The London Chronicle, 1784 December 11-14

The London Chronicle LVI, 4388 (11 Dec—14 Dec, 1784).

Last night, between seven and eight o’clock, died, in his 76th year, at his house in Bolt-court, Fleet street, Dr. Samuel Johnson, so universally known and celebrated in the learned world, that nothing we can say on that head can add to his fame.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 656

The London Chronicle, 1784 December 14-16

The London Chronicle (14—16 Dec, 1784)

Johnson’s publications, as well as his life, were immediately memorialized in the days following his death. Works like The Rambler, Johnson’s twice-weekly periodical, were remembered for the role they had in the lives of their readers—and reviewers. Having excerpted a not entirely favourable review of The Rambler from Knox’s Essays—“And indeed, with all my prejudices in favour of this writer, I cannot but agree with the opinion of the Public, which has condemned, in his style, an affected appearance of pomposity”—the author of the London Chronicle’s “Sketch of the Life and Writings of Dr. Johnson” hastens to remind the reader that

But whoever would compare the Rambler with any preceding or subsequent work, ought to be previously informed, that of 208 numbers, seven only are not entirely by the hand of Dr. Johnson.

Johnson’s prolixity—and his brinksmanship—as an author were also remembered by Hester Thrale Piozzi in her account of The Rambler:

This facility of writing, and this dilatoriness ever to write, Mr. Johnson always retained, from the days that he lay abed and dictated his first publication to Mr. Hector, who acted as his amanuensis, to the moment he made me copy out those variations in Pope’s ‘Homer’ which are printed in the ‘Poet’s Lives.’ ... The fine ‘Rambler,’ on the subject of Procrastination, was hastily composed, as I have heard, in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s parlour, while the boy waited to carry it to press, and numberless are the instances of his writing under immediate pressure of importunity or distress.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 656

The London Chronicle, 1784 December 16-18

The London Chronicle LVI, 4390 (16 Dec—18 Dec, 1784).

Within days of his death, versions of Johnson’s life began to appear in print. The London Chronicle published a “Sketch of the Life and Writings of Dr. Johnson” over two issues in the week following his death. “Such was Dr. Johnson!” the paper concludes.

Such was the character he maintained amidst the vicissitudes of elevation and depression. May his example be as long powerful as his precepts will be read and admired!

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir John Hawkins, and Dr. Scott, of the Commons, are appointed his Executors.

Shown here is the second part of the essay, in The London Chronicle LVI, 4390 (16 Dec—18 Dec, 1784).

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 656

The London Chronicle, 1784 December 18-21

The London Chronicle LVI, 4391 (18 Dec—21 Dec, 1784).

Johnson’s death—like his life and effigy—was a public phenomenon. The London Chronicle continued to tantalize its readers with accounts of Johnson’s monument and the proving of his will:

A monument is to be erected to the memory of Dr. Johnson, in Westminster- abbey; and we hear the classical Bishop of London is to write the inscription—a man who can best feel the Doctor’s character, being himself no less an elegant scholar, than an orthodox divine.

A few hours after Dr. Johnson’s death, Sir Joshua Reynolds took off a cast of the face, from which the bust of the monument is to be formed.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 656

The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser, 1784 December 17

The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser (17 Dec, 1784).

Other newspapers followed suit. Here, an article in The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser conveys how the idea of Johnson’s life—whether written in a lost manuscript, or anticipated from “some surviving scribe”—fascinated a popular audience:

A gentleman who had lived in habits of friendship with Doctor Johnson many years, earnestly recommended him to commit to writing some of the remarkable circumstances of his own life, and urged as an incitement, the example of the great monsieur Huet. The Doctor followed his advice, and wrote a short account of his first introduction into Literature, and the motives which actuated his political conduct, interspersed with many anecdotes of his contemporaries. This would have been a valuable acquisition to the learned world; but finding his health decline, and apprehensive of a sudden dissolution, he was determined, no ill-judging friend, or avaricious bookseller, should have a power of publishing the sweepings of his study, under the title of his remains, burnt a great number of unfinished Essays, and undesignedly, as well as unfortunately, burnt the papers containing his Memoirs, amongst them. This will give a good opportunity to some surviving scribe to publish a life for him.

Beinecke Call Number: Accession Number 19920804-bw

The Edinburgh Evening Courant, 1784 December 22

The Edinburgh Evening Courant (22 Dec, 1784).

From the outset, the writing of Johnson’s life was a public spectacle. “We are assured,” writes the Edinburgh Evening Courant, “that the death of that great ornament to British literature, Dr Samuel Johnson, has (according to the information of our correspondent) given employment to no fewer than eleven writers, who are busily engaged in compiling the memoirs of his life—Scribimus docti indoctique!”

Beinecke Call Number: Accession Number 19920804-bw

An account of the life of Mr Richard Savage, son of the Earl Rivers

Samuel Johnson. An account of the life of Mr Richard Savage, son of the Earl Rivers. London: for J. Roberts, 1744.

The formidable subject of all this biography was himself a formidable biographer. His Account of the life of Mr Richard Savage, a quarrelsome and often dissipated Grub Street writer and poet who believed himself to be the illegitimate son of the 4th Earl Rivers, appeared shortly after Savage died. Johnson had known Savage well during his own impoverished years in London, and his unsparing honesty in relating and judging Savage’s faults, combined with a strong compassion for his circumstances, made the work a success. Its frank portrait of the disagreeable Savage captivated Joshua Reynolds, who told Boswell that “It seized his attention so strongly that, not being able to lay down the book till he had finished it, when he attempted to move, he found his arm totally benumbed.”

Beinecke Call Number: Tinker 1297

The Rambler

The Rambler. The ninth edition. London: for W. Strahan, et al, 1779.

Beinecke Call Number: Z17 284h

The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. ...

The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. with occasional remarks on his writings, an authentic copy of his will, and a catalogue of his works. To which are added some papers written by Dr. Johnson, in behalf of a late unfortunate character, never before published. Dubin [sic]: Printed for R. Moncrieffe, C. Jenkin, 1785.

This relatively small work is probably the earliest book-length “Life of Johnson.” The preface, seen here, is dated a mere fifteen days after Johnson’s death. Attributed to William Cooke, a member of the Essex Head Club founded by the lonely Johnson a year before he died, the volume includes a copy of Johnson’s will and a highly incomplete “Catalogue of Johnson’s Works.”

Some critics may perhaps object, that in so long and distinguished a life as that of Dr. Johnson, I have not, like Milton’s biographers, followed him from house to house, and lodging to lodging, or introduced the first copies of his most celebrated works, with all their original blots and interlineations.---------To future writers I consign this task, my purpose being only to give a sketch, warm from the life------ by which the general character of the man, and his writings, may be known. How I have succeeded in this, the public are to determine, Dec. 28, 1784.

Beinecke Call Number: 2000 2991

The journal of a tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D

James Boswell, The journal of a tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. London: by Henry Baldwin, for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, 1785.

Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides appeared on October 1, 1785. Dedicated to his friend and editor, the Shakespearean editor Edmund Malone, the volume covered the same trip that Johnson had described in his 1775 Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, but in a highly detailed and personalized narrative filled with vivid transcript-like accounts of Johnson’s conversation and manners. The Tour, striking in itself, was intended by Boswell to secure his position as “Johnson’s biographer” and to serve as a book-length announcement of his projected Life, the first “Advertisement” of which, seen here, appeared at the end of the Tour.

While the work was an immediate success, selling out its first printing of 1500 copies in less than three weeks, opinion was sharply divided. Boswell’s anecdotal approach, his “Flemish picture” of Johnson’s “peculiarities,” contained many trivial or embarrassing details. Indeed, Boswell’s portrait of himself within the narrative drew so much negative commentary on his apparent “egotism” and “buffoonery” that he felt obliged to defend his methods, and explain his own awareness of them, six years later in the Dedication to the Life.

In reply to Boswell’s appeal that the “friends of Dr. Johnson can best judge, from internal evidence, whether the numerous conversations which form the most valuable part of the ensuing pages, are correctly related,” the often excitable reader of this copy has written:

Every one may see that the whole is garbled so much as to make it doubtful in almost every place & much of it is evident forgery.

Beinecke Call Number: 2002 407