Excerpted from Defining the World by Henry Hitchings. Copyright © 2005 by Henry Hitchings. Published in October 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
1. He that is inclined to adventures; and, consequently, bold, daring, courageous
2. Applied to things; that which is full of hazard; which requires courage; dangerous
On 15 april 1755 the first great dictionary of English was published. Samuel Johnson’s giant Dictionary of the English Language was an audacious attempt to tame his unruly native tongue. In more than 42,000 carefully constructed entries, Johnson had mapped the contours of the language, combining huge erudition with a steely wit and remarkable clarity of thought.
In doing so, Johnson had fashioned the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century. Its two folio volumes tell us more about the society of this period—lustily commercial, cultivated but energetic, politically volatile yet eager for consensus—than any other work. They document the copious vitality of English and its literature, and Johnson’s spirit—by turns humorous, ethical and perceptive—presides over every page.
The appearance of the Dictionary marked the end of a heroic ordeal. Johnson had begun work on it full of bluff confidence; he thought he would get the job done in less than three years. It was not long, however, before he began to buckle beneath the magnitude of the task. His labours were absorbing, yet painful; he would eventually characterize them as a mixture of ‘anxious diligence’ and ‘persevering activity’. When the trials of compilation overtook him, so too did the black despondency that blighted his adult life. Johnson had to wrestle not only with the complexities of the English language but also, as we shall see, with the pangs of personal tragedy.
Although a tirelessly productive author, Johnson considered himself disgracefully lazy—believing that only Presto, a dog belonging to his friend Hester Thrale, might truly be thought lazier. His diaries are full of self-recrimination: assurances that he will work harder, along with detailed schedules to ensure that he do so. His schemes of work suggest at once a schoolboy’s hunger for self-improvement and a schoolboy’s slender acquaintance with the realities of what can actually be achieved. Yet if Johnson’s self-flagellating self-encouragement is striking, so are his working habits—hardly those of a diligent professional. ‘Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o’clock is a scoundrel,’ he was wont to claim. His nights were as often spent in jovial company as in the prison house of learning.
It is surprising, given Johnson’s oscillation between sociability and melancholia, that the Dictionary ever got written at all. Surprising, too, that it is so good. Johnson’s ability to complete the job despite the distractions he faced affords us a crucial insight into his character: the methods he employed, the means he used to deal with his depressions and disappointments, suggest the very essence of his working mind, the special character of his achievement.
The Dictionary captures, and to some degree pre-empts, its age’s passion for organization. The ambitious ordering of the arts was reflected in a vast range of manuals, taxonomies and histories—of painting, of poetry, of music, and of the nation. At the same time the desire to ‘stage’ knowledge—for both entertainment and public benefit—was evident at festivals such as the Shakespeare Jubilee, and in assembly rooms, theatres, lecture halls or new institutions such as the British Museum and the Royal Academy. 1 Like the colossal Encyclope;die of the Frenchmen Diderot and d’Alembert, which distilled the essence of the Continental Enlightenment, the Dictionary was a machine de guerre. It would become an instrument of cultural imperialism, and its publication was a defining moment in the realization of what was in the eighteenth century a brand new concept, namely Britishness.
The authority of Johnson’s work has coloured every dictionary of English that has since been compiled. In the second half of the eighteenth century, and for most of the nineteenth, it enjoyed totemic status in both Britain and America. When British speakers of English refer today to ‘the dictionary’, they imply the Oxford English Dictionary, while Americans incline towards Webster’s. But for 150 years ‘the dictionary’ meant Johnson’s Dictionary. To quote Robert Burchfield, the editor of the supplement to the OED: ‘In the whole tradition of English language and literature the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank is that of Dr Johnson.’ 2 Unlike other dictionaries, Johnson’s is a work of literature.
Its influence has been especially profound among writers. As a young man Robert Browning read both its folio volumes in their entirety in order to ‘qualify’ himself for a career as an author. He was not the first to use them in this way. The eighteenth-century historian William Robertson read the Dictionary twice; while Henry Thomas Buckle, the reviled author of the once celebrated History of Civilization in England, worked through it diligently in order to enlarge his vocabulary; and Thomas Jefferson treated it as an anthology of quotations. In the 1930s, Samuel Beckett could add his name to the roll of revisionary users, gleaning from its pages a crop of strange terms—‘increpation’, ‘inosculation’, ‘to snite’. 3
Johnson’s was the dictionary in the eyes of authors as various as Keats and Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth, George Eliot and Mary Wollstonecraft, Carlyle, Ruskin, the Brontës and Trollope, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Samuel Smiles, George Gissing, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde. Even thought they had more recent dictionaries at their disposal, Hawthorne and Poe deferred to the authority of Johnson. Emerson thought Johnson a ‘muttonhead’ at definition, but consulted him all the same. Johnson’s magnum, opus was the dictionary for Darwin (he cites it in an essay on flowers) and for James Clerk Maxwell, who noted regretfully that it did not contain the word ‘molecule’.
Sometimes the Dictionary’s power could have startling results. In the summer of 1775 the toast of British high society was Omai, a young man brought back from Tahiti by Tobias Furneaux, a member of Captain Cook’s party. Quick to learn chess, Omai was rather less successful in his command of English, but apparently, having gathered from the Dictionary that ‘to pickle’ meant ‘to preserve’, he saluted Lord Sandwich, the Admiral of the Fleet, with the hope that ‘God Almighty might pickle his Lordship to all eternity’. The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates quaintly the expansive afterlife of Johnson’s text.
Even its detractors could not escape its influence. More than sixty years after the Dictionary’s publication, Samuel Taylor Cole-ridge agitated about its deficiencies in Biographia Literaria, yet when he coined the verb ‘to intensify’, he conceded that while puzzling over its application, he had checked to see if it was in Johnson. Thirty years later, Vanity Fair testified to the work’s enduring power. When Becky Sharp leaves her ‘Academy for Young Ladies’, she is presented with a miniature copy of the Dictionary by its principal, Miss Pinkerton: ‘the Lexicographer’s name was always on the lips of this majestic woman, and a visit he had paid to her was the cause of her reputation and her fortune’. Becky is not impressed. ‘And just as the coach drove off,’ writes Thackeray, ‘Miss Sharp put her pale face out of the window, and actually flung the book back into the garden.’ The gesture is a symbolic overthrow of traditional, masculine authority, and of Englishness (Becky speaks French ‘with purity and a Parisian accent’, and adores Napoleon). It is signal evidence of what Johnson’s great work had come to embody.
The achievement of the Dictionary made Johnson a national icon. But as his reputation grew, public attention focused on the man—a constellation of quirks and quotable effusions—more than on his works. Soon after his death, in December 1784, the first biography was published. Many more followed, most notably James Boswell’s, which appeared in 1791.
These accounts, and Boswell’s in particular, have ensured that Johnson has become a magnet for reverent affection. This affection has been inspired by his memorable aphorisms (‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’) and bizarre mannerisms (collecting orange peel, pausing to touch every lamp post as he walked down Fleet Street, blowing out his breath like a whale). Readers recall with amusement his definition of oats—‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’—and his vast appetite—he called himself ‘a hardened and shameless tea-drinker.’ Hester Thrale, who likened him to both an elephant and a haunch of venison, reckoned he often ate seven or eight peaches before breakfast. His biographers have taken pleasure in charting the minute byways of his existence: his opinion of cucumbers, the precise number of bottles of port he drank, the size of his breeches, the names of his cats. Yet more broadly, the affection for Johnson stems from a peculiarly English or Anglophile fondness for anyone who can be thought of as a ‘character’, and it tends to be most deeply felt by those who prefer tangible truths to abstract notions—a preference that Johnson’s life and work repeatedly manifest. 4
Accordingly, we associate Johnson with carousing, with the vigorous talk of the Club and the coffee house, and with sexual unhappiness. He made a bad marriage, to a woman twenty years his senior; he talked, in his own phrase, ‘for victory’, battering his combatants with learning, lancing them with finely judged critique; and he loved a glass of punch (or ‘poonsh’, as he would have said, in his Staffordshire accent). We enjoy his stout good humour, his warm intelligence, his robust humanity; and we are morbidly intrigued by the long shadows of his melancholy.
Yet Johnson’s true achievement is, before anything else, that of a great writer—an original stylist, an important philosopher of travel, a founding father of the modern art of biography, a Christian moralist well equipped to understand an increasingly secular world. He is a poet and playwright, a novelist, a preacher and essayist, a translator, journalist and political commentator, a reviewer and critic, a bibliographer, historian and philologist. The Dictionary draws together many of the skills of these trades: more than any of his famous dicta, it illuminates the machinery of his mind. Its creation was a voyage not so much of self-discovery as of self-invention.
The 1750s were the most fecund period of Johnson’s creative life. In addition to the Dictionary, he produced a large body of essays, mainly of a philosophical or moral cast. The best of these appeared in the Rambler, a twice-weekly periodical. The Rambler was almost entirely written by Johnson, and its title became one of his many sobriquets. But this popular image of Johnson—as a rover or wanderer, a digressive amateur, a peddler of confused and inconsequential narratives—belittles him. Far more fitting is the image conjured up by the title of another magazine to which he contributed at this time, the Adventurer.
Johnson’s notion of adventure was intellectual, not physical: although he aspired to visit Poland, Iceland and the Baltic, and even spoke wistfully of going to see the Great Wall of China, his real business lay in voyages of the mind. In one of the best essays in the Adventurer, published in October 1753, he describes the importance of grand projects. Whoever devises them, he tells us, ‘unites those qualities which have the fairest claim to veneration, extent of knowledge and greatness of design’. The danger he or she faces lies in ‘aspiring to performances to which, perhaps, nature has not proportioned the force of man’. Such performances are characterized by ‘rash adventure and fruitless diligence’. 5 Wittingly or not, Johnson has achieved a self-portrait. The Dictionary is exactly this kind of undertaking, completed in defiance of circumstance and probability.