Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Celebrating Johnson's Dictionary

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Celebrating Johnson's Dictionary

Article excerpt

Celebrating Johnson's Dictionary

In 1955, on the bicentennial of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb published Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: Essays in the Biography of a Book. This magisterial and groundbreaking study not only recapitulated two centuries worth of lore, some of it critical, much of it anecdotal, on the subject, but also attempted to set the record straight by paying scrupulous attention to the historical evidence. Informed by what were then new theories in linguistics, philology, and lexicography, Sledd and Kolb sought to write a historically and critically responsible biography of Johnson's book and, in so doing, establish a firm grounding for future scholarly investigations. Fifty years later, it is hard to overstate the importance and influence of this pioneering work. Simply put, Sledd and KoIb defined the terms by which Johnson's Dictionary would be studied by future scholars: the kinds of questions they would ask; the kinds of answers to those questions they would deem critically sound; and, most important, the kinds of assumptions they would bring to their research. Of these, perhaps the most significant is the assumption that Johnson's Dictionary is a book, not just a reference tool, like, say, Webster's Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary, but a historically alive cultural artifact deserving, just as does its author, its own biography. In this framework, Johnson's Dictionary is not merely a book containing a list of words with definitions and illustrative quotations, but a book which, like Rasselas or any other work of the imagination, is worthy of the scholarly and critical attention we devote to books written by major authors or literary geniuses such as Johnson.

As its editors make clear in their introduction, Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott's Anniversary Essays on Johnson's Dictionary (Cambridge, 2005) is meant to follow in the footsteps of Sledd and Kolb's Essays. Approaching Johnson's book from various disciplines, ranging from traditional literary criticism to linguistics, lexicography, and analytical bibliography, the collection aims both to summarize (and correct) what has been said about the Dictionary and to chart the course for future research. Rather than trying to impose "a uniformity of opinion where no consensus exists," the editors have sensibly "worked to highlight disagreements" (8). The result of this editorial policy is especially evident in matched pairs of essays on the same or similar topics that reach different conclusions (Howard Weinbrot /Nicholas Hudson; Geoff Barnbrook/ Anne McDermott). Where Sledd and Kolb, authors of their own essays, aimed to present a unified argument, Lynch and McDermott allow their contributors to go wherever their interests and methodology take them. What might be lost in coherence is gained in scope and variety.

In the opening essay, "The Mythology of Johnson's Dictionary," the late Paul J. Korshin identifies "three strands ... to the legends of Johnson's writings." From early on, detractors and lovers of Johnson (some of whom actually knew him personally) - not to mention Johnson himself - forged indelible images of Johnson that have both aided and impeded our understanding of his works. As Korshin writes, "we have the dilatory, procrastinating genius; the Herculean figure with a tendency to trample people, or Johnson-thebully; and the humble, impoverished scholar laboring alone under the weight of many handicaps" (14). Wittily and systematically, Korshin debunks many a well-loved story, showing, for instance - and with specific reference to the Dictionary - that, contrary to popular belief and his own claims in his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, Johnson was neither heroically compiling the Dictionary on his own (he had six assistants) nor destitute (he received from his publishers an advance of £1,575, a large sum then and still respectable today, especially in academic publishing circles). …

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