The World’s Greatest Outlaw
The life of Samuel Johnson, would-be attorney-at-law
By Richard Cohen
Toward the end of his life, Samuel Johnson drew up a list of subjects that he would like to research. He projected forty-nine works in all; none was on any aspect of the law. According to James Boswell, Johnson’s celebrated biographer, almost the only subjects sure to distress Johnson when raised were mortality, particularly his own, and what might have transpired had he become a lawyer. Even when nearing seventy, he rounded on his friend William Scott, who had innocently commented, “What a pity it is, sir, that you did not follow the profession of the law. You might have been lord chancellor of Great Britain and attained to the dignity of the peerage.” According to Boswell, “Johnson, upon this, seemed much agitated; and in an angry tone exclaimed, ‘Why will you vex me by suggesting this, when it is too late?’ ” For here lay a curious paradox: of all great writers, in any language, Johnson was the one most consumed by the law, yet he never practiced it, and being relegated to the position of an outside observer brought him profound misery — even as he acknowledged his career could not have been otherwise.
For the young Johnson, actually studying the law in any formal way had proved impossible. After leaving Oxford without a degree (he was too poor to continue beyond a bare thirteen months there), he cast around for suitable employment, taking up a succession of menial teaching posts and then, in 1738, regular hack work for the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine. He would sign letters “Impransus” — the supperless one. About that time, he inquired of a legal friend “whether a person might be permitted to practice as an advocate” in the House of Commons without a degree in civil law. The authority he consulted, an Oxford contemporary, was confident that Johnson “would have attained to great eminence.” Johnson himself believed that he would have been a successful lawyer, one reason being his lightning ability to understand both (or many) sides of an argument. Boswell affectionately reports that there were times when the “Why, sir…” of later Johnsonian replies was designed to give him a crucial extra second to decide which side of an argument to take that day. Hardly an unprejudiced observer, Boswell adds: