December 7

The last letter personally written by Samuel Johnson was composed this day in 1784 and addressed to William Strahan, his friend and the printer of a number of his works, including the Dictionary:

“Sir, I was not sure that I read your figures right, and therefore must trouble YOU to set down in words how much of my pension I can call for now, and how much will be due to me at Christmas.”

Christmas, 1784 never arrived for Dr. Johnson, as he was dead a week later, on December 13th. In the closing days of his life he was apparently concerned about his pension, a term which he used for the payments now called royalties. Indeed, on December 10 he dictated another letter to Strahan requesting “whatever portion of my pension you can spare me with prudence and propriety.” This letter proved to be the last ever to come from the lexicographer.

In spite of Johnson’s oft-quoted aversion to Scotland and its inhabitants, he enjoyed the friendship of several Scotsmen, including of course Boswell and the printer William Strahan. Strahan had been apprenticed to the craft in Edinburgh in 1729 when just fourteen years of age. Upon the completion of his indenture in 1736, he worked as a journeyman in Edinburgh for about a year and a half and then proceeded to London where he had established himself in business in 1739, the first date which appears in the splendid set of ledgers in which he recorded meticulously every receipt and expense. These account books, now in the possession of the British Museum, are a most valuable source of information concerning printing costs during the 18th century.

In addition to being the printer of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, Strahan produced the first printings of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also printed such popular fare as Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and part of Tristram Shandy. As a good friend of David Hume, he printed a great many of the works of the Scottish philosopher and historian, beginning with the second volume of The History of Great Britain.

Dr. Johnson, while most friendly with Strahan, did not hesitate to belittle his Scots ancestry from time to time, and even utilized his caustic wit to comment about the printing craft. Boswell records a conversation of Johnson with a poor boy whom he had induced Strahan to employ as an apprentice: “Well, my boy, how do you go on?’ The lad replied, “Pretty well, Sir. But they are afraid I an’t strong enough for some parts of the work!’ Johnson replied to this statement with, “Why, I shall be sorry for it; for when you consider with how little mental power and corporeal labour a printer can get a guinea a week, it is a very desirable business for you.”

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