The list of births, marriages, and deaths in the December 1784 issue of Town and Country Magazine contained a deceptively short entry for the 13th: “Dr. Samuel Johnson, a gentleman much celebrated in the literary world.” The death of Samuel Johnson—English author, moralist, conversationalist, and celebrity—became a literary spectacle in late eighteenth-century Britain. Newspapers carried details of Johnson’s last moments, his will, and his funeral, while Johnson’s contemporaries brought forth epitaphs and tributes to his life within days of his death. As his life was to become, Johnson’s death became a matter of public literary property. “Pour forth your streaming tears, sweet Muses,” wrote the author of an epitaph in the December issue of Gentleman’s Magazine (1784), “For, oh! your God-like Johnson is no more.”
The literary London in which Johnson sought his fortune was a city of cliques, clubs, and connections, where Johnson became a focus of many networks. He brought his first famous friend with him, his former pupil David Garrick. He added many others: Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, John Hawkins, Samuel Dyer, Bennet Langton, Arthur Murphy, Topham Beauclerk, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles Burney, and Edmund Burke. And these friends added other friends. In 1763, at Thomas Davies’s bookshop in Covent Garden, Johnson met the young Scottish heir James Boswell, who admired his works and quickly admired the man, recording their meetings in his journal. Two years later, Murphy introduced Johnson to the brewer Henry Thrale and his lively wife Hester, who also recorded Johnson’s conversation over the course of their close friendship.
With such friends, Johnson did not lack biographers. One of the first “lives” of Johnson appeared within days of his death, a “Sketch of the Life and Writings of Dr. Johnson” published in two successive issues of The London Chronicle. Just over a week after his death, the Edinburgh Evening Courant could inform its readers that no fewer than eleven writers were engaged in producing memoirs of Johnson’s life. Over the next seven years, Johnson’s life was memorialized repeatedly: by Boswell himself, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), which also included an “Advertisement” of his intended full biography; by Hester Thrale Piozzi, whose Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson sold out on the first day of its publication; in the Life of Johnson (1787) by Hawkins; and by John Courtenay, whose Poetical Review of the Literary and Moral Character of the Late Samuel Johnson was one of the first to set Johnson’s life to verse. By the time Boswell’s Life appeared in 1791, the abundance of memoirs—and the frequent acrimony between biographers—had become a subject of satire. The Poetical Epistle from the Ghost of Dr. Johnson (1786) purports to be Johnson’s response to his memorializing friends, carried by an obliging “Printer’s Devil” from the Elysian Fields.
Johnson’s larger-than-life persona inspired those who knew him to try to capture not just his memory, but also his centrality to the intellectual life of his time. In the process, his biographers memorialized a literary circle whose members have come to epitomize much of the exuberance and anxiety of British eighteenth-century literature. In the many lives of Johnson, with their depictions of an author defined equally by his genius and his flaws, we see the author as celebrity, whose avid contemporary audience read him both as a unique individual and as the representative of an age.