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LIFE AND GENIUS
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL. D.
WHEN the works of a great writer, who has bequeathed to posterity a lasting legacy, are presented to the world, it is naturally expected, that some account of his life should accompany the edition. The reader wishes to know as much as possible of the author. The circumstances that attended him, the features of his private character, his conversation, and the means by which he rose to eminence, become the favourite objects of inquiry. Curiosity is excited; and the admirer of his works is eager to know his private opinions, his course of study, the particularities of his conduct, and, above all, whether he pursued the wisdom which he recommends, and practised the virtue which his writings inspire. A principle of gratitude is awakened in every generous mind. For the entertainment and instruction which genius and diligence have provided for the world, men of refined and sensible tempers are ready to pay their tribute of praise, and even to form a posthumous friendship with the author.
In reviewing the life of such a writer, there is, besides, a rule of justice to which the public have an undoubted claim. Fond admiration and partial friendship should not be suffered to represent his virtues with exaggeration; nor should malignity be allowed, under a specious disguise, to magnify mere defects, the usual failings of human nature, into vice or gross deformity. The lights and shades of the character should be
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given; and, if this be done with a strict regard to truth, a just estimate of Dr. Johnson will afford a lesson perhaps as valuable as the moral doctrine that speaks with energy in every page of his works.
The present writer enjoyed the conversation and friendship of that excellent man more than thirty years. He thought it an honour to be so connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss with regret; but regret, he knows, has secret bribes, by which the judgment may be influenced, and partial affection may be carried beyond the bounds of truth. In the present case, however, nothing needs to be disguised, and exaggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an observation of the younger Pliny, in his epistle to his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions require nothing but the truth. Nam nec historia debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas sufficit. This rule the present biographer promises shall guide his pen throughout the following narrative.
It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention; and, when the press has teemed with anecdotes, apophthegms, essays, and publications of every kind, what occasion now for a new tract on the same threadbare subject? The plain truth shall be the answer. The proprietors of Johnson's Works thought the life, which they prefixed to their former edition, too unwieldy for republication. The prodigious variety of foreign matter, introduced into that performance, seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, and in the account of his own life to leave him hardly visible. They wished to have a more concise, and for that reason, perhaps a more satisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just picture of the man, and keep him the principal figure in the fore ground of his own picture. To comply with that request is the design of this essay, which the writer undertakes with a trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no secret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private conversation, and no new facts, to embellish his work. Every thing has been gleaned. Dr. Johnson said of himself, "I am not uncandid, nor severe; I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest, and people are apt to think me serious."* The exercise of that privilege, which is enjoyed by every man in society, has not been allowed to him. His fame has given import
Boswell's Life of Johnson. vol. ii. p. 465, 4to. edit.
ance even to trifles; and the zeal of his friends has brought every thing to light. What should be related, and what should not, has been published without distinction. Dicenda tacenda locuti! Every thing that fell from him has been caught with eagerness by his admirers, who, as he says in one of his letters, have acted with the diligence of spies upon his conduct. To some of them the following lines, in Mallet's poem on verbal criticism, are not inapplicable;
"Such that grave bird in northern seas is found,
After so many essays and volumes of Johnsoniana, what remains for the present writer? Perhaps, what has not been attempted; a short, yet full, a faithful, yet temperate history of Dr. Johnson.
SAMUEL JOHNSON was born at Litchfield, September 7th 1709, 0. S.* His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller in that city; a man of large athletic make, and violent passions; wrongheaded, positive, and at times afflicted with a degree of melancholy, little short of madness. His mother was sister to Dr. Ford, a practising physician, and father of Cornelius Ford, generally known by the name of PARSON FORD, the same who is represented near the punchbowl in Hogarth's Midnight Modern Conversation. In the Life of Fenton, Johnson says, that "his abilities, instead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous and dissolute, might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous and the wise." Being chaplain to the Earl of Chesterfield, he wished to attend that nobleman on his embassy to the Hague. Colley Cibber has recorded the anecdote. "You should go," said the witty peer, "if to your many vices you would add one more."Pray my lord, what is that?" "Hypocrisy, my dear doctor." Johnson had a younger brother named Nathaniel, who died at the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Michael Johnson, the father, was chosen in the year 1718,
This appears in a note to Johnson's Diary, prefixed to the first of his prayers. After the alteration of the style, he kept his birthday on the 18th of September, and it is accordingly marked September 77