On one of my first trips to London many years ago, I made a point of visiting the Gough Square home of 18th century literary giant Samuel Johnson. For seven years in the garret of this townhouse, he labored on his monumental “Dictionary of the English Language.” It was not the first such book, but it was the first to illustrate each word with literary quotations; and it is, most remarkably, the work largely of a single individual. Johnson used assistants only to copy the 114,000 quotations that he marked in books.
I have long been partial to the writer called “Dictionary Johnson,” whose quirky character and witty conversation were memorialized in perhaps the greatest biography ever written, penned by his friend and devotee James Boswell. I studied Johnson’s essays and other prose works in graduate school, and I even translated some of his Latin poems for one particularly challenging assignment.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on my most recent trip to the United Kingdom, I should take the train from Birmingham to Lichfield, my traveling companion Michael Budd in tow. We were intent on visiting Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in the center of that charming cathedral town with a population roughly equivalent to that of Aiken.
Johnson was born in 1709 in a house right on the market square, which today is adorned with an 1838 statue of the seated author, his head heavy with thought. The current house museum encompasses four floors, including a basement and attic. On the first floor was his father’s bookstore, which was to supply the introspective Johnson with a wealth of reading material in his formative years.
In fact, the kitchen, which lies below ground in this house museum, now features a tableau illustrative of a famous incident in the author’s boyhood. Seated next to the fireplace is a mannequin in nightshirt with a volume of Shakespeare’s plays open on its lap. The story goes that the 9-year-old Johnson became so engrossed in reading “Hamlet” that the famous ghost scene took on a particularly frightening aspect, so much so that he dropped the book on the floor and ran upstairs to seek the comfort and consolation of people in the shop. Johnson’s love of Shakespeare continued throughout his life; and among his many later literary projects, he edited a complete edition of the plays in 1765.
Returning to the first floor, visitors enter the workroom of Michael Johnson, Samuel’s father. Booksellers during this period bound books for their customers and sometimes even published books and pamphlets. Several items in this room, including the cash box, are thought to have been used in the family business.
The second floor, which originally contained bedrooms, is now devoted to displays about Johnson’s life and work. In one room, one can watch a short video focused on the author’s life in Lichfield, narrated by an actor impersonating his friend and biographer Boswell. The film recounts the author’s grammar school years, his thirteen months as a college student – he had to withdraw from Oxford because of his family’s lack of funds – and his time doing hack work for various periodicals in Birmingham before his final removal to London in 1737. Of his years taking any writing assignment that came his way, Johnson asserted, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
It is said that Johnson walked to the British capital from Lichfield, accompanied by his star pupil David Garrick, who was eventually to become the leading actor of his generation. Johnson had tried, for a time, to run a school in a country house about two miles from Lichfield; but that educational venture failed. Only by persistently working at his craft and demonstrating his considerable erudition did he finally earn the commission to write his dictionary, an act that solidified his reputation as the foremost scholar of his age and garnered him a comfortable pension from George III. Johnson once avowed, “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”
The attic rooms with their lime ash floors contain the bulk of the museum’s collection of the great man’s personal effects, including his favorite armchair during his last years and his much-used teapot. “I am a hardened and shameless lover of tea,” Johnson once confessed. The author himself, considered to be, next to Shakespeare, the most quoted writer in English, is buried not in Lichfield but in Westminster Abbey.
Besides Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield is most famous for its fine cathedral, which is the only medieval cathedral in England with three spires. The church itself is surrounded by a very attractive close made up of 18th century brick-faced townhouses, including the former home of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the great naturalist. A poet, philosopher and inventor, Erasmus was one of the foremost thinkers of his age; and his example undoubtedly carried a great deal of weight with his grandson Charles. Both the cathedral and Darwin House are free and open to the public.
Next week’s column features a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, a town given up largely to the memory of its most illustrious native son. Everywhere one looks, there are reminders of the great poet and playwright.