Later Johnson


Samuel Johnson. Letter to James Macpherson. January 20, 1775. Manuscript. MS Hyde 1 (74)

James Macpherson (1736-1796) was an unknown, twenty-three-year-old Edinburgh schoolteacher when the publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland made him an instant literary celebrity. Macpherson claimed that the poems were the work of a third-century Gaelic bard named Ossian, and later published two full-length epic poems he said he had discovered from ancient manuscripts. Macpherson's refusal to produce these manuscripts for inspection, as well as Johnson's mistaken belief that there were no surviving Gaelic manuscripts more than a century old, led to Johnson denouncing the poems as forgeries in the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Macpherson wrote to Johnson's publisher demanding that this passage be stricken. Johnson refused to back down:

I received your foolish and impudent note. Whatever insult is offered me I will do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself, the law will do for me. I will not desist from detecting what I think is a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruffian.

Johnson was right to be skeptical: although Macpherson had drawn upon some genuine sources, the bulk of his "Ossianic" poetry was his own fabrication.