Samual Johnson, master speaker


by Burt Dubin on December 20, 2011

Samuel Johnson, master speaker

1. His early years:

Samuel Johnson 1709-1784:  In his youth a voracious student, his appetite for written words knew no bounds.  He ransacked his father’s bookshelves, absorbing wisdom with lightning speed.

Ungainly of figure, eccentric of manner, he nevertheless astounded others by the breadth and scope of his worldly knowledge.    Though poor, he attended Oxford University in tattered gown, dirty linen and disreputable shoes.  Dazzlingly brilliant, he had no respect for academic authorities.

Hs wit and audacity automatically gave him an undisputed ascendancy, charming those who gathered around him.  Reckless, ungovernable, he attended Oxford only 2 years due to lack of funds.  Chronically ill, he made his way by sheer force of will.  Resolutely gloomy and dejected, his intellectual radiance drew patronage to him from Gilbert Walmesley, a wealthy squire.

His repulsive person, unpolished manner and squalid garb evoked disgust from those who knew him. With these adornments, at 25, he proceeded to fall in love with a short, fat, older woman, 46,  of means. They had a good marriage for her lifetime.

At 28, he sought his fortune in London as a literary adventurer.  Slovenly, barely getting along, he allowed his manners to deteriorate even more.

Somehow, he got a job writing drafts of speeches delivered in Parliament for Gentlemen’s Magazine. Hardly settled into this obscure job, he wrote and published an original piece called London. It proved an instant success requiring a second edition within a week.

Now a certified genius, he wrote other pieces that met with wild acclaim.  Capping that, eminent London publishers conspired together and engaged him to write a Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first dictionary that could be read with pleasure.  For 150 years, until the Oxford English Dictionary was published, it stayed the preeminent such dictionary.

David Garrick staged one of Johnson’s pieces at the Drury Lane Theatre.  The two men found themselves both attracted to and repelled by each other.  They became fast friends for their lifetime.

Johnson wrote and publishes a series of essays on morals, manners and literature.

His fame grew.  King George III gave him a pension that, at long last, gave him financial security.  Oxford University gave him a doctor’s degree.

2. His speaking

2.1 Now, he started to speak.  From day one, his colloquial talents proved without equal.  Out of the starting gate he manifested wit, humor, immense understanding of life and human nature, and a huge store of anecdotes.

2.2 Already recognized as a gifted writer, he spoke far better than he wrote!  Short sentences infused with simplicity, ease and vigor.

2.3 Edmund Burke said that if Johnson were to join Parliament, he “certainly would have been the greatest speaker that ever was.”

He effortlessly magnetized to his side the illuminati of England:  Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burke, Gibbon, Garrick, Boswell.

Boswell and Johnson, of widely different temperaments, formed an implausible friendship.  Their bond lasted for 20 years.  Out of that strange connection Boswell was to write Life of Samuel Johnson. Recognized as the most interesting biography ever written, it is still in print today. (, $1.00, used)

Now prosperous, he had a house near Fleet Street, more like a salon.  It was populated by a motley crowd of oddball types he collected.  He died in his 76th year.  He is buries in Westminster Abbey.

(Most of the above words were lifted from Macaulay’s classic article in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Brittannica.)

3. L’envoi

See paragraphs 2.1 and 2.2. Therein are success keys aspiring speakers may wisely emulate: Out of the starting gate he manifested wit, humor, immense understanding of life and human nature, and a huge store of anecdotes.  Short sentences infused with simplicity, ease and vigor.







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