Most famous for his Dictionary of the English Language (which took him and his six assistants nine years to produce), the critic and essayist Samuel Johnson was one of the major literary figures of the 18th century. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, he moved to London and struggled for years as a journalist before the dictionary’s publication in 1755. Although nowadays familiarly known as Dr Johnson, his academic career shouldn’t be overstated; financial hardship curtailed his formal studies and his doctorates were honorary ones awarded later in life.
You’re the current president of the Johnson Society. When did you first become aware of him?
I did a degree in English at Birmingham Polytechnic and saw an abridged version of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a bookshop. On a whim, I bought it. It was a life-changer. I loved it. I then loaned it to my friend Ralph and we spent three years constantly quoting Johnson. And when we weren’t quoting him, we took to speaking in a Johnsonian style, beginning our sentences with ‘Sir’!
What makes him such a hero?
He was a great literary figure, a national hero because of his learning. When Johnson travelled, people would queue up to meet him just to hear him speak. He was seen as a source of wisdom. I don’t know if such a person exists now.
What kind of person was he?
I think he’d have been quite scary on a number of fronts. He had a series of tics, and they think, looking back, he probably had Tourette’s Syndrome. People used to find that quite scary. He was also an incredibly competitive person in conversation. He tended to win arguments. You know when you walk away and think “I wish I’d said that”? He did say it.
What was Johnson’s finest hour?
It came just as the dictionary was being completed. Lord Chesterfield had once suggested that he would become a patron to Johnson, to support him during the writing of the dictionary. So Johnson wrote this famous letter in which he basically said: “I went to see you but was turned away from your door. You humiliated me. I’ve gone away, I’ve worked on the dictionary without your help. And now that people think it’s good, you’re saying that I can attach your name to it. You’re like the person who watches a man drowning who, when he’s finally scraped and crawled and got onto the bank, goes over to offer him help.” That’s what makes Johnson an heroic figure. He didn’t back down from anyone.
Is there anything you don’t admire about him?
He was something of a bully. If he got into a heated conversation, his need to win the point meant he could be quite cruel and insulting. He used to stay with a woman called Mrs Thrale and her writings about him are a mixture of tenderness and horror at some of his behaviour.
Do you see any similarities between Johnson and yourself?
He was a Midlander who had some years of struggle, then went to London and kind of made it, so I guess there’s similarity there. I love language. As a comedian, when you’re crafting jokes, words are every important. There’s a right word and a wrong word. Also, the writing of a dictionary is a fairly incredible undertaking and, for a Catholic, I think I’ve also got a pretty good Protestant work ethic!
If you could meet him, what would you ask him?
In the Age of Enlightenment, he was still strongly religious. But he was also terrified of death. When discussing heaven he once quoted Measure For Measure: “To die, and go we know not where/To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.” I’d like to ask him which side of those coins was correct. Is he happier on the other side?
Aside from his presidency of the Johnson Society, Frank Skinner also wears the hats of stand-up comedian and broadcaster. Frank Skinner’s Opinionated returns to BBC Two on 25 March and he hosts The Frank Skinner Show on Absolute Radio from 8am every Saturday.
This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine