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Samuel Johnson: dead but not forgotten

The great American, Benjamin Franklin, wrote: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or things worth the writing.”

The man who is still being remembered wherever English is spoken because he fulfilled both conditions stipulated by Franklin was Samuel Johnson (1709-84). He was a poet, essayist, conservationist and above all a lexicographer. Everywhere you go if someone says Johnson said this or that, do not ask which of the many Johnsons that have lived he is referring to. He is talking about Samuel Johnson.

He was born in Litchfield, Strafforshire, England. His father was an impoverished bookseller who kept a big library whose books Johnson read extensively.

From 1728 to 173, he attended Pembroke College, University of Oxford, where he was noted for his uncouth appearances. He left college without a degree because he did not have funds to continue. Briefly, he picked a job as a teacher at a small school but his heart was not in teaching.

Perhaps out of his desperation, he married Elizabeth Jarvis Porter, a widow many years his senior. With her small inheritance, he opened a boarding school for boys near Litchfield but the school soon failed.

In the year 1737, Johnson left for London. One of Johnson’s witty remarks was whoever is tired of London is tired of life because anything you would wish to have, you will find here, “or words”, the same effect. Johnson was to live in London for the rest of his days, die and buried honourably there.

Henceforth Johnson was to be a man of letters. His literary debut was an adaptation of the satire of the Roman poet Juvenal. He did these anonymously. The piece attracted favourable acclamation. When the writer’s identification was revealed, poet Alexander Pope tried to get him a degree and a school mastership but both efforts failed. All the same, Johnson continued to write besides editing the Gentleman’s Magazine.

His writing brought him the attention of booksellers who in 1747 commissioned him to compile a new dictionary of the English language. Looking uncouth and unkempt, Johnson visited Lord Chesterfield to solicit for funds for the dictionary project. He was rebuffed at the Lord’s door.

It took Johnson seven years to compile the dictionary making use of quotations to elucidate meanings. The dictionary was enthusiastically received by the public. It was the best English dictionary so far published. It remained popular and influential for more than a century. In 1955, I remember to have bought Johnson’s dictionary in Dar es Salaam published by the Odhams Press. When Odhams was dissolved, that apparently also ended Johnson’s dictionary.

Among those who favourably commented on Johnson’s dictionary was the peer who had rebuffed his solicitation. Johnson was not amused. Instead, he wrote one of the most celebrated letters in the English literature history.

“My Lord,” he started: “I have been lately informed by the proprietor of The World that two papers in which my dictionary is recommended to the public were written by yours Lordship. Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he was reached ground embraces him with help? I hope it is not very asperity, not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received to be unwilling that the enabled me to do myself.”

We do not know what Lord Chesterfield responded if at all. Though the dictionary did not enrich Johnson, it at least brought him royal attention who in 1762 granted him annual pension of $1,500 and the friendship of a Scottish lawyer James Boswell.

Boswell’s book Life of Samuel Johnson is one of the most famous biographies in the English language. It has contributed most to the continued interest the world has in Johnson. Boswell quotes many of the witty and wise things that Johnson uttered such as “getting money is not all a man’s businesses, to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life”.

In 1764, he founded a literary club whose membership included some of the people who were famous that time and continue to be historical figures. These were, among others, Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, the playwright and poet, Adam Smith, founder of modern economics, Edward Gibbon the historian, Edmund Burke, the statesman, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter.

His literary output was immense. It is not possible in a brief article to do justice to all that he wrote. The last two of his works were A journey to the Western Island of Scotland and Lives of the Poets in Ten Volumes.

Great writers and geniuses often produced barrels of works. This is what African writers so far have not done.

Johnson died in London and was buried in the Westminster Abbey, an honour reserved for the great ones of Britain.

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