A spirited, learned account of how Samuel Johnson (1709–84), son of a bookseller and sheriff, created the first great English dictionary.
Hitchings organizes his debut work in a somewhat playful but effective fashion. At the head of each chapter is a word of consequence for that section (e.g., “Bookworm,” “Melancholy”), accompanied by Johnson’s original definition. And each chapter is brief—like a dictionary entry—focused on a specific topic. The author has actually crafted a dual biography (of a man, of lexicography) as well as a swift social history of mid- to late-18th-century England. We learn about Johnson’s tormenting physical difficulties—blind in one eye, partially deaf, scarred by scrofula. Not an appealing childhood playmate, young Johnson read with something near savagery and then, after acquiring some money to attend Oxford, had to withdraw after only about a year because of his father’s poor health. (Degrees were awarded him later.) Johnson eventually married an older woman (by more than 20 years), failed as a schoolteacher and—like Shakespeare, one of his heroes—set off for London to make his fortune. He worked for publishers and booksellers and was invited in 1746 by publisher Robert Dodsley to compile a new English dictionary. And in 1755, the first massive edition appeared, weighing in at more than 20 pounds. Hitchings does a masterful job of describing Johnson’s approach (which he modified as he became aware of the Herculean dimensions of his task) and of doing his best to credit his assistants, whose biographies are largely lost to history. The author also entertains in two significant ways. First, he has scoured the Johnson dictionary for enjoyable and arresting examples (Johnson included fart, but not buggery). Second, he writes many sentences the Doctor himself would have admired. “The definitions and illustrations,” notes Hitchings, “are luxuriant with these sudden blooms.” Hitchings ends with a solid assessment of Johnson’s enduring legacy.
A first-rate synthesis of one of literary history’s most astonishing endeavors.