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Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson, born in Litchfield, England (1709).
He was a sickly boy, and had been since the day he was born — "almost dead," he said. He contracted the lymphatic form of tuberculosis, called scrofula, when he was two, and because it was popularly believed that the touch of royalty could cure scrofula, he was taken to the queen. She touched him and gave him a gold medallion, which he kept for the rest of his life. Her touch didn't cure him, and neither did various disfiguring treatments that left him scarred. But he grew up strong and tall, and enjoyed walking, swimming, and riding. He was also very intelligent, proud, and somewhat lazy.
In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He set out to find an intelligent wife, since he was convinced that his parents' marriage had been unhappy because of his mother's lack of education. Around this time, he also started writing. He published some essays early in the 1730s, and began a play, the historical tragedy Irene. In 1738, he became associated with the first modern magazine — called The Gentleman's Magazine — and contributed poems and prose.
The 1750s were his most productive period. Not only did he write more than 200 essays for the twice-weekly newspaper The Rambler, but he was also at work on a monumental undertaking: a dictionary of the English language. The dictionary took him nine years to write, and he wrote The Rambler essays because they gave him a steady income; even though money was his chief incentive, he was still quite proud of those essays. He said, "My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine."
The dictionary was finally published in two volumes in 1755. Johnson's patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, had pretty much ignored Johnson and his project for several years; as a result, the dictionary entry for "patron" reads: "one who countenances, supports, and protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery."
In 1763, Johnson met young James Boswell, who was 22. They didn't get along well at first, but they grew to be friends. Boswell kept remarkably detailed diaries, and he later wrote a comprehensive biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Boswell's scrupulous descriptions of Johnson's mannerisms led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome; his transcriptions of Johnson's many aphorisms made Johnson one of the most-quoted authors in the English language. Johnson said, as quoted by Boswell: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."
To obtain a free EBook ~ The Works of Samuel Johnson