One of the more expensive items in Samuel Beckett’s working library was an 18th-century edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. He probably bought it in Dublin in the 1930s, when he made extensive notes on Johnson for a play that he was planning to write about the great man. The Johnson that Beckett was interested in wasn’t “Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine”, as he put it, but a sufferer from melancholia, idleness, guilt and fears of madness and annihilation. Beckett pictured his hero as an exhausted old man, “terrified of dying, terrified of deadness”, and copied out quotations from the medical diary in which Johnson charted his own decline. The play, Human Wishes, which included a role for Johnson’s cat Hodge (“sleeping – if possible”), was eventually abandoned, but the image of the dying writer stayed with Beckett. Years later, pressed for comment on his debts to Swift and Sterne, he told his first biographer that “it’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me”.
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