Why I Love Sam Johnson

By John Hertz:  Now and then I say something positive about Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).  Something like “one of the greatest writers English has known”.

Is it because you agree with his politics?


Because you agree with his religion?


Because you agree with his opinions?


Because you want to write like him?


He says things wonderfully.  We don’t use English today the way 18th Century people did; I don’t propose to try.  But put your mind there for a moment. Here he is in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773; published 1775).  He’s on the Isle of Mull.

that care which is always necessary, and will hardly ever be taken

Here’s one more – earlier, actually; he’s just entering the Highlands.

every claim of superiority irritates competition; injuries will sometimes be done, and be more injuriously defended; retaliation will sometimes be attempted, and the debt exacted with too much interest

Isn’t that (as I heard the beatboxer D-Nice say the other night) superdope?

Isn’t it amazing astounding fantastic?

6 thoughts on “Why I Love Sam Johnson

  1. He’s actually quite an admirable figure in some ways- he was a self-made man who conquered potentially crippling illness and deep poverty as a freelancer to become quite successful, and ultimately respected and revered. Not to mention the wide range of his literary works: fiction, theatre, literary criticism, philosophy, and lexicography. Looking closely at his life and writings you can see why Boswell thought highly enough of him to write that biography- and H.P. Lovecraft thought highly enough of him to adopt the mannerisms and beliefs of the 18th century in his own life and work-ultimately, now, to his detriment.

  2. There’s always a bit of “one-upmanship” and sarcasm lurking in Johnson and British writers of the period, along with their amusing rythyms.

    But America has it’s own masters. James G. Blaine (Congressman from Maine) was famous for his “bloody shirt” speech. My personal favorite from Blaine was his retort to the insults of Roscoe Conkling on the floor of Congress in April 1866:

    “The contempt of that large-minded gentleman is so wilting, his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent overpowering turkey-gobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and to all the men of this House, that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him.”

    This is from Mathew Josephson’s “The Politicos,” p.178.

  3. I remember him from all those impossible crimes he solved in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine……

  4. He was not taken in for a moment by the 18th century literary hoax of the Ossian poems, which he described as “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with”. When asked, “But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?” he replied, “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children.”

  5. I was watching a video walking tour of London last night and it showed his house, which is now almost 500 years old and is still there and preserved as an historic site.

  6. Lest Boswell continue to languish in the good doctor’s shadow, I commend to your attention the many books (other than the Biography) which Boswell himself wrote. These were illuminated for me by Lady Mom, who had shelves of books by Boswell which she opined were more amusing than even Johnson himself: and she wondered just how much the doctor’s fame rested upon the observations of his friend.

Comments are closed.