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Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: Sources and Editions

Works Relating to Samuel Johnson in the Vassar College Library

By Ronald D. Patkus
Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections

A search in the online catalog of the Vassar College Libraries indicates that there are 127 works where Samuel Johnson is listed as an author. There are also well over 100 works listing Johnson as a subject. Some of these titles are housed in the Main Library, and some in the Special Collections Department, where the college’s rare books are maintained. In addition, there are many other works in the library relating to Johnson that are not available through the online catalog (they can be searched through a card catalog). All in all, for a small liberal arts college, the library has a respectable number of titles dealing with aspects of the life and career of Samuel Johnson.

The works in Special Collections dealing with Samuel Johnson can be divided into several categories: sources for his Dictionary, editions of the Dictionary, reviews of the Dictionary, other works by Samuel Johnson, and works about, or relating to, Samuel Johnson. Vassar is proud to possess a number of key sources, such as Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie, Francis Bacon’s Works, and Robert Boyle’s Works. The collection contains several important editions of the Dictionary, including two copies of the first London (1755), the first octavo (London, 1768), and the first American (Philadelphia, 1819). Reviews are contained in runs of 18th century periodicals. There are many other printed works by Johnson in addition to those relating to the Dictionary; these include prefaces, periodical pieces, scholarly works, poems, travel literature, a biography, a play, letters, and other works. The library also possesses an original letter written by Johnson in 1777. Among the works about Johnson are first editions of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, D.D..

The works in Special Collections relating to Johnson form part of a larger collection of 18th Century British Literature. Major writers – Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Eliza Haywood, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and others – are represented in early editions. There are also a number of 18th century British newspapers and periodicals, such as The TatlerThe Rambler, and The Spectator. These works offer interesting and useful contexts for the study of Johnson and his circle.

The library has built up its collection relating to Johnson and 18th century British literature through purchases, bequests, and gifts. Friends and alumnae of Vassar College have long been especially generous. The Class of 1912 gave a copy of the fourth edition of the Dictionary; Patricia Stewart of the class of 1942 gave one of the copies of the first edtion of the Dictionary; and several titles have come from Carlo Zuccaro, in memory of Bertha Bates Zuccaro of the class of 1899. In addition, several titles were donated by one of the most famous collectors of Johnsoniana, Mary Crapo Hyde Eccles, a member of the class of 1934. The Johnson collection of the late Viscountess was donated to Harvard University, but funds from an Eccles bequest were used recently to purchase third and first American editions of the Dictionary, which had been part of the library of Gwin Kolb. The library continues to be interested in adding new titles to the collection.

Vassar has a long tradition of using integrating primary sources into the undergraduate curriculum, and books relating to Johnson and his circle have often been displayed in classroom settings. In addition, these books have been brought to the attention of the campus and the larger community through exhibits. In 1984, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Johnson’s death, Robert DeMaria and Charles Pierce of the English Department mounted an exhibit titled “Samuel Johnson: A Life of Reading and Writing.” The current exhibit, “The Making of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary,” marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Dictionary in 1755, and celebrates the visit of the Johnsonians to campus for their annual meeting. It displays significant sources used by Johnson to compile his work, as well as various editions and reviews of the Dictionary itself. It is hoped that visitors will be led to a greater appreciation of Johnson’s work, and perhaps be encouraged to explore further his role in the world of 18th century English letters.