Yes, Dr. Samuel Johnson. You know—that “famous” English guy whose name you’ve heard, but (if you’re like most Americans, including me), you have no idea exactly who he was, other than he was “some kind of writer.” The last time I was in London, I discovered Johnson’s complexities when I visited his home off Fleet Street, which is now a museum, and was wowed!
What was he known for?
The short answer: He was a highly literate, articulate, brainiac writer who had poor health, depression, a knack for staying deeply in debt, and notably, suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome. (Tourette’s symptoms can include bodily tics; involuntary utterances, such as grunting or blurting profanities; and repetitive movements. Hardly glamorous, right?)
Johnson, who lived in the 1700s, was a tall, robust man, but when people met him, they generally laughed at his tics and utterances (in his case, half-whistles and clucking like a hen) and assumed he was the village idiot. Until he spoke. Then the brilliance of his mind spilled forth, delivered with a tongue that made poetry of his words. His speech, wit, and logic dazzled people.
Johnson was a highly precocious child, and as a young man, wanted an Oxford education. He scraped together enough money to attend Oxford for only one year, then had to drop out. At that point, the dominos began falling. He applied for teaching jobs…but with no college degree…tics and utterances worsening…no job offers came…. These cascading events drove Johnson to the solitary activity of writing.
Johnson wrote in many genres: magazine essays, political pamphlets, poetry, novellas, a biography, literary criticisms, sermons, and a dictionary. And he was an editor. He was noted for many things instead of one---unlike, say, Austen the novelist or Shakespeare the playwright. (Maybe this is why we’re baffled by Johnson? Also...magazines and pamphlets do not have the shelf-life of books.) There is, however, the famed Johnson dictionary, which took him nine years to write: A Dictionary of the English Language. While it wasn’t the first English dictionary, it was by far the best. It remained the most popular dictionary for 150 years, until Oxford published its Oxford English Dictionary. Sadly, Johnson earned little money from the tome. As I said, he had a knack for remaining broke and one step out of debtor’s prison. (Good news: After writing the dictionary, Oxford University did award Johnson an honorary doctorate degree! Thus the “Dr. Johnson.”)
Despite Johnson’s oddities, he was a celebrity in his day and had many friends, several of whom gave him money when creditors banged on his door. He also married (and remarried when widowed) and loved to socialize. His brilliance and wit made him the life of the party. But “merry,” he was not. Depression tortured him. Considering his poverty and Tourette’s, this isn’t surprising. But all that “merry” socializing? After his second wife died, he told a friend he was fearful to be by himself, alone with his melancholic thoughts…thus his busy social calendar.
It should be noted that Johnson’s Tourette’s diagnosis was made nearly 200 years after his death. He lived before the medical community recognized the condition. Posthumously, doctors deduced this diagnosis based upon the symptoms that Johnson’s biographer and close friend, James Boswell, documented in his famous book, The Life of Samuel Johnson.
If Johnson were alive today, what would he be doing? My guess: Blogging—and he’d be a wildly popular blogger! For tic-afflicted Johnson, the Internet would be a perfect format for expressing himself. He was a Tory—a “monarchist”—so maybe he’d be writing political blogs for The Times or Daily Telegraph, or writing literary reviews for them. But considering the current cost of living in London, he might still be poor.
If you’re in London and want to tour the Dr. Johnson house, here is visitor info:
Address: 17 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE
Tube: Temple (Circle & District Line) or Holborn or Chancery Lane (Central Line)
Hours: May-Sept: 11:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. / Oct-April: 11:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Cost: Adults: ₤ 4.50/ Children: ₤ 1.50
Buy: The Life of Samuel Johnson
Buy: A Dictionary of the English Language
Go to: BRIT BOOKS
Go to: HOMEPAGE
Go to: CHAT FORUM