“Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history,” wrote Macaulay in 1831. “His vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr. Levett and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.”
The reason was clear enough, at any rate to Macaulay. James Boswell and Hester Thrale, “the two writers from whom we derive most of our knowledge respecting him,” were both more than thirty years younger than Johnson, who was well into his fifties when he met them. Neither they nor their readers paid much attention to his earlier years or to the writings which had brought him the fullness of fame. “The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading,” concluded Macaulay, “while those peculiarities of manner and that careless table-talk the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.”
The fame is not what it was. Few of us now would say Johnson is better known to us than any other man in history. Yet in one respect Macaulay has been proved right. The eclipse of the writings by the talk has become almost total. Those who can recall something Johnson said far outnumber those who can recall anything he wrote. And the final irony is that compilers of dictionaries, who in Johnson’s view should be the first to respect the written word, have in his case had to give pride of place to the spoken. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations prints 74 extracts from his writings and 245 of his sayings, mostly from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Boswell was introduced to Johnson by Thomas Davies in May 1763. “He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice,” Boswell noted in his diary. “Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.” At the time all he marked was Johnson’s retort when Boswell said he came from Scotland but could not help it—“Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help”—but in the Life he recorded a far more devastating retort which came later in the same conversation. Johnson was telling Davies that Garrick might not give Miss Williams a free ticket to his theater if the house was full and Boswell, “eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him,” said he could …