Johnson, Great & Strange

December 13: On this day in 1784 Samuel Johnson died, aged seventy-five. The details of Johnson's last years have been told by James Boswell and any number of biographers, but his large personality seems to escape any one perspective. According to Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, 1994), Johnson may be beyond reach in all ways: "There is no bad faith in or about Dr. Johnson, who was as good as he was great, yet also refreshingly, wildly strange to the highest degree."


Whether hoping for a view of his goodness or his strangeness, society lined up to host or just observe Johnson, despite the risks. Mrs. Thrale, his close friend and the wife of his benefactor, describes eyes "of a light blue Colour ... so wild and at Times so fierce," that "Fear I believe was the first Emotion in the hearts of all his beholders." She evidently included herself among the fearful, noting this comment from Johnson in response to her grief over her cousin's death in America: "Prithee, my dear, ... have done with canting; how would the world be the worse for it, I may ask, if all your relations were at once spitted like larks, and roasted for Presto's [her dog's] supper?" But Johnson was also unpredictable, and when others complained that Mr. Thrale was a dull conversationalist, Johnson defended him: "His conversation does not show the minute hand, but he strikes the hour very correctly."


The Thrales provided Johnson with a permanent room at their country estate, stocked with clean clothes and a "company wig" so that he might always be presentable. They also provided him with ballast for his eccentricities, his loneliness, and his bouts of "disordered" emotions. Mrs. Thrale was close enough to Johnson to be given the knowledge and care-taking of his secret back-up plan for a mental breakdown: "the Fetters & Padlocks will tell Posterity the Truth," one of his journal entries reads.


Mrs. Thrale was in her early forties at this point, Johnson his early seventies. When she took up with her daughter Queeney's Italian music tutor, withdrawing her company and her house, Johnson's despair deepened. Then his last old friends died, his health problems mounted, and no resolve "to pass eight hours every day in some serious employment" seemed enough. He even went to a fancy ball: "It cannot be worse than being alone."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

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