Samuel Johnson letters
Letters written by English lexicographer and poet Samuel Johnson to various correspondents.
Language of Materials
Collection materials are in English.
Conditions Governing Access
There are no restrictions on physical access to this material.
Conditions Governing Use
Images linked to this finding aid are intended for public access and educational use. This material is owned and/or held by the Houghton Library, and is provided solely for the purpose of teaching or individual research. Any other use, including commercial reuse, mounting on other systems, or other forms of redistribution requires the permission of the curator.
Extent1.75 linear feet (6 boxes)
This collection consists of 746 letters and fragments written by Johnson between 1731 and 1784, and manuscript transcripts and reproductions of other Johnson letters which are unavailable elsewhere. It is the largest single collection of Johnson's letters in existence, comprising nearly half of the known surviving letters. It includes 232 letters to Johnson's most regular correspondent, his friend Hester Lynch Thrale (later Hester Lynch Piozzi), from 1765 until Johnson ceased his correspondence with her in 1784.
Other particularly noteworthy correspondents were actor David Garrick (1717-1779); the painters Frances Reynolds (1729-1807) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792); and novelist Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Regular correspondents represented most heavily in the collection include Hester Lynch Thrale's daughter Hester (later Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, 1764-1857); friend and protege Bennet Langton (1737-1801); stepdaughter Lucy Porter (1715-1786); and boyhood friend John Taylor (1711-1788).
Biographical / Historical
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was one of the leading literary figures of eighteenth-century England. He is best remembered for compiling the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, published in 1755. Prominent among his diverse other works, he also wrote the satirical History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), edited The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare (1765), and produced the important Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (first collected in 1781). He wrote the bulk of the essays released in periodical form as The Rambler (1750-1752) and The Idler (1758-1760).
A native of Lichfield, Johnson attended Oxford in 1728 and 1729, but left without receiving a degree. He married the widow Elizabeth Porter (1688-1752) in 1735; they had no children together. Johnson resided primarily in London from 1737 onward, although he continued to maintain a house in Lichfield. He received an honorary M.A. from Oxford in 1755, and honorary LL.D. degrees from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765 and from Oxford in 1775. He supported himself modestly from his literary endeavors until being granted an annual pension in 1762. He was memorialized in James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), generally regarded as an early landmark of the biographical craft.
Organized into the following series:
- I. Letters, 1731-1784
- II. Transcripts, 1762-1784
- III. Reproductions, 1780-1784
- IV. Letters acquired since 2003, 1759-1784
Immediate Source of Acquisition
2003JM-47. Bequest of Mary Hyde Eccles, Four Oaks Farm, Somerville, New Jersey; received: 2004.
2004M-137. Purchased with funds from the Margaret F. Cowett Book Fund; Raymond Livingston Kilgour and Kate Gray Kilgour Fund; and Louis J. Appell Junior Fund for British Civilization in the Harvard College Library, 2004.
2005M-3. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2005.
2009M-45. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2009.
2011M-58. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2011.
2012M-4. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2012.
2012M-187. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2013.
2014M-163. Purchased with funds from the Endowment Fund for the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, 2015 June 15.
One other Johnson letter fragment was donated as part of the Hyde Collection: part of an autograph note to an unknown correspondent, probably written ca. 1784 Aug. This three-line fragment is pasted into the inside front cover of a copy of Johnson's Dictionary, 6th edition, 1785 (2003SJ-193). It was published in the Hyde Edition IV, 384. Johnson's complimentary close and signature dated Ashbourne, 1784 July 21, is pasted into the inside cover of Volume 2 of the same dictionary. This fragment, apparently from a different letter, is not cited in the Hyde Edition.
Hyde Editionin the inventory, with the corresponding volume and page numbers.
The material not in the Hyde Edition includes full letters: to Thomas Cadell dated 1778 Oct. 17, item (15); to Thomas Lawrence, 1780 Aug. 18, item (66); to Thomas Percy, 1769 Nov. 10, item (91); to Henry Thrale, 1775 May 6, item (111); and to Charles Burney, 1778 Jan. 29, item (142).
Redford also worked from transcripts of eight letters without having the opportunity of seeing the originals, most of which were acquired by Lady Eccles after Redford had completed his editing. These include letters to: William Langley, 1783 May, item (62); Thomas Lawrence, 1783 Apr. 16, item (66); Hannah More, undated, item (78); John and Amelia Perkins, 1784 Jan. 11, item (92); Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1777 Mar. 27, 1777 Nov. 3, and 1782 Feb. 17, item (93); and an unidentified correspondent, 1780 Feb. 25, item (123). The two 1777 Piozzi letters contain substantial additional text.
Finally, Redford also did not include six short fragments addressed to: William Adams, item (1); James Boswell, item (9); William Duncombe, item (31); Andrew Millar, item (76); Mary Welch Nollekins, item (83); and Hester Lynch Piozzi, item (93). Redford also did not include the three closing lines from a letter dated 1783 July 24 to Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, item (61), which had been clipped from the letter. The missing fragment was added to the collection in 2005.
Some letters include compositions by Johnson which have been cataloged in the Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Vol. III, Part 2 (London: Mansell, 1989), pp 121-178, Margaret M. Smith, ed. These are noted in the guide with their appropriate
Processed by: Rick Stattler with additions by Melanie Wisner.
In 2020-2021, as part of a conscious and inclusive re-description effort, entries were updated to include a woman’s full name when identified.
- Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784. Samuel Johnson letters, 1731-1784 (MS Hyde 1): Guide.
- Houghton Library, Harvard College Library
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Houghton Library Repository
Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, archives, and more. Houghton Library's collections represent the scope of human experience from ancient Egypt to twenty-first century Cambridge. With strengths primarily in North American and European history, literature, and culture, collections range in media from printed books and handwritten manuscripts to maps, drawings and paintings, prints, posters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and digital media, as well as costumes, theater props, and a wide range of other objects. Houghton Library has historically focused on collecting the written record of European and Eurocentric North American culture, yet it holds a large and diverse number of primary sources valuable for research on the languages, culture and history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Houghton Library’s Reading Room is free and open to all who wish to use the library’s collections.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA