Empire of Letters: Mapping the Arts and the World in the Age of Johnson


“Damn Dr. Johnson,” grumbles a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel, Cranford. By then Samuel Johnson (1709-84) had been inspiring strong feelings for more than a century. Aside from compiling the first English dictionary of note, Johnson was a gifted and hugely influential critic, poet, political commentator, biographer, and novelist—as well as a legendarily pithy conversationalist and a master of the English sentence. His overbearing but strangely lovable personality was preserved for posterity by his friend and disciple, James Boswell, who in 1791 published the greatest of all literary biographies, The Life of Johnson, which records, among much else, Johnson’s near-blindness, probable Tourette’s Syndrome, and selfless love of cats. Now, after the tercentenary of his birth and the flood of books commemorating it, Johnson remains perhaps the most familiar model of a vigorously independent public intellectual—even with (or perhaps because of) his many eccentricities and contradictions, such as his hatred of both slavery and the American Revolution. This course will reappraise Johnson’s legacy but will do so within a broad cultural survey of the Anglophone world across the second half of the 18th century. In addition to Johnson, Boswell, and other titans of Enlightenment prose like Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Adam Smith, we will sample international writing on imperialism and the slave trade (Olaudah Equiano, the abolitionist poets), the French and American revolutions (Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke), and women’s rights (the bluestocking circle, Mary Wollstonecraft). We will also sample the period’s novels (Horace Walpole, Tobias Smollett), drama (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), and personal writing (Frances Burney’s diary, Boswell’s shockingly candid London Journal), as well as pay attention to Celtic literature (James Macpherson), visual art (William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds), and the poetic innovations that laid the groundwork for Romanticism (Thomas Gray, William Collins). We will also glance at Johnson’s reception and influence over the centuries; for instance, in the work of Virginia Woolf.