it opened, in the 1730s. One of those three was future actor David Garrick, who promptly followed his teacher to London to seek his fortune. Both of them ended up becoming pre-eminent in their respective fields: Johnson as a man of letters and Garrick on the London stage.
4. Johnson deliberately misspelled the name of the publisher of his poem London so that readers would think it was a pirated copy. Shortly after arriving in the capital, a young Johnson wrote London, a poem celebrating the city, which was published to considerable acclaim. It heralded the arrival of an exciting new writer on the scene. Johnson was also a canny publicist and this ruse – making his poem appear more popular than it was by giving readers the impression that it had already been copied and pirated – surely helped the poem to make a splash.
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn. – Samuel Johnson
5. His celebrated Dictionary is often very funny, as well as educational. Johnson’s famous reference to the people of Scotland in his definition of ‘oats’ notwithstanding, his landmark Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is eccentric and amusing as well as informative. Whilst it was a scholarly enterprise, it was not without its errors – ‘pastern‘ being one of the words Johnson got wrong (people weren’t about to let him forget about his mistake either). He also misread the word ‘soupe’ in William Camden’s ‘Britannia’, and erroneously included the word ‘foupe’ in his Dictionary. We’ve catalogued some other oddities and funny stories relating to Johnson’s Dictionary in our previous post comprising some interesting facts about Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. You might also enjoy this interesting post about dictionaries of all kinds.
For more information about Johnson’s greatest work, we’d recommend Henry Hitchings’ fascinating Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Book that Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World. And if you want to read the best of Johnson’s writings in one handy (and well-annotated) volume, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
Image: Detail of a portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons.