Fall 2018


Samuel Johnson: Man of Life and Letters

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) not only created the first modern dictionary of the English language, he also lived a life rich in friends, thinking, writing and conversation. A man of contrasts, Johnson fully supported the monarchy but was famous for decrying slavery, colonialism and the exploitation of women. He was a man of his times, yet many of his views are completely congruent with our own.

We will explore this larger-than-life man through a combination of mini- lectures, blogs, audio materials and class discussions. The instructor will draw on her extensive collection of Johnsoniana, bringing antiquarian and contemporary books to class to give you a hands-on feel for the vast reach of Johnson’s mind and heart.

Note: Back by popular demand, from spring 2014.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

This course is available at the following time(s) and location(s):

Campus Session(s) Instructor(s) Cost Seats available  
Vancouver 6 Marylee Stephenson $115.00 0 Join Waitlist

What will I learn?

Week 1: Who was Samuel Johnson, and What Does He Bring to Us?

In this session we ask who Samuel Johnson was and why he has inspired and irritated readers  for over three centuries. We also have a hands-on experience with some “antiquarian” and contemporary volumes brought for you to see, touch, even smell—to bring you into close contact with this complex man of monumental intellect and equally powerful emotions.

Week 2:  Would We Know Johnson Without Boswell?

Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is the most accessible source of Samuel Johnson’s story.  There are hundreds of versions of it—a number still in print today. It is fascinating and maddening at the same time, as Boswell intrudes himself upon the narrative. Yet what would we do without him?  

Week 3:  What was Johnson’s London and Where Did He Fit In?

Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”  We explore the pleasures, pastimes, poverty, and richness of the epicenter of Johnson’s life. Bull-baiting, hangings, transportation, beauty in music and the visual arts, fancy clothes, rags, sewage—it’s all there.  Johnson knew London from the debtor’s prison to the stately homes of the rich and noble.

Week 4: Johnson’s Circle—the Life of a Literary Rock Star

Chatting with the King in the royal library, querying an urchin rowing across the Thames, talking with the premier “blue stocking” of his day, or teasing the foremost actor/producer of the century, Johnson knew everyone and everyone knew him. We look at prints, pictures, books—and you’ll hear mini-stories of the famous and infamous that made up Johnson’s daily life.

Week 5:  Johnson in Motion

Johnson’s favourite activity was riding in a post-chaise with a pretty woman, who must also be intelligent and have something to say. He travelled as much as his health and his budget—or that of friends—allowed, including a major jaunt to the Hebrides. His account is a compassionate anthropological study, and we share parts of it, with pictures and excerpts provided.

Week 6:  Johnson as Radical and ConservativeAll in One Complicated, Opinionated Man

We look at what Johnson thought and wrote about women, children, slavery, monarchy, social order, poverty and writing (“no one but a blockhead ever wrote but for money”). Deeply on the side of the poor and oppressed, yet completely committed to a hierarchy of power and privilege— Samuel Johnson was a living contradiction.

We look back at what we’ve discussed so far, and discuss whether you think you would have wanted to know Samuel Johnson; would you have loved or loathed him, respected him or not?  And if you want to follow up on Johnson on your own, what are some good sources on him, his circle and his times?

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

There is recommended reading for this course.

Any version, full-length or abridged, of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

This book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.


If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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