Perhaps because his works are little read today, we tend to see Samuel Johnson (through the medium of Boswell's great biography) primarily as a personality, as a conversationalist, as a great and eccentric character. He was, however, first and foremost a man of letters: he was a superb poet, a great moralist and critic, a remarkable lexicographer, a novelist, a journalist, a biographer, a playwright, an essayist, a satirist, a bibliographer, an autobiographer, a diarist, a journalist, a book reviewer, an editor, a scholar, a translator, a sermon writer, and a writer on travel and politics. He wrote his philosophical poems, essays, and classical tragedies, his satires in the classical tradition, his fiction and his criticism in a style which was at once polished, witty, urbane, heavy, Latinate, and ponderous. He was the literary dictator of his era, and he remains the central figure of what is still called the Age of Johnson — the period between 1750 and 1798 when a still-dominant Neoclassicism was slowly giving way before the incipient Romantic movement.
After a long period of obscurity, of poverty, of hardship and disappointment, he emerged in his later years as a famous and beloved personality, loved as much for his eccentricities, for his mythic qualities — he was an enormous, uncouth, shambling man, with, all his life, a provincial accent, his face scarred by smallpox and by scrofula, full of quirks and quarrels and convulsive starts and tremors, slovenly in appearance, indolent, generous, melancholy, peevish, and arrogant, a great drinker of tea, a great admirer of ladies, a great monopolizer of conversation — as for his remarkable intellectual brilliance. He presided over and dominated the famous Literary Club, formed in 1764, which created or influenced contemporary literary tastes and styles: its members included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Bishop Percy, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, and James Boswell, all important figures in themselves.
After his death his conservatism, his stylistic mannerisms, his didacticism, and his rationalism all went out of fashion, and — with a few notable exceptions among literary artists and critics during the nineteenth century — it has been only in recent years that the real quality and depth of his thought — which had become obscured in his endearing Boswellian persona — have once again begun to be appreciated. He has only one real theme, but it is a noble one, one of the great themes of literature, as it was the theme of his own life: he writes about man's unceasing search for happiness, about the inevitable hopelessness of that search, and about his refusal, in spite of his awareness of the fact that he is doomed to fail, to give up his quest.
Originally created 1987; incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000