The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia is one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous works and his only novel. Styled as a parable or essay as much as a novel (it has been referred to, at times, as a “moral fable,” a “philosophical romance,” and a...
Samuel Johnson, one of the most prolific and esteemed essayists, critics, and lexicographers in English history, was born to a bookseller and his wife in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England in 1709. Johnson was a brilliant child but suffered from the enmity between his parents and poverty. His time at Oxford University was truncated when money could not be procured to finish his degree. An attempt to found a teaching academy also failed, and Johnson moved to London in 1737 to try his hand at professional writing.
He wrote for and eventually edited the Gentleman’s Magazine; he contributed poetry, notices, biographies, political articles, and more. His existence in London was also characterized by indebtedness, and some critics trace his radical political stance to his quality of life. He was very critical of the Whig government, and excoriated their corruption, censorship, and lapses in justice.
In 1746 Johnson turned to a project that would help alleviate the malaise brought about by journalistic writing – compiling a dictionary. The resulting Dictionary of the English Language, completed in 1755, features over 40,000 entries accompanied by 116,000 quotes. It secured Johnson’s fame and was the most notable reference work until the Oxford English Dictionary many years later.
While working on the dictionary, Johnson published two notable works: Irene (1749) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). The former, now less popular, is a heroic tragedy, and the latter, still read frequently today, is a drama and satire. T.S. Eliot considered Vanity Johnson’s ticket to the pantheon of great poets.
In 1750 Johnson began writing essays for The Rambler. Two years later he ceased, having written 208 essays. The essays are noted for their refinement of the English language. He comprised a novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, in 1759, and received critical and popular approbation.
He continued writing essays into the early 1760s, and received a government pension in 1763 which alleviated his financial duress. He stopped writing as frequently, but founded the Literary Club. The Club was attended by illustrious personages like Adam Smith, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke.
Johnson was also the subject of one of the most famous biographies of all time – James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which gives scholars insights into the last period of his life. He wrote many political pamphlets and published a piece of travel writing on visiting Scotland. His last major work was his Lives of the Poets; the longest entries were on Dryden, Milton, Swift, and Pope. The volume is lauded for its grasp of literary history, style, keenness of critical opinion, and intuition.
In his last years, Johnson suffered from a stroke and other illnesses. He died on September 13th, 1784. He is buried at Westminster Abbey. Boswell wrote, "His death has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."
Study Guides on Works by Samuel Johnson
A canonical work that lifted the genre of critical engagement and analysis to nearly the same level as works of pure creativity, Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets was at one time known as The Lives of the English Poets and originally carried...