Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson

“I hope that News was not true,” wrote Hester Thrale Piozzi in 1799, on having heard of the impending death of Anna Seward, “as Floretta found it in Dr. Johnson’s Tale—to outlive Lovers and Haters, and Friends and Foes; and find one’s self surrounded by those with whom one has no Ideas in common—no Care for Applause nor no Strife of Competition.”(1) Piozzi’s melancholy was to continue, over the next two decades, as she out-lived most of the members of a literary circle in mid-eighteenth century England which had included Piozzi herself, Hannah More, Anna Seward, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson.


This act of remembering, of canonizing a literary circle through memory and anecdote, forms the subject of one of the Beinecke Library’s current exhibitions, “Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson.” Curated by Diane Ducharme and Kathryn James, the exhibition explores the many biographies of Samuel Johnson’s life which were produced by his friends and acquaintances for an avid public in the days, years, and decades following his death. A web exhibition offers a gallery of the gossip, scandal, bitterness, delight, and fascination with which these works were greeted, read, and answered by the ever-articulate, ever-opinionated members of the Johnson circle. For those whose curiosity is only piqued by the exhibition, scanned manuscripts from the Boswell papers can also be found online. The exhibition is on view at the Beinecke Library through mid-December, 2009.


For further Johnson festivities, follow the word-a-day dictionary blog through its last months and letters. This blog began on January 1, 2009, by offering daily examples from an annotated proof copy of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). When the proof copy finished, as it does abruptly in the letter P, the blog switched in October to examples drawn from a copy of the first edition owned and annotated by Hester Thrale Piozzi. Join us in the last of S, as we follow Johnson through his reading, as he chooses examples from a particular reading of an English literary canon to support a particular idea of the English language and its meanings.


As the end of 2009 draws near and the tercentennial festivities come to a close, Johnson followers can take comfort in one last exhibition, travelling from Harvard’s Hyde collection to open at the Grolier Club in New York City on December 9. The Harvard exhibition, A Monument More Durable than Brass: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, was curated by John Overholt and will be on view at the Grolier through February 6, 2010.

1 Hester Thrale Piozzi to Hester Maria Thrale, Brynbella, 19 March 1799. The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs. Thrale), ed. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 3, 75.

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