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We have a black feral cat named Gala, who lives on our back deck. Vicki brings her in on most evenings to be stroked and played with by the fireplace, along with our indoor cats Cider and Banner. Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary of the English language in 1759, lived and worked on Gough Square, just off London’s Fleet Street, where we visited while researching an essay on him for the Chicago Literary Club. His favorite cats were Hodge and lily. Hodge, also a black cat,  became quite famous, and is immortalized by a statue of him, opposite Johnson’s house on the square.

(from Wikipedia) Boswell also noted how Johnson went out to purchase valerian to ease Hodge’s suffering as death approached.[3] Although Hodge was not Johnson’s only cat, it was Hodge whom he considered his favourite. Hodge was remembered in various forms, from biographical mentions during Johnson’s life to poems written about the cat. On his death, Hodge’s life was celebrated by an elegy by Percival Stockdale. In this poem the phrase “sable furr” indicates that Hodge was a black cat; also, the fact that Stockdale was Johnson’s neighbour from 1769 onwards suggests that Hodge was alive at that time.

…Who, by his master when caressed, warmly his gratitude expressed, and never failed his thanks to purr, whene’er he stroked his sable fur.[3]

Today he is remembered by a bronze statue, unveiled by the Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1997, outside the house in Gough Square he shared with Johnson and Barber, Johnson’s black manservant and heir.[4] The statue shows Hodge sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary, with the inscription “a very fine cat indeed”.Hodge’s statue stands just in front of Boswell House, across the square from Johnson’s, pictured below, and below that is the view of the square Johnson had himself (2nd floor, 2nd window from the left), while writing his great dictionary, and presumably, stroking Hodge, his cat. 

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I’m reminded by the following entry in The Writer’s Almanac that today is the 271st birthday of the famous scribe and biographer. Read much more about him and his contemporaries in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends’ (www.chilit.org).

“It’s the birthday of the biographer James Boswell (books by this author), born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same more than two hundred years. Boswell’s father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn’t really like law and he didn’t really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.

“James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended—Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.

“After Johnson’s death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, “A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion.” Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn’t totally perfect. It’s still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it’s a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.”

Sam Johnson, regarded as the most powerful intellect of the 1700’s, was a keen observer of London politics. He saw and articulated aspects of human nature in relation to politics that seem to still ring true.

Regarding politicians who follow the party line, he observed: “men, being numbered, they know not how nor why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow…They deny the most notorious facts, contradict the most urgent truths, and persist in asserting today what they asserted yesterday, in defiance of evidence, and contempt of confutation.”

But, as for the electorate, he felt that most people are far more concerned with personal matters than with the affairs of government:

“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

Hodge, Samuel Johnson’s beloved cat, surveys London’s Gough Square, looking toward the home of his master, who would go to the market to buy oysters for him. Johnson, greatest wit of 18th century London, wrote the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language in this now restored house, which we visited a couple years ago when researching “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends” for my essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club (www.chilit.org).

It’s the birthday of Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). When he was 54 years old, he was in the back parlor of his friend Tom Davies’ bookshop in London, and he was introduced to a 23-year-old Scotsman named James Boswell, who had been trying to meet Johnson for quite a while. Johnson was intensely suspicious of Scottish people, and found Boswell annoying. But eventually they became good friends.

For years, Boswell kept notes on Johnson’s mannerisms, habits, decisions, thoughts, appearance, and everything about his life. In the meantime, Samuel Johnson had a great career. He wrote essays and sketches for magazines, poems, and biographies. And then a group of publishers asked him to create a definitive dictionary of the English language, and he accepted the challenge. The French equivalent, compiled by the AcadémieFrançaise, was slotted to take 40 years and was being created by 40 scholars. The French took six years just to work on the letter “G.” In contrast, Johnson announced that he could single-handedly do the entire project in three years.

He didn’t manage it quite that fast — it took him seven years — and he did have six mechanical assistants. But it was still a huge undertaking. Published in 1775, it had more than 42,000 entries.

Johnson’s dictionary made him famous, and it is his most long-lasting achievement. But he is best remembered not for anything he wrote, but for the biography that Boswell wrote about him. Published after its subject’s death, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is considered the precursor to modern biographies because it was the first to truly describe its subject as a whole person, not just a catalog of achievements and events.

To learn more about Johnson, read my essay, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends.” Go to chilit.org, click on “Roll of Members,” click on “E,” then go to my name, Charles Ebeling, and click on title of essay.

Photographed off Dubrovnik, Croatia


Samuel Johnson’s most famous cat, Hodge (see Hodge’s statue in a previous post), came to live with him in the late 1760s, when Johnson was working on his famous dictionary. Hodge is the best known of all of Johnson’s cats as he figures in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“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.”

By 1750, in Samuel Johnson’s era, the population of London had reached 650,000, more or less. It had been growing at a steady rate since 1500, and by 1650 had outstripped Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, Peking and Cairo. One in six of the population of England had been drawn to London at some time in their lives. As Johnson wrote, “It is not the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human inhabitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London exists.” On another occasion, he uttered the enigmatic line, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

For the privileged of mid-18th century London, those steeped in the professions and arts, “clubbing together” had become a way of life. Johnson enjoyed the club life as a way to take his mind off his dictionary-in-the-making and “enjoy literary conversation, and amuse his evening hours.” His biographer Boswell went to a club that Benjamin Franklin belonged to, at St. Paul’s coffee-house, every other Thursday. “Wine and punch upon the table, some of us smoke a pipe…at nine there is a side-board with Welch rabbits and apple-puffs, porter and beer. Our reckoning is about eighteen pence a head.”

The most famous of the periodic gatherings favored by Johnson, Boswell and their friends came to be known as the Literary Club, and here a few similarities with our own club of the 21st century begin. For many years they met to talk over dinner and drinks at an agreeable inn, on Monday evenings at 7pm, much as we do today.

While there were many differences between the membership and activities of London’s original club and today’s Chicago Literary Club, there is also a lineage that seems to me comprehensible, and almost tactile, if not exactly direct. So, I’d like to take you back nearly 250 years to meet Dr. Johnson and some of the “clubbable” personages of his cozy assembly, early on simply called The Club. We’ll look in on their backgrounds, their foibles, their personalities and relationships. We’ll even sit in on a meeting of their club.

Our silent interlocutor tonight is probably today the best-known of Johnson’s fellow club members, and that is James Boswell, among the most candid and prolific diarists and biographers of all time.

The rest of the essay can be fond at http://www.chilit.org

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