The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

Introduction

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, originally titled The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale, though often abbreviated to Rasselas, is an apologue about happiness by Samuel Johnson. The book's original working title was "The Choice of Life".[1] He wrote the piece in only one week to help pay the costs of his mother's funeral, intending to complete it on 22 January 1759 (the eve of his mother's death).[1] The book was first published in April 1759 in England. Johnson is believed to have received a total of £75 for the copyright. The first American edition followed in 1768. The title page of this edition carried a quotation, inserted by the publisher Robert Bell, from La Rochefoucauld: "The labour or Exercise of the Body, freeth Man from the Pains of the Mind; and this constitutes the Happiness of the Poor".[1]

Johnson was influenced by the vogue for exotic locations. He had translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jeronimo Lobo in 1735 and used it as the basis for a "philosophical romance".[2] Ten years prior to writing Rasselas he published "The Vanity of Human Wishes" in which he describes the inevitable defeat of worldly ambition. Early readers considered Rasselas to be a work of philosophical and practical importance and critics often remark on the difficulty of classifying it as a novel.[1] Johnson was a staunch opponent of slavery, revered by abolitionists, and Rasselas became a name adopted by emancipated slaves.[1]


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