Samuel Johnson Biography

Editor, Author, Poet, Journalist (1709–1784)
The ever witty Samuel Johnson was an essayist and literary historian who was a prominent figure in 18th century England.


Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, on September 18, 1709, Samuel Johnson came from modest means to become one of the greatest literary figures of his day. He was known for his essay collections, biographies and a comprehensive dictionary as well as the fable adaptation The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Revered for his enduring witticisms, Johnson died on December 13, 1784.

Difficult Childhood

Born on September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, Samuel Johnson is remembered as a leading critic, writer and lexicographer of his day. He had to overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve such acclaim, however. Johnson was born into straitened circumstances, and was plagued by health problems from the start of his life. As recounted in the biography written by his friend James Boswell, Johnson once stated, "I was born almost dead and could not cry for some time."

As a baby, Johnson suffered from scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that he had contracted in his lymph nodes. His hearing and vision were impaired, and Johnson displayed an array of physical and verbal tics throughout his life (modern-day physicians believe that he may have had Tourette's syndrome, but the disorder was unknown during Johnson's day). Johnson also suffered from fits of depression.

Studies and Early Career

The son of a bookseller, Johnson was an excellent student who was particularly good at Latin. He attended Pembroke College at Oxford in 1728. However, money problems forced him to leave school the next year. Johnson then tried to find work as a teacher, but had no luck finding a suitable long-term position.

Though he continued to look for teaching work, Johnson—who had relocated to Birmingham—also began to work as a writer. During this difficult period, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow, in 1735. With money she brought to the marriage, Johnson was able to found his own school. Unfortunately, the venture proved to be a flop.

Important Literary Figure

In 1737, Johnson moved to London. There, he would continue to work as a hack writer for years, churning out articles—in varying degrees of quality—in an effort to earn money. He began contributing to The Gentleman's Magazine in 1738. That same year, he anonymously published the poem "London," a well-received political satire.

In 1746, Johnson agreed to tackle one of the major projects of his career: A Dictionary of the English Language. The book took nearly a decade to complete. While still working on the project, Johnson received some notice for the Rambler, a twice-weekly publication that came out between 1750 and 1752. Johnson's wife told him of her admiration for his Rambler essays before her death in 1752.

Johnson's dictionary was published in 1755, bringing him greater acclaim, but little financial reward. Johnson continued writing, with later works that include the philosophical tale The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) and a collection of essays for The Idler. In 1762, he received a pension from the English government, which eased his ongoing economic woes. The next year, Johnson befriended Boswell, his future biographer.

Johnson fulfilled an overdue contract and published his own collection of William Shakespeare's plays in 1765. Beginning in the late 1770s, Johnson began work on a series of critical examinations of poets. These analytical and biographical sketches were published in several volumes and are usually known as The Lives of the Poets.


At the age of 75, Johnson died on December 13, 1784, in London, England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Boswell's famous biography, published in 1791, provided a lasting tribute to Johnson's life and work.

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