The Age of Johnson: Literature, Enlightenment, and Legacy

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The Age of Johnson

1744-1785, often referred to as The Age of Sensibility.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), poet, critic, and author of fiction, is the namesake for this period in literature. Johnson wielded considerable influence over this era with works that focused on neoclassical aesthetics (the study of natural and artistic beauty with an eye toward the great classical writers). Johnson and his fellow writers placed great emphasis on the values of the Enlightenment which stressed the importance of using knowledge, not faith and superstition, to enlighten others, and led to the expansion of many social, economic, and cultural areas including astronomy, politics, and medicine. Writers of the Age of Johnson focused on the qualities of intellect, reason, balance, and order. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was born in Staffordshire, England, the son of a bookseller and his wife. Childhood infections left him partially blind and deaf; he later was scarred from a bout with smallpox. After a few years working in his father’s bookshop, he enrolled at Oxford, which he left without graduating, but he finally returned and got his degree in 1755. For the next thirty-three years he lived in poverty.

In 1746, he began the project - his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755). While he was working on this enormous project, he published an essay called The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), the theatrical tragedy Irene (1749), the Rambler essays (1750-1752). After the publication of the Dictionary he began work on a new edition of the plays of Shakespeare, which he completed in 1765. He also wrote The Idler (1758-1760), and his only novel, Rasselas (1759). In 1764, he formed the Literary Club, which included among its members David Garrick, Conservative M.P. Edmund Burke, fellow author Oliver Goldsmith, dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, historian Edward Gibbon, economist Adam Smith, painter Joshua Reynolds, and James Boswell. Johnson suffered a stroke in 1783 and died in 1784. Rasselas is an only novel written in the remarkable span of a single week in 1759 prior to the death of his mother. Johnson claimed that he had to write it quickly in order to get enough money for her funeral. It deals with the theme of the human search for happiness and concludes that such a search is doomed to failure. Rasselas was criticized by many as pessimistic because of no fulfilling “Choice of Life” is to be found, nonetheless ends with the affirmation that the “choice of eternity” is far more important. Rasselas is openly didactic, seeking to provide moral instruction to the reader and promoting a Christian view of life.

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