The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 11. Greater Schemes
Johnson’s contributions to The Gentleman’s Magazine had become less frequent in 1743, and they ceased in the following year. He was meditating larger schemes. And he had latterly been doing much other work. Since the end of 1742, he had been engaged with William Oldys in cataloguing the printed books in the library of the earl of Oxford, then newly purchased by Thomas Osborne, the bookseller. The Proposals for printing the catalogue by subscription were written by Johnson and issued in December, 1742, and the Account of the Harleian Library, which they contained, was afterwards made to serve as preface to the first of the four volumes of the catalogue—Catalogus Bibliothecae Harleianae, 1743–4. While the catalogue was in progress, the bookseller, who had remarkable luck in having secured the services of one of the greatest of English literary antiquaries and one of the most scholarly of English critics, was persuaded to publish a collection of the more scarce and valuable tracts or pamphlets in his possession, under the title The Harleian Miscellany. The bulk of the selective and editorial work fell to Oldys; but it was Johnson who, again, wrote the Proposals, and contributed the introduction (1744), which, when reprinted separately, he entitled An Essay on the Origin and Importance of Small Tracts and Fugitive Pieces. In this, his first attempt at literary history, he gives a short sketch of English pamphlets from the reformation to the reign of Charles II, and follows in the tracks of such works as The Phenix (1707) and The Phoenix Britannicus (1731), The Critical History of Pamphlets (1716) of Myles Davies, and the Dissertation on Pamphlets (1731) of his collaborator Oldys. There is no evidence of Johnson’s hand in the Harleian Collection of Voyages and Travels (1745).
On the completion of this congenial experience in bibliography Johnson proposed to edit Shakespeare. The work was not to be undertaken for many years yet; but it was the first of the larger schemes planned by him. Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth (April, 1745) was intended to prepare the way. There was still room for a new edition, as Hanmer had given most thought to regularised metre and sumptuous printing, and Warburton seemed to have abandoned what he had announced as early as 1740. But, after the death of Pope and the completion of Hanmer’s edition in 1744, Warburton set to work in earnest, and the prospect of early publication compelled Johnson to lay aside his scheme, which could not have had an equal chance of success, inasmuch as, like most of his work up to this time, it was anonymous. When Warburton’s edition appeared, in 1747, Johnson had the meagre satisfaction of finding his Miscellaneous Observations singled out for praise in the vituperative preface. It was now that he turned to the Dictionary. He had “long thought of it,” he said; “it had grown up in his mind insensibly.” The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language was issued in 1747, and, at the desire of Dodsley, was addressed to the earl of Chesterfield. This year—which is, also, the year of the Drury lane prologue—marks the turn in Johnson’s fortunes, though the fitful struggle with poverty was not yet over. But what was Johnson doing in 1745 and 1746? Here again the records are deficient. Of more than a thousand letters of his that are known, there is not one to throw light on either of these years.
Johnson did not confine himself to the labours of the Dictionary. During the eight years of its preparation he wrote his greatest poem, and gave new life to the periodical essay.