Dr. Johnson’s Cat

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the literary giant behind Rasselas and the first truly great English dictionary, had a cat. He actually had several cats over the course of his life, actually, but the only one we have information about is a black cat named Hodge. Johnson’s biographer, Boswell, hated cats, but grudgingly reported on Johnson’s fondness for Hodge.

I learned about Hodge serendipitously last week when my family was in London. We were making our way down the famous Fleet Street, oohing and aahing over the general Londonishness of it all, when we passed a sign that pointed down an alley, with the words “Dr. Johnson’s House.” We followed the sign, which led to about five more signs down five more alleys. Just as the situation was becoming ludicrous, we came upon a small courtyard with, yes, Dr. Johnson’s House. It seems like a nice place to visit, and though it was closed when we happened on it, during normal hours you can look around inside and even have tea. It was fun to run into a historical monument to one of the authors we read in the Great Books program at Torrey Honors Institute, even though we couldn’t go in and bask in the literary glow.

At the other end of the same street, though, is a statue. Not a statue of Dr. Johnson (we did see the great Johnson statue at St. Clement Danes Church, Strand, a little later in the day), but of his cat, Hodge. It’s a nice little statue dating only from 1997, featuring a pert cat sitting atop a huge dictionary, with an open oyster shell in front of him. The stone inscription has his name, and the plaque beneath has a little information about him.

Here is what Boswell records about Hodge the cat:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

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