Samuel "Big Boy" Johnson, 1709-1784, is one of the touchstones of English literature. His most famous work is Life of Johnson, which -- ironically -- was written by James Boswell. Johnson knew quite well that he was a touchstone, and rather resented it:
Johnson first saw light of day in Hard Weals, Staffordshire, as a 20-lb lump of an infant. The exceptional rigors of his birth infuriated his mother, and she did not speak to Samuel until he was 23. His father sold used anime paperbacks, in Japanese, from a barrow in the streets of nearby Nunbeater. The locals were baffled by the comics, Johnson's father earned little, and the family lived in poverty. It was a happy day when young Samuel would find a bit of lint or a clean pebble for the soup pot.
He attended the Nunbeater Grammar School and proved so apt a pupil that he was given thruppence-and-found to attend Pembroke College, Oxford. However he soon discovered that he could not abide the mandatory cricket matches, and quit the school to marry Gram Veiniecalf. The erstwhile Miss Veiniecalf was 64 and Johnson was 19. Some scholars speculate that Johnson's choice of brides was influenced by his strained relationship with his mother, who at that time had never spoken to him and often punched him in the kidneys when his back was turned.
Gentlemen's Choice Bits
Shortly after marrying, Johnson moved to London and found work writing short articles for Gentlemen's Choice Bits. This magazine devoted itself to "the amorous arts" and featured woodcut illustrations that were very naughty for the time. But Johnson chafed at writing cut-rate pornography and in his spare time began his landmark work, originally titled A Dictionary Of The Welsh Language. Two years after starting the project he learned that printers would not accept manuscripts in Welsh as it ran them right out of consonants, and he switched to A Dictionary Of The English Language, With No Welsh In It At All. Of this period Johnson later wrote,
A cold houſe, an old wife, and a bold undertaking were then my lot in life. O that I had become a cat-mangler inſtead! ("Reminiscences", pp VIIIV)
In fact, Johnson did buy a second-hand mangle and would occasionally put a captured mouse or vole through it. But he never mangled cats professionally.
He also guest appeared in a episode of Blackadder.
His early writings gained Samuel Johnson very little cash. His first book was a collection of erotic essays and dirty limericks titled The Ramb'ling Johnſon. These had originally appeared in Gentlemen's Choice Bits as a feature of the same name. In 1759 he wrote a short exotic romance, The Temptationſ and Adventureſ of Raſſelas, Prince of Abiſſinia, hoping to use the money to go on a terrific binge as soon as his mother died.
Raſſelas appears at first to be a conventional novel of the time, with the noble-born Prince Rasselas captured by the Turks and imprisoned. The story takes a satirical turn when Rasselas tunnels out of the prison and into the harem of the Caliph, where he finds not the expected stable of luscious young girls but a flock of old hags bearing the names of the members of the British House of Lords. These crones proceed to pass all manner of nonsensical and prurient "legislation" which they force Rasselas to act out until he collapses in exhaustion.
The Temptationſ and Adventureſ of Raſſelaſ sold poorly on Rue Morgue Avenue, and instead of enjoying a binge Johnson had to take a mortgage on his shoes to pay the printing bills.
Two years later he published a widely acclaimed sequel to his Dictionary, the Liſt of one letter wordſ ſtarting with A. Of this book Horace Walpole wrote, "The adjective ſuccinct hardly doeſ it juſtice."
A Fated Meeting
His fortunes had improved somewhat by 1762. His wife Gram had died in 1760 and this cheered Johnson immensely. The Baron and Baroness Tittwillie had befriended him, and upon Gram's death invited Johnson to live with them in their Cotswold manor house. It was there, while bludgeoning chaffinches in the rose garden, that he met James "Kidneystone Pie" Boswell.
Johnson's menacing slouch, his pendulous jowls, his unwashed breeches and filthy jacket, and his uncontrollable tics and twitches impressed the young Boswell mightily. Here (thought Boswell) was a man who took no notice of what the world thought of him, and made his way by sheer native intelligence. Just then Johnson lunged at a chaffinch with his billyclub and fell into a rosebush -- a Buxom Blushing Bosom double rose, one of Baron Tittwillie's favourites. Johnson's first words to Boswell were "God's blood, man, give me your hand! I've got half this rosebush up my arse!"
Boswell helped Johnson out of the rosebush and the two became fast friends.
Honours in England, Travails in Scotland
In 1767 the Crown was persuaded to recognize Johnson's literary girth by granting him a yearly pension of three guineas, a chair in Rottenbone Alley, and all the flan he could eat. Honour upon honour followed: he received an honorary doctorate from St. Lourdes University of Liberia, an online diploma mill, and only six months later he was awarded a pickled hake from Oxford. The University of Edinburgh sent him a packet of sixteen handsome linen underdrawers, stenciled Wolverhampton Wanderers, but Johnson refused to have them in his apartments.
Rather I would go about in cruſted canvas than in ſcottish linens, if only it be good Engliſh canvas. (Reminiscences, caption under Revealing Illustration IXV)
In 1773 Johnson and Boswell undertook a tour of Scotland's Eastern Isles. Upon reaching the village of Peterhead they were told that Scotland had no Eastern Isles, and all that lay east was a slip of land called Förskynne. They smartly turned about and visited the Hebrides instead. As Johnson later said,
'Tis bad enough to be in ſcotland, but to deſcend from Peterhead to the Foreſkin would diſmay God Himſelf. (Reminiscences, pp XIVII)
Johnson had always loathed Scotland and the Scottish, and upon returning to England he wrote A Journey to the Weſtern Ceſſpools of ſcotland: Encounters With ſcoundrels, Haggis-Fiends, And ſundry Loatheſome Kilt-Wearing Gits. Boswell wrote his own account of the journey, Fear And Loathing In The Hebrides.
Lives of the Poets
Johnson's last great work was to be a set of brief biographies of the English poets, commissioned by Penguin Classics and intended to be published along with a selection of each poet's work. Johnson wrote not only a lengthy biography of each poet but a critical analysis of his work as well. His Penguin editor laid an egg, but due to Johnson's formidable reputation relented and printed everything, even the recipes for Irish stew.
It was a masterwork. Johnson called Dryden "The father of English criticiſm" and of Milton he wrote "An acrimonious and ſurly republican." Other excerpts from the Lives:
Whoever wiſhes to attain an Engliſh ſtyle, familiar but not coarſe...muſt give his days and nights to the volumes of [Joseph] Addiſon.
He washed himſelf with Oriental ſcrupuloſity. (Of Jonathan Swift)
A draughtſman of the pure imagination is he, tho' if anyone ever again quotes to me his lines anent the withered heath I will throttle him. (Of John Keats)
[Ben] Jonſon was a playwright's own writer, and an inveterate ſuck-up.
A quibble is to ſhakeſpeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller: he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and ſure to engulf him in the mire.
Of [Samuel] Butler ſay only that he was a pious man, and let us never mind his limping rhymes.
From him verſe flowed like ſtrong beer, and plenty of ſtrong beer flowed into him as well, for he was as much a drinker as I am. (Of John Fletcher)
Better for English literature had [Lord] Byron drownt in the Helleſpont.
Welſhmen love Wales too much to think well, and they write loud and precious verse thereby. But he drank ſtoutly for all that. (Of Dylan Thomas)
If I but had a cauldron of Greek fire I would show him a 'Waſte Land' right in his back garden, the pretentious ſwine. (Of T.S. Eliot)
Fields of ſtrawberries and bulldogs aſide, he does betimes play a wicked guitar lick. (Of John Lennon)
“A good quotation, ſir, elicitſ much information with brevity and wit”
“A poor quotation, Sir, appears erudite while revealing very little”
“A poor retort, ſir, revealſ little about itſ argument, but much about itſ maker”
“An irascible old man, Sir, is like flatulence - loud, but seldom pleasant”
“A floppy-haired Iriſh fop, ſir, iſ like a jam doughnut on a Judge'ſ chair - both will come to a very ſticky end in the courthouſe”
“Is that the best you can do, you tiresome geriatric?”
“A pox on you, you ignorant young pup! D--me, ſir, I ſay I ſhall knock you down, be you never ſo young and full of muſtard!”
“I daresay you would, but for the fact that you've been dead these past two and a half centuries.”
“You're dead as well, by thunder!”
“I'm still less dead than you!”
“Have at you!”
Before the rise of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson was the All-England Quotation Champion, being quoted, on average, seventy-eight times a day by each and every subject of the British Crown.
Samuel Johnson fell ill in 1783 after attending a soirée at Pudsy Place and chugging a half-hogshead of Spanish madeira from a wine bong. A lifetime of drinking caught up with him; his liver had long since turned to Camembert cheese. He expired the next year.
Samuel Johnson is buried in Wollsley Court, under the McDonalds.
It is a well known fact that Samuel Johnson has been reincarnated and spirit now lies inside that of Samuel L. Jackson. Many theorists agree that Samuel L. Jackson's hit phrase "I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" is a 20th century equivalent of Johnsons most famous quote "I refute it thus!"
However, it has been more convincingly proposed that Mr Jackson is in fact the reincarnation of Samuel Johnson's somewhat funkier contemporary and arch-enemy, Samuel L. Johnson.