Today in Literary History – December 13, 1784, Samuel Johnson dies

Samuel Johnson, essayist, novelist, critic and great lexicographer, died on December 13, 1784, at the age of seventy-five. Johnson had never been in good health. He had had very poor eyesight (he was said to be completely blind in one eye) and was very hard of hearing and long suffered from gout.

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As a child Johnson was stricken with scrofula which caused some of his vision problems and left his face badly pockmarked.

Johnson was not an attractive man. His bulk made him imposing; his near-sightedness kept him from making eye-contact and his hearing loss made him often seem to be shouting and not listening to people’s replies.

Coupled with his blunt and indelicate remarks this made him a frightening figure to many people and to his being often described as a bully.

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One person who ignored all of these defects was his friend and biographer James Boswell, who re-created many of Johnson’s most remarkable remarks in his magnificent The Life of  Samuel Johnson, which in a way guaranteed Johnson’s immortality.

There is a contentious debate still going on as to wether or not Johnson’s literary output or his portrayal as “the greatest talker ever” in Boswell’s biography are his real claims to greatness.

The one literary project whose greatness everyone can agree on his famous Dictionary, with both learned and sharply witty definitions of English words. (“OATS — A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people” is a good example.)

In its abridged editions it is probably the only work by Johnson that is still read for pleasure by the general public today.

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