By his fifties, Samuel Johnson was one of the great figures of 18th century British letters and literary society. His essays, poems and occasional writings were an education in style and learning. His portrait, painted often by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, was on its way to the National Gallery and to becoming an emblem of the Enlightenment scholar. His body would go to Westminster Abbey, his statue to St. Paul's Cathedral, his ringing wit and epigrammatic pronouncements, thanks to Boswell's famous biography, would toll like Big Ben. To the point that Johnson himself got tired of listening: "You, sir, have but two topics -- yourself and me. I am tired of both."
It is hard to imagine a man like Samuel Johnson not finding fame, but it is his Dictionary of the English Language which is generally regarded as his greatest claim to it. Some biographers go further, regarding June 18th, 1746, the date that Johnson contracted with a handful of London booksellers to produce the Dictionary, as the turning point in his life. Johnson was thirty-six at the time, a barely-employed pen-for-hire just a literal step away from Grub Street and the life of a hack writer. His work at The Gentleman's Magazine was highly regarded, but usually anonymously published -- and the publisher, said Johnson, was a "penurious paymaster" who would "contract for lines by the hundred, and expect the long hundred."
One of Johnson's fellow employees, one Samuel Boyse, would habitually pawn his clothes and have to write in bed, with a hole punched through the blanket for his pen. Thomas Macaulay, an essayist glad to be living a century later, described the writer of the mid-1700s as fated "to lodge in a garret up four pairs of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footman out of place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St. George's Fields...."
A generation or two earlier, a writer could hope for a patron; a generation or two later, and certainly by Dickens's day, he could appeal to a literate middle class. Having neither an elite cushion nor a mass market, Johnson must have been enthusiastic about the handsome offer he received from a handful of London booksellers who wanted a better dictionary. It was a gamble on both sides: they hoped they had found a man with the talent and tenacity needed, as Johnson later put it, "for beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution"; Johnson hoped that the years it would take would bridge a path from Grub Street to Fleet Street -- and not to the debtor's prison there.
This would happen, although it would take Johnson nine rather than the original three years he had planned, thus occasioning one of his more famous witticisms. When a friend heard of Johnson's original three-year estimate, he pointed out that it took the forty members of the French Academy forty years to complete their dictionary. "Let me see," said Johnson, "forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three is to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman." This is a long way from "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," but that was thirty-five years later -- and Johnson, said one in his crowd, was "a symposiarch," a man who might hold forth on any side so long as it allowed for the playing of the conversational trump. Making a dictionary must have struck Johnson as a spectacular opportunity for having the ultimate last card.
The earliest English dictionaries were lists of foreign language words, or hard words. In the 1720s, dictionaries began to try to include all words, and give etymologies for them. Johnson's Dictionary, like its predecessors, was not strong on the etymology -- Johnson thought that the word 'spider' might "be from 'spydor,' the insect that watches the door" -- but the wealth of model quotations and the precision of definition made it an instant and durable classic, and the forerunner of today's authoritative Oxford English Dictionary. It is also a book that carries the stamp of its author. Johnson included some words that appear to be of his own invention, and some definitions that raised an eyebrow, if not more: his Whig opponents found that their party was "the name of a faction"; the Scots found that oats were "that grain which in England is fed to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people."
Johnson's most inflammatory and celebrated definition was that of the word "patron" as "a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery." When first beginning work on the Dictionary, Johnson felt he had been snubbed by Lord Chesterfield, to whom he had appealed for patronage. Just as it was about to be published, Chesterfield wrote several ringing endorsements of the work, and Johnson interpreted this as an attempt by Chesterfield to attach himself to a feat accomplished in spite of him. His famous letter to Lord Chesterfield is regarded as the last nail in the coffin of the patronage system, and a masterpiece of Johnsonian style:
...Seven years, My Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.
The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks. Is not a patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it....
Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, My Lord, Your Lordship's most humble, most obedient servant