Samuel Johnson, man of letters and cats


It’s the 299th birthday of the great Samuel Johnson (1709-1774) who created the first English dictionary, and although I originally intended to write something very erudite (or as erudite as I can get) I became sidetracked, so I’m going to throw out a few oddities I found when I was scrambling around online for images and information on Johnson.

First, if you happen to find yourself near Lichfield, Staffs. this weekend, you can drop by the museum that is Johnson’s birthplace. Yes, there will be cake. Lichfield is a mostly harmless city in the Midlands with a cathedral and (many years ago) a great second-hand bookstore, and some rather nice buildings. Johnson, who retained a fondness for his home town all his life, said:

I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.

Johnson also requested that his heir, his servant
Francis Barber, settle in Lichfield, where his descendants farm nearby today. Barber, originally a slave from Jamaica, was freed by his owner in England, before entering Johnson’s service in 1752. He stayed on and off until the end of Johnson’s life, apart from brief stints as a pharmacist and as a sailor.

Now to the cats. Johnson liked animals, with his favorite cat in his London house being one Hodge. See, I said this was going to be diversionary. Here’s the monument to Hodge (wearing holiday garb), keeping watch over Johnson’s house and seated on a copy of the dictionary.

According to Boswell, Johnson was a bit of a sucker for Hodge:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

As well as going out on oyster buying expeditions, Johnson also went out to buy valerian when Hodge was dying, to make his pet’s last moments more comfortable. Here’s Boswell, Johnson, and Hodge again:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

What I love about Boswell’s account of Johnson and Hodge is that you can visualize this scene so clearly: Boswell, grumpy and disapproving, rolling his streaming eyes as Johnson coos over his pet and adds cat hair to the fine covering of snuff he habitually wore. Despite his formidable intelligence and his strange tics and behavior (there’s a theory that he may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome), Johnson was much beloved by his friends.

Any favorite Johnson sayings, cat stories (literary or otherwise)?

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