A review of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, by Henry Hitchings

Despite shifting tastes and trends, Samuel Johnson still looms large in our literary history. And with good reason. He so dominated his own era that his contemporaries nicknamed him the "Colossus of Literature" and the "Literary Dictator," his century came to be called "The Age of Johnson" (not even Shakespeare achieved that kind of accolade), and he pioneered or perfected many of the literary genres that continue to inform our cultural life today. Johnson helped invent the modern magazine, contributing for 16 years to the success of the Gentleman's Magazine, ancestor of Time, Newsweek, and the like, and he fostered the birth of modern book review criticism with his articles there, in his own Literary Magazine, and in several other periodicals over the years. He wrote two of the most important poems of the 18th century, "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes." His Rambler essays (two a week, 104 weeks straight, 1750-52) were a must-read in his day and remained so for at least 150 years afterwards. Johnson became the first syndicated columnist, from 1758 to 1760, with his weekly Idler essays. His novel Rasselas (1759) was a bestseller (three editions its first year), has never been out of print in the 245 years since, and has become a classic of world literature, translated into Arabic, Bengali, Japanese, and scores of other languages. His edition of The Works of Shakespeare(1765) added momentum to Shakespeare's emergence as the national bard and broke the chokehold that rules-bound criticism (i.e., the "three unities") had long held on literature. Johnson virtually invented literary biography in his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), where he also practiced his cranky brand of reader-centered criticism and elevated the "common reader" (with Virginia Woolf's later approval) as the final judge of literary merit. And, had he written nothing, he would still figure in our history as the colorful subject of what is widely regarded as the first modern biography, Boswell's Life of Johnson.

None of this, however, makes Johnson fashionable in academic circles, where many write him off not just as a dead white male, but as a high-church, moralistic, Tory, conservative, monarchist misogynist (take your pick). While it is true that Samuel Johnson continues to find favor with various Johnsonian clubs whose members tend to be cultural conservatives, the real Johnson is much more complex than this narrow pigeon-holing would allow. The high Anglican had Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, and other low-church friends, admitted to a lifetime of agonizing doubt about his faith, and was known to kneel in prayer at night with the servants. The ardent Tory was also a lifelong opponent of slavery who fiercely criticized the European conquest of Africa and America, and denounced cruelty to indigenous peoples everywhere. He hated capital punishment. His charity to the poor, the sick, and the miserable was so profound that it sometimes shocked his society friends. The supposed misogynist ("A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all") was actually a major critic of the exploitation of women, a leading advocate of women's education, and a supportive friend to dozens of women striving for writing careers in an era of male domination. (Mary Wollstonecraft, who met and liked him, put five of Johnson's works in her feminist anthology, The Female Reader, in 1789.) As Henry Hitchings acknowledges about midway through his superb book, Johnson was in many ways "a progressive liberal."

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Towering over all his other achievements was Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which Hitchings justifiably calls "the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century." In this, his first book, Hitchings has accomplished what might seem impossible: an erudite but lively and engaging account of the writing of a dictionary. He has wisely set the story of the Dictionary in the context of Johnson's life, deftly interweaving his narrative with factual and anecdotal gems drawn from history, literature, lexicography, and popular culture, and cleverly presenting the whole in 35 short, reader-friendly chapters averaging seven pages each. The chapters are each entitled with a dictionary word, ordered alphabetically from "Adventurous" to "Zootomy," and each ingeniously (for the most part) tied to the chapter's content, so that both the overt orderliness and the latent playfulness of Johnson's Dictionary are evoked throughout. The result is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in Johnson, the 18th century, the history of language and lexicography, or just an absorbing bedside read. It is a triumph, and an example of what can happen when wide-ranging scholarship, a fresh approach, and a good storyteller come together in one book.

Much of the life story will be familiar to those who have read Boswell's Johnson or modern biographies by W. J. Bate, James Clifford, or Robert DeMaria: the sickly and bookish childhood in Lichfield, the brief and disappointing Oxford career, the failure to make it as a teacher, the struggles as a young writer in London, the protracted eight-year ordeal to produce the Dictionary, the psychological woes of his wife's death and his recurrent depressions, the menagerie of odd characters and dependents he cared for in his household, the financial relief and celebrity that eventually came with a government pension and honorary degrees, his emergence—in precisely the years Boswell knew him, 1763 to his death in 1784—as the preeminent literary authority and character of his time. 

But Hitchings has a gift for the telling detail or striking statistic that flashes new light on familiar material. He notes, for example, that in the late 1740s as Johnson labored on the Dictionary and other writing projects, about 25% of his annual income was going to medical expenses arising from his wife Tetty's illnesses. Hitchings assembles a sampling of 18th-century street names—Cutthroat Lane, Labour in Vain Yard, Little Sodom, Melancholy Walk—to suggest the "vicious and despairing character" of Johnson's London. He notes that during the course of 47 years living in London, Johnson moved house at least 18 times. One of those moves, in 1759, was from the large house in Gough Square, with the upper gallery he and his clerks had used as a lexicographical workshop, to more modest digs, revealing how close to the edge financially Johnson was still living four years after publishing his greatest work. 

When focusing on the Dictionary itself, Hitchings maintains the same balance between big picture and striking detail. Drawing on the best scholarship (by James Sledd, Gwin Kolb, Allen Reddick, Robert DeMaria, Anne McDermott, among others), Hitchings gives us an overview, in manageable installments, of Johnson's departure from prior models, the evolution of his lexicographical method, the timetable, the problems and false starts, the progress, the reception, the adaptations and applications it underwent, the influence then and over the centuries since. We get a sense of theDictionary's sheer mass: 42,773 entries supported by 110,000 illustrative quotations, its two huge folio volumes weighing some 20 pounds, its price of £4 10s as large as a working person's annual income and daunting to all but the most affluent individuals and institutions. We hear Hitchings lament that Boswell is unreliable (as he could also be on such topics as Johnson on women and slavery) in his account of how Johnson compiled the Dictionary. Hitchings wonders whether "Boswell was too callow, or maybe too lazy, to probe its real history." More importantly, Hitchings gives an impressive account of the Dictionary's historic importance: how it eclipsed all predecessors in scope and quality, how Johnson's use of illustrative quotations transformed dictionaries forever, how his Dictionary held sway for more than 100 years in learned circles and in popular culture, how it was imitated and adapted by Noah Webster even as he criticized it, and how Johnson's influence pervaded even the "definitive" Oxford English Dictionary, which, first proposed in 1860, took 68 years and hundreds of contributors to finish. At intervals, Hitchings also gives us other angles of vision on the Dictionary as a whole, in terms of the different kinds of book it embodies: a history of English, a grammar guide, a literary anthology, an encyclopedia, a dictionary of quotations, a common-place book, and in places, a book of devotions, a scientific reference book, even a jestbook.

But what finally makes Hitchings's volume fun to read are the clever examples he provides in every chapter. To demonstrate Johnson's improvements over prior dictionaries, Hitchings lists essential words such as "god," "health," "good," and "soul" as typical of the kinds one predecessor didn't include at all, and contrasts another's vague definition of "flowers" ("the offspring of plants") with Johnson's careful presentation of six distinct senses of the same word. To help us see the patterns in Johnson's selection of quotations, Hitchings notes both the 4,617 quotations from the Bible (two-thirds of them from the Old Testament) and the fact that, although he drew on more than 500 authors, Johnson refused to include even a single quotation from Thomas Hobbes, "because," as Johnson told a friend, "I did not like his principles." Hitchings gives us a glimpse of Johnson's underlying psychology by reporting that "More than 1 per cent of the Dictionary's illustrative quotations refer explicitly to death, around 300 mention disease, and 'melancholy' and its cognates appear more than 150 times." We learn about interesting readers and their responses. George Eliot probably named Casaubon, the dry pedant in Middlemarch, after an undistinguished etymologist she found buried in Johnson's Dictionary. Thomas Jefferson, who couldn't have liked Johnson for his political views on American independence, habitually rummaged in the Dictionaryfor good passages of literature. Many famous writers read the Dictionary and referred to it in their creative works, from Sterne and Austen to Melville and Dickens, though few ever read it cover to cover as Robert Browning did. Most surprisingly, modern American lawyers and judges still turn on occasion to Johnson's Dictionary: two of the cases cited by Hitchings are as recent as the year 2000.

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The story isn't all hero worship. We get a chapter listing Johnson's mistakes, aptly entitled "Pastern" (for one of his most egregious errors, famously acknowledged with "Ignorance, Madam, sheer ignorance") in which we hear how he botched words such as "shoe," "soup," "lunch," and "reptile," and managed to omit altogether others such as "ultimatum," "blond," "virus," and "anus." In the chapter headed "Nicety," the naughty and obscene words are discussed, both those terms that Johnson censored out ("buggery," "vagina," "shit," "penis") and those he allowed in ("bum," "arse," "fart," "piss"). Hitchings includes a hilarious anecdote about Johnson's mistaken account of the position in which elephants copulate and the eccentric "expert" who provided him that tidbit. We also get a listing of the various usage labels with which Johnson stigmatized words he didn't entirely approve—"cant," "low word," "barbarism," "colloquial," "inelegant," "corrupt," "bad," "unworthy of use"—as he, like so many before him and since, attempted to patrol the boundaries of "correct" English and "proper" usage. 

Perhaps inevitably, given the political preoccupations of cultural criticism today, Hitchings mentions at several points the imperialistic implications of Johnson's Dictionary, referring to it in the opening pages as "an instrument of cultural imperialism." There is undoubtedly truth in this line of analysis. Even a mother forcing her toddler to use the correct words to refer to "cup" or "apple" is in a sense coercing a subordinate, relatively powerless person into a language system not of his or her own choosing, inescapably enrolling the child in an ideology and world view that (it always turns out) not everyone likes. But he might also have included some discussion of the ways that a dictionary such as Johnson's, which could extend standard usage across a geographically and socio-economically diverse population, might be inclusive and empowering to those who in one sense or another lived on the margins, or outside altogether. Mastering the "King's English," much as one might flinch at the term today, could mean gaining access to the political, economic, and social strata from which one was previously barred. We must remember why slave-holding societies passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves and free blacks to read, and why Malcolm X, during his transformative years in prison, devoted much of his time to improving his English by studying a dictionary. 

But this is a small quibble beside Hitchings's marvelous book, which even specialists will find rewarding and the vast majority of "common readers" will enjoy on every page.