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Samuel Johnson's Last Years
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson", by Sir John Hawkins
Introduction (Frank Lynch)

- Introduction
- 1781
- 1782
- 1783
- 1784
- Johnson's Will
- Hawkins' Postscript
See also:
George Steevens' account of Samuel Johnson's funeral
Sir John Hawkins' "Life of Samuel Johnson" was published in 1787, three years after Johnson's death and four years before Boswell published his biography of Johnson. Hawkins' biography was available in two forms: as one volume in a set of Johnson's collected works, and as an independent volume. You could not buy the works without getting Hawkins' biography.

Since Hawkins' biography was the first full-length biography of Johnson, having the bio bundled with the works was not so horrible a deal at the time, even if few people read it today.

Up to the publication of Hawkins' effort, the pickings were somewhat slim. There was Hester Piozzi's collection of anecdotes (her collection of letters to/from Johnson had yet to appear); there were a number of short biographies (now collected together in the volume Early Biographies of Samuel Johnson, edited by O. M. Brack and Robert E Kelley [Iowa, 1974]), and there was Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides.

Hawkins' work is valuable because he tells us much that Boswell doesn't. He has a unique perspective, and is able to discuss events both early and late in Johnson's life. He knew Johnson 20 years before Boswell, and was there when he died.

The extract here focuses on Johnson's final years, and it's worth pointing out that when Johnson died on December 13, 1784 in London, Boswell was in Edinburgh, far from London.  Boswell had not seen Johnson since June 30 of that year, although they had corresponded and Boswell was successful at gathering a significant amount of detail from others.  Hawkins, however, was actually there for Johnson's demise, and wrote a very relevant first hand account.

Who was Sir John Hawkins?

A web search on Sir John Hawkins will probably lead first to a 16th century admiral of the British Navy, who fought the Spanish Armada.  Dig deeper into the search results and you'll read about an 18th century amateur musicologist (1719-89), who wrote the respected six-volume General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776). Unfortunately, as good as his effort was (and it's still respected), it was overshadowed by Dr. Charles Burney's General History of Music (1776-89).

But go off the web, into some of the books referenced below, and you'll learn more. Sir John Hawkins (the same one who wrote the book on musicology) also wrote and edited articles on fishing. FISHING? Yup. Hawkins worked on Walton's The Complete Angler; Or, Contemplative Man's Recreation: Being a Discourse On Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Fish, and Fishing. In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up. This same John Hawkins is the man who wrote the first full length biography of Samuel Johnson.

Hawkins knew Johnson from the early 1740's, when both were contributors to The Gentleman's Magazine;  thus, he saw Johnson in Grub Street from the vantage point of being in Grub Street himself. Hawkins was also a member of The Ivy Lane Club along with Johnson (not to be confused with the more famous Literary Club, founded in 1764).

Their association continued through the years, even though Boswell would have us believe he saw them together only rarely.  (But then, Boswell wasn't with Johnson that often, either, over the 20 years they knew each other.)  Hawkins was a member of the Literary Club, although his attendance was cut short over an argument with Edmund Burke. (In fact, Hawkins' is apparently disingenuous about the incident, and this left him vulnerable to a complaint by Boswell.) Hawkins was also the executor of Johnson's will, a circumstance which gave Hawkins greater access to Johnson in his final days, and contributed to his involvement in the collected Works and attached biography.

Unfortunately, Hawkins was not very well liked, and that biased some reviewers. There is the issue of the argument with Burke, and his subsequent absence from the Club. The most famous quip about him is that Johnson referred to him as a "most unclubbable man." Bishop Percy is reported to have loathed him. There is also the complaint that Hawkins watched the bill too closely during Club evenings; if he didn't eat and drink equally, he might quibble over what he was supposed to contribute.

Why isn't Hawkins bio of Johnson read more often today?

Four years later, Boswell's biography came out; not only was it full of wonderful conversations, but the way it provided dates of conversations and their days of the week made the reader feel that they were with Boswell and Johnson. From this hypothetical position of accuracy, Boswell did all he could to identify flaws in Hawkins' work. Key points of disagreement were Hawkins' portrayal of Johnson as a man who could be rude and slovenly (the portrayal was said to have a "dark, uncharitable cast"), as well as Hawkins' disparaging comments about Johnson's marriage. Boswell's Johnson was so much more embraceable than Hawkins' Johnson. Never mind that Boswell's days of the week didn't always align with his dates, or that he re-positioned Johnson's interest in re-marriage. The damage was done, Hawkins' effort quickly fell by the wayside, and it hasn't been fully reprinted in over 200 years.

Another issue for many, contained here, is Hawkins' objections to Johnson's bequest to his servant Francis Barber. Hawkins raise objections on three grounds: it's overly generous for a servant; it's overly generous due to Barber's race (Hawkins himself writes that his argument is a caveat against "favour to negroes"); and third, Johnson seemed to ignore a relative in his will. But as others have pointed out (Boswell among them), this relative was only a relation by marriage, and since the marriage was over due to death, no relative at all. Hawkins' fervor in pursuing this point stands in great contrast to the objectivity he displayed elsewhere in the biography.

20th Century Readers Have a Chance to Read Hawkins

Because of the unique value of Hawkins' biography, Bertram H. Davis abridged an edition of it, published in 1961 by Macmillan. (Whitney Balliett gave it an appreciative review in the February 10, 1962 issue of The New Yorker.) Davis also wrote a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Hawkins' work, called "Johnson Before Boswell: A Study of Sir John Hawkins' Life of Samuel Johnson" (Yale, 1960), as well as a biography of Hawkins, A Proof of Eminence: The Life of Sir John Hawkins (Indiana, 1973). All three are out of print, but can sometimes be found in public libraries or used bookstores (you might try searching at the used bookstore aggregator Bookfinder).

Davis concluded that Hawkins' biography has been unfairly eclipsed by Boswell's. He doesn't argue that Boswell's effort is inferior, but that the superiority which Boswell claims in accuracy and perspective is overstated. He does, however, acknowledge that the portrait Boswell provides is more lively, with all the conversations and quips, and that Hawkins drifts from the main thread frequently, at times reading like "The Life and Times of Samuel Johnson." In addition, Hawkins comes across as being more dry, due both to his legal background and his piety.  There are also certain repulsive aspects, such as Hawkins' disdain over the sizeable inheritance Johnson bequeathed to his Negro servant Francis Barber.

Because of Hawkins' legal background and his devout Anglican faith, you'll read details about the will, and various preachers, into which Boswell does not delve. But you will also get a sense of the horror Johnson felt in his final years.

In addition to the Bertram Davis books mentioned above, I am indebted to Dr. Anne McDermott (University of Birmingham, UK) for reminders regarding some of Hawkins' less admirable behaviors and characteristics. Readers are also encouraged to pursue Adam Sisman's "Boswell's Presumptuous Task," which is about Boswell's efforts to produce his Life of Johnson. Sisman aptly summarizes the competitive nature of the relationship between Boswell and Hawkins.

Introduction | 1781 | 1782 | 1783 | 1784
Johnson's Will | Hawkins' Postscript

This edition copyright 2002 by Frank Lynch.

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