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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell.

§ 19. Journalistic projects and labours.


His next scheme was a journal that should record the progress of European studies, and he planned it while the zest that came from completing the Dictionary concealed how far he had drawn on his energies. Such periodicals as The Present State of the Republic of Letters (1728–36) and The History of the Works of the Learned (1737–43) had now long ceased after having shown, at most, the possibility of success; and, since 1749, their place had been taken by The Monthly Review, of which, in its early years, Johnson had no reason to think highly. He now intended an English periodical that would rival those of Le Clerc and Bayle. But this scheme for “the Annals of Literature, foreign as well as domestic,” was to yield to an older project. In June, 1756, he issued new Proposals for an edition of Shakespeare, and he hoped to have the work completed by the end of the following year. The long strain, however, had begun to tell. He had difficulty in facing any continuous work, and he suffered gravely from the mental depression to which he was always liable. He has described his unhappy condition in his Latin verses entitled [char] post Lexicon Anglicanum auctum et emendatum, which give a more intimate account of his feelings than he ever allowed himself in the publicity of English; and stronger evidence is to be found in his prayers, and in the reports of his friends. It was now that he confirmed himself in the habit of seeking relief in company, and, by encouraging the calls of anyone who wished for his help, established his personal authority in literature. Only the need of money made him write, and none of his work at this time required long effort. He brought out an abridgment of his Dictionary (January, 1756), but he probably had assistance in this mechanical labour. Having abandoned the idea of a critical periodical of his own, he contributed to the early numbers of Kit Smart’s Universal Visiter (1756), and then undertook the control of The Literary Magazine (May, 1756–7). Here, he made his famous defence of tea; and, here, he exposed the shallow optimism of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, in an essay which, written with the convincing ease that had come from the experience of much painful thought, is an unsurpassed example of his method and power in argument. Another piece of journalistic work, at this time, was the introductory column of Dodsley’s evening paper, The London Chronicle (1 January, 1757), which was to be distinguished from all other journals, probably on his advice, by its “account of the labours and productions of the learned.” He also helped his friends with their books. He wrote a life of Sir Thomas Browne, with a criticism of Browne’s style, for his own edition of Christian Morals (1756). With it may be grouped the later life of Ascham in the edition of Ascham’s works nominally prepared by James Bennet (1761). The variety of his writings for some years after the completion of his Dictionary helps to explain how he found his memory unequal to producing a perfect catalogue of his works. 18    31

Note 18Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Johnson (1785), p. 38. [ back ]

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