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Publishers and Sinners: The Augustan View by Ian Watt
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Page 3

Publishers and Sinners: The Augustan View
Ian Watt [*]

One fairly widespread feature of Augustan literature is the idea that the temple of the Muses was being profaned by sinful and arrogant booksellers and that the true wit, therefore, should miss no opportunity of cutting them down to size. Hostility to publishers is not, of course, peculiar to the eighteenth century, but it does seem uniquely powerful and pervasive in the literature of the period from Dryden to Goldsmith; their iniquities seem to meet us everywhere, not only in verse and prose satire, but in fiction and drama, to say nothing of private letters and parliamentary debates. It's usually only a matter of incidental jeers, but there is also something of a special literary tradition in which the bookseller figures as comic villain; in poetry, of course, there's the Dunciad, with Lintot and Curll given leading roles and a dozen or so other booksellers in the cast; there are prose pamphlets like Richard Savage's (and probably in part Pope's) An Author to be Let (1729), plays like Fielding's The Author's Farce (1730) and Samuel Foote's The Author (1757), Archibald Campbell's Lucianic dialogue The Sale of Authors (1767), and a host of novels including, most notably, Amelia and Roderick Random. The period is also characterized by the amount of personal friction between authors and booksellers: David Hume brandishing his sword at Jacob Robinson, Dr. Johnson knocking Thomas Osborne down, Goldsmith trying to do the same to Evans, and Pope, determined to make the punishment fit the crime, choosing the emetic as his weapon and applying it to the bowels of that gross feeder at the table of the Muses, Edmund Curll.

Why do the booksellers loom so large on the literary scene? Was their bad eminence peculiar to England? What literary consequences did it have? And to what extent was the hostility which the booksellers


Page 4
provoked—in Pope, for instance—justified? I must preface my necessarily cursory and speculative attempt to indicate answers to these inherently difficult problems with a note of scholarly caution. We must remember that despite the many additions to our picture of the institutional structure of the Augustan literary world since the two main monographs on the subject, Alexandre Beljame's Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre au Dix-huitième Siècle (1881), and A. S. Collins' Authorship in the Days of Johnson (1927), the limits to our knowledge are still numerous and in some respects crippling; nor can much be done about them until the short-title catalogue finally wings its way into the eighteenth century, and until we are then supplied with an Augustan equivalent to Paul Morrison's Index of Printers, Publishers and Booksellers (1955).


When, in the early seventeenth century, leadership in all the activities connected with the printing press passed from Germany and Italy to France and the Netherlands, England was still very far behind. It produced very little paper, for instance, and all its type was imported or of foreign design. In the next hundred years, however, the picture changed dramatically: in 1686 the many efforts to manufacture good white paper for printing had succeeded sufficiently for the White Paper Makers to be incorporated, and by 1713 two-thirds of the country's requirements were being produced at home; as for type, Caslon set up his foundry in 1720, and from then onwards his ideas, and later Baskerville's, turned England into an exporter of type and a leader in typographical design.[1]

We find very similar contrasts when we turn from methods of production to types of publication. In the early seventeenth century, for example, Holland and then France led in the field of the newspaper, but the world's first daily, the Daily Courant, came out in England in 1702. The foundation of the Journal des Savants in 1665 exemplifies France's earlier prominence in another kind of periodical, the learned review; but the foundation of the Tatler and Spectator shows the England


Page 5
of Queen Anne initiating quite a new periodical genre which became very popular abroad; and Cave's Gentlemen's Magazine, founded in 1731, was equally novel and influential. Among the many other signs of England's increasing prominence two other important innovations in the world of letters may be cited: in England the effective development of the circulating library began in 1740, whereas the spread of the cabinet de lecture in France came later, in about 1763; and there is a similar twenty-year priority in the matter of encyclopaedias—that of Diderot published between 1751 and 1776 followed the example set in England by the printer Ephraim Chambers in 1728.

I make these contrasts only to underline the fact that the appearance of the Dunciad in 1728 coincides with England's very recently achieved leadership in a great number of publishing activities, activities which set the pattern for future developments both there and elsewhere. The main causes of these developments, I suppose, are the same as those which had brought about England's commercial expansion in general; but one of them seems to be of special importance: the ending of Stuart absolutism, with all its traditional and restrictive social and economic attitudes, by the Glorious and Protestant Revolution of 1688, with its encouragement of free individual enterprise in every field. The importance of this changed commercial and ideological background can be estimated either by looking at how the Stuarts had earlier attempted in innumerable ways to control and restrict the development of printing and bookselling, or at how in France authors, printers, and publishers alike remained subject to every kind of harassment at the hands of autocratic and clerical power until the French Revolution.

In the eighteenth century, then, the English book trade in general flourished as never before; it remains to inquire why it was the booksellers rather than the printers who held the dominating position; and, first of all, therefore, to inquire what the division of functions actually was. For, in the present context, the term "bookseller" is itself very confusing; there was no real eighteenth-century equivalent to our booksellers today, men exclusively devoted to the retailing of books; and on the other hand the convenient practice of equating the "bookseller" of the eighteenth century with the "publisher" of today is also misleading, since at that time no one was exclusively engaged in the publishing business either.

There are really five main roles in the business of getting a book into the purchaser's hands: first, of course, the writing of it; second, the transfer of the manuscript to the printer; third, the printing itself (in which category I include, as the eighteenth century did not, folding,


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tying and binding the printed sheets); fourth, the storage and distribution of the finished product; and fifth, the retailing of it to the buyer in a shop or through some other channel. Today, we usually think of the publisher as one who undertakes or controls the middle three of these operations: getting the copy from the author, arranging for the printing, and lastly, storing the book and sending it out to the retail booksellers. From the Elizabethan period until quite late in the nineteenth century, however, almost any permutation or combination of any of the five functions was possible, although the increasingly common practice in the eighteenth century was for the booksellers to perform not only the three functions we now expect of a publisher, but also the final one, that of selling the book to the public.

The 1757 edition of Campbell's The London Tradesman makes the position reasonably clear: the bookseller's function is "to purchase original copies from authors, to employ printers to print them, and publish and sell them on their own account, or at auctions, and sell them at an advanced price: but," the writer adds, significantly, "their chief riches and profit is in the property of valuable copies." It is the "property of valuable copies" which occasioned not only the many legal battles of the booksellers in the eighteenth century, but also most of the public attacks against them; and it is this control of copies which I shall have primarily in mind when I refer, as I normally shall, to booksellers or publishers without distinction as far as the eighteenth century is concerned. I should perhaps add that contemporary usage of the term "publisher" was itself confusing: normally, as in Swift and Pope, it refers to whoever is responsible for making a book available to the public, under whatever conditions, but later a more technical sense also appears, confined to the wholesaling, and perhaps the retailing, of the finished book, and specifically excluding responsibility either for printing or for ownership of the copy.

The division of labor in the book trade in the eighteenth century, then, had not yet crystallized into its present form, although we must remember that it has not done so universally even today, especially in backward areas: University Presses, for example, often both print and act as publishers. Compared with the earliest days of printing, however, when Caxton had personally written the text, set it up, printed it, and sold it, the division of labor had gone fairly far by the time of Pope; in fact it is not a gross oversimplification to say that the big London booksellers, the Tonsons, the Lintots, Andrew Millar and Robert Dodsley, carried on their business very much as publishers do today, except that they also happened to run bookstores.


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In the general history of the book trade the crucial separation was that between printer and bookseller, usually said to have begun with Anthony Koberger as early as the end of the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century the English printers were already loudly complaining that they could hardly make a living because the booksellers, through their complete control of the retail market, were able to dictate their own terms and had forced printing prices down very severely. The main reason for the economic advantage of the bookseller, I suppose, is that by its nature printing requires both a large initial capital outlay, for the press, type and so on, and a considerable regular volume of business to meet costs and wages. Bookselling, on the other hand, needs no staff, and very little in the way of premises or equipment; while in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at least, it was very easy to acquire a stock. John Dunton, one of the Dunces attacked by Swift and Pope, describes in his Life and Errors how, in 1681, he merely "took up with half a shop [and] a warehouse," published one religious work, Thomas Doolittle's The Sufferings of Christ, and then, "exchanging it through the whole trade" of booksellers "furnished my shop with all sorts of books saleable at that time."

It was easy, then, to become a bookseller. To trade with any security, however, also involved being a member of the Stationers' Company and this normally required a good deal of capital: the commonest way of becoming free of the Company was by serving a seven-year apprenticeship, and the average premium charged by master printers, for example, during the eighteenth century was about twenty pounds, a very considerable sum in those days. But that was the only hurdle, at least after 1695 when the Licensing Act of 1662 had lapsed, and with it the restrictive powers both of the Stationers' Company and of the "Surveyor of the Imprimery and Printing Presses," a post created by the 1662 Act and long filled by the notorious Sir Roger L'Estrange.

The end of licensing had even more important indirect implications for the development of bookselling, since it terminated the many government efforts to hold the number of printers down to the theoretical legal limit of twenty which had been set by the Tudors and reaffirmed by a Star Chamber decree of 1627. By 1724 there were seventy-five printers active in London, and by 1785 the number had risen to 124. Nor does this alone fully indicate the scale of the increase after 1695: the number of presses in an individual printing office, which had previously been limited to two in most cases, was now free to go up, sometimes to as many as nine; and even more important, perhaps, printing in the provinces, which had been forbidden by a Star


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Chamber decree of 1586, spread rapidly—in 1724 there were already at least twenty-eight provincial printers at work.

The development of the provincial market no doubt helped to foster the spread of the reading habit on which the prosperity of eighteenth-century booksellers was partly based; and so did the increase in newspapers which was much stimulated by the ending of effective censorship. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that, compared either with their former condition or with that of their French counterparts, the booksellers of the Augustan period were extremely well off. The bookseller Thomas Guy, helped it is true by a variety of speculative enterprises, was the most eminent charitable endower of the time—Guy's Hospital is but one of many benefactions; Jacob Tonson paid over twenty thousand pounds for his country estate, Hazel; and a generation later both Andrew Millar and William Strahan left fortunes of nearly a hundred thousand pounds. They and a good many others, booksellers such as the elder Thomas Osborne, Awnsham Churchill and Bernard Lintot, printer-publishers such as Samuel Buckley, John Barber and Samuel Richardson, were as wealthy as all but the biggest London merchants and financiers. The improved social and economic status of the paper, printing, and bookselling trades in general is further suggested by the fact that the Stationers' Company, which had produced no Lord Mayor of London during its first hundred years, produced no less than five of them during the eighteenth century.[2] The solid prosperity of the bookselling trade in particular is attested by the fact that several publishing houses were founded which continue today—Charles Rivington set up shop, for example, in 1711, Thomas Longman in 1724, and John Murray in 1768; while John Brindley, in 1728, started a bookshop in New Bond Street which still survives, under the name of Ellis's.

The contrast with the position in France is striking. The greatest of the booksellers there, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, made only a very modest fortune—"une honnête aisance"—and that right at the end of the eighteenth century. Until then the chief authorities[3] agree that the very dark picture of French eighteenth-century bookselling painted by Diderot in his Lettre sur le Commerce de la Librairie (1767) is in the main justified. It is true that Paris had always had many more booksellers


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than London, some 235 in 1600 apparently, a figure which was certainly not equalled in London until the end of the eighteenth century; and also that in the early decades of the seventeenth century publishing flourished, with Scarron earning as much as a thousand livres—some fifty pounds, perhaps—for one book of his Virgile travesti, and with the bookseller Claude Barbin occupying a privileged position among literary men somewhat like Tonson's in England half a century later. But from the time of Louis XIV onward printers, publishers and authors alike were increasingly subject to a crippling interference and persecution from church, state and nobility: most of the great French writers of the eighteenth century knew imprisonment or exile, and many of their works—perhaps the majority—were published abroad, banned, or only issued posthumously. As for the booksellers, they were, for example, forbidden to set up shop anywhere except in two of the quarters of Paris, so that the police could keep their eye on them more easily; further, they needed official approval before any book could be published; and even so the royal imprimatur was always liable to be suddenly revoked—as happened in the famous battle between Diderot and the Jesuits over the Encyclopédie.


For many reasons, then, French booksellers were neither so free nor so prosperous as their English counterparts in the eighteenth century; and this had many important literary consequences. Most important of all, perhaps, is the fact that in France patronage remained the chief way for writers to earn a living, and this prevented the degree of what one may call the democratization of literature which, for good or evil, occurred in England: both materially and spiritually the home of the French eighteenth-century writer remained the court and the aristocratic salon, whereas in England it was fast becoming the coffee house and the bookseller's backroom—Tom Davies', for example, where Boswell met Johnson.

The eventual literary effect of the changed economic and social orientation of the author in England has a close bearing on our answer to the question of whether the widespread hostility of Augustan writers to the booksellers, a hostility which has no genuine parallel in France, was really justified.

The mere fact that in England the booksellers were much more prominent and prosperous than they had been before or were elsewhere, would no doubt be enough to explain most of the attacks against them in Pope's time: since it was a new situation in the world of letters it was bound to excite envy. In any case, as far as the Augustan


Page 10
writers were concerned the increasing power and prestige of the booksellers was a particularly striking example of the current changes in the class structure which threatened the hierarchical social tradition which had their ideological allegiance.

Quite apart from these historical considerations it also must be remembered that the very nature of the relationship between publisher and author in general tends to breed animosity, like that between landlord and tenant. The letters of Dryden to his publisher, Jacob Tonson, for instance, reveal how rich in possibilities of friction is the situation where the writer is wholly dependent on a man whose ultimate concern is only to get the right kind of copy at the right time for the agreed price, and how this friction is exacerbated by the fact that the writer typically comes to what is essentially an economic transaction with a not wholly material view of his role. So in the end history remembers, not that Dryden got more from Tonson than any poet had got from a bookseller before, but only that Dryden blamed Tonson's meanness for the cursory nature of the annotation to his Virgil; that he sent him a messenger with the ominous triplet:

With leering looks, bull-faced and freckled fair,
With two left legs, and Judas colour'd hair
And frowzy pores that taint the ambient air.
And that he accompanied it with the verbal message—"Tell the dog that he who wrote these can write more."

It is a pity that he didn't, but of course Tonson wouldn't have paid him for them, and a Dunciad is only possible to a poet who, like Pope, is well beyond the reach of immediate financial necessity. But by an irony he must have relished, Pope himself was only in this fortunate position as a result of the very considerable increase in the scale of payments to authors from the days of Dryden onwards. It was Tonson, apparently, who was mainly responsible for the change: he lured Dryden away from his earlier publisher, Herringman, by offering twenty pounds for his version of Troilus and Cressida, in 1679; for the Fables we have the contract between them for the payment of 250 guineas for 10,000 lines—a shilling a couplet; and according to Pope, Dryden made 1200 pounds for the Virgil. Less than a generation later, however, Pope was able to play Tonson off against his aspiring rivals, notably Bernard Lintot, to much greater effect, so that, partly through the sale of subscription copies given him free, and partly through Lintot's payment of 200 pounds for the copy of each of the six volumes, Pope probably cleared about five thousand pounds for the Iliad, and not much less for the Odyssey. To attempt some assessment of this in


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terms of income level, it might be fair to say that, since interest rates of 5 and 6 per cent were common, the two works alone could have given Pope an income of 500 pounds a year; an income which was more than that of some of the lesser bishoprics, which was over twice the average income Gregory King assigned to "lesser merchants," and which fell short of Johnson's estimate of "splendour" only by a hundred pounds.

Pope, of course, was exceptional, but there are many other indications of the very high prices paid to authors, especially later in the century; sums of a thousand pounds or more for a substantial work, were not uncommon—for Mrs. Carter's Epictetus for example or Fielding's Amelia. Indeed there is perhaps no other period where so many of the acknowledged masterpieces received such immediate and handsome monetary reward—one thinks of 700 pounds for Tom Jones, of over 1000 pounds for The Sentimental Journey, of 6000 pounds for the Decline and Fall, of 500 pounds for the first edition alone of The Wealth of Nations. Johnson's Lives of the Poets, it is true, brought Johnson only 300 guineas, but that was more than the 200 he had asked, and Malone thought that if he had gone as high as 1000 or even 1500 guineas the booksellers would have accepted: similarly, the mere 200 pounds which Swift received for Gulliver's Travels was the figure he had named.

One of the two main exceptions to this tendency for increasingly high scales of literary payment by booksellers does a good deal to explain Pope's generally unfavorable attitude: poetry rarely commanded a high price, except for collected editions after the author had made his name. The reason for this relatively low scale of payments for poetry is probably that the booksellers tended to value copy mainly by the two criteria of the known demand for the subject and the probable size, and therefore price, of the book. Any work in several quarto volumes which was either a survey of some important field of knowledge or was of such established literary status that it could be regarded as indispensable to a gentleman's library, constituted a likely investment; and for this reason large works by indifferent writers often received huge rewards—John Hawkesworth, for instance, made 6000 pounds in 1773 for his three-volume Account of Cook's voyages. The usual payment for poetry, on the other hand, was very small: a poem that was less than book length, as most are, averaged from five to twenty pounds: Johnson received ten pounds for London, Pope seven for The Rape of the Lock, and fifteen for the Essay on Criticism; on longer poems the highest rates of payment seem to have been the 200 pounds


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which Pope received for a one-year copyright on the Essay on Man, and the 220 guineas which Young received for his very lengthy Night Thoughts.

Insofar as the market price of payment influenced what the author wrote, the system, then, discouraged poetry and favored whatever literary genres enabled the author to fill the most sheets the most quickly. This conclusion was in fact drawn by many writers, including Goldsmith. Typically he began with poetry, but having received only twenty guineas for The Traveller, and perhaps not much more for The Deserted Village, despite its five editions in three months, he came to the conclusion that "by pursuing plain prose I can make shift to eat, drink and wear good clothes." The fact is that Griffin, Goldsmith's publisher, could hardly expect to make a great deal out of The Deserted Village at only two shillings a copy. The relative brevity of poetry, combined with the longer time it takes to write, would in general seem to make it peculiarly unsuited to payment by the sheet, and peculiarly suited to a system of patronage, if only because many patrons may be presumed to be even more chary of their time than of their money.

The other main exception to the tendency for high scales of literary remuneration occurred when a work proved unexpectedly successful; Robinson Crusoe, for example, is said to have brought Defoe very little, but to have laid the basis of William Taylor's publishing fortune. The reason for this exception is that although the booksellers may in the main have deserved Johnson's praise as generous, liberal-minded men, they still tended to treat literature just like any other market commodity; there had not yet come into being the modern royalty system whereby, jointly though no doubt unequally, author and publisher combine to do as well as possible out of the public.

Not that all transactions in the eighteenth century consisted of the outright sale of the copy by the author to the publisher for a lump sum: booksellers occasionally made further payments if a second edition was called for, either ex gratia, as Millar gave Fielding another hundred pounds for Tom Jones, or by contract—such was Tonson's agreement to "pay Mr. Congreve . . . the sum of twenty guineas whenever his volume of poems—which I am now printing—shall come to be reprinted." There were various other approximations to the royalty system: an author might receive a stated proportion of the profits, as Gibbon got two-thirds on those of the third edition of The Decline and Fall, and Johnson a similar share of the proceeds from the publication of The Idler in book form; and there were also many kinds of


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subscription arrangements, very characteristic of the early decades of the century. The author might, in exchange for the copyright, receive so many volumes to sell for his own benefit, or else he might have the whole edition printed at his own expense, get his friends to sell as many as possible, and turn the rest over to the booksellers: in either case the cost of producing the book was defrayed, at least in part by the subscribers before it was printed.

But the commonest arrangement for authors was still that of the outright sale of their copy, and so the writer who had neither capital nor reputation might earn only a pittance which was spent long before the book was published; while for the successful writer the system meant that, in the absence of any continuing regular income from royalties, a Johnson or a Goldsmith would spend most of his literary energies on various kinds of casual labor—proposals, dedications, introductions, epilogues, compilations, translations, and so forth.

The negotiating position of the writer with the bookseller was somewhat strengthened by the 1710 "Act for the Encouragement of Learning" which for the first time, apparently, stated that literary compositions in manuscript were the property of their author. Personally I find it difficult to follow some writers who have seen this as the Magna Carta of authorship; but I suppose that some modest jubilation is in order whenever the law is discovered to agree with the expectations of uninstructed reason. Another provision of the Act, limiting copyright to fourteen years and making it renewable only to the author, was probably an indirect step toward the establishment of a royalty system: Pope, for example, sued Henry Lintot on the grounds of this clause, and having thus resumed his rights in The Dunciad, he was able to issue the new and enlarged version in 1743—fourteen years after the old.

The 1710 Act, however, was not primarily concerned with the rights of authors; it was, as Pope said, "a bookseller's bill" to make it easier for the trade to take action against piratical printers and publishers; and the need arose partly because of the lapse of the old Licensing Act, and partly because of the intensified competition for copy which came with the increase in the number of booksellers. It is this competition, of course, which is symbolized in the second book of The Dunciad where, parodying the traditional games of epic, the Goddess Dulness makes the booksellers run races and perform other, should one say—feats of skill?—with authors—imaginary or real—as prizes. Pope makes Curll run away with all the trophies—"Still happy impudence obtains the prize"—because he was the most famous of the pirates, and


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had indeed boldly laid both Swift and Pope under contribution: he wrung from Swift the tribute that "one thorough bookselling rogue is better qualified to vex an author, than all his contemporary scribblers in critic or satire."

Curll was only the most prominent of a minority of booksellers who, lacking the capital to attract established authors or to purchase valuable copyrights, employed hacks to turn out various kinds of ephemeral writing which are obvious examples of the literary debasement which ensued from unrestricted competition between publishers for the attention of the public. One of the most conspicuous of these new genres, the one most favored by Curll, and the one most objectionable to Pope, was the scandalous contemporary memoir, biography or secret history, especially that which took the form of the unauthorized publication of private letters. The tremendous vogue of these piracies, and the extent to which they penetrated public awareness, is suggested by a letter from one J.W. (probably Dr. John Woodward) to John Dunton in 1718, which ends: "You'll hear no more from me. . . . There's no writing to a man that prints everything."[4]

Dunton, incidentally, well illustrates the influence of the more directly commercial context of literature which was coming to the fore. One day, when walking through St. George's Fields with some bookseller friends, he stopped and exclaimed: "Well, Sirs, I have a thought I will not exchange for fifty guineas." The thought materialized as a weekly question and answer paper called The Athenian Mercury; and the inanity of some of its contents is representative of the kind of thing Pope was attacking in The Dunciad. One question indeed—"Why a horse with a round fundament emits a square excrement?"—typifies the deluge of scatological and pornographic writing called forth by the itching palms of the less reputable booksellers; Pope's revolting depiction of Curll's fall in Corinna's pool, and of his later submingent prowesses, are a fair satiric comment on this aspect of the literary gutter. (The whole subject, incidentally, of the cloacal image in Augustan polemic cries aloud for the attentions of some curious and intrepid scholar.)

A less gamey dullness, however, was much more typical of the commercial kind of writing described by Pope as "daily books and daily bread"; things like Samuel Wesley's "Pindarick Ode on Three Skipps of a Louse," or the endless pamphlet wars on religious, political and literary controversies. To keep these going, it was often alleged, booksellers forced their hacks to write against their own convictions: Fielding,


Page 15
in The Author's Farce, makes his Curll-like—and significantly named—publisher, Bookweight, explain to one of his garret writers that to argue on "the wrong side" of a question is "the properest way to show [his] genius"; and Archibald Campbell develops the theme in his The Sale of Authors.

This particular kind of institutionalized subornation and hypocrisy is, of course, the basis of modern journalism, where it goes under the name of conformity to editorial policy: and it is but one of the many examples of how most of the features in the commercial exploitation of the writer today were already beginning to appear in the eighteenth century. It is true that it was the marginal writers and publishers who were then mainly involved; and one could perhaps dismiss Pope's alarm by saying that The Dunciad deals with extreme and trivial cases which only represent, in Chesterfield's phrase, "the licentiousness which is the alloy of liberty." But Pope also introduces some of the big booksellers—Tonson, Lintot, Osborne—into The Dunciad, and thus implies that the booksellers in general bore some responsibility for the spreading empire of Dulness. At the beginning, for example, he couples the booksellers with the theatrical managers as progenitors of the works of Dulness from:

. . . the Chaos dark and deep
Where nameless somethings in their causes sleep,
'Till genial Jacob, or a warm third-day
Call forth each mass, a poem or a play.

Actually, it could be argued, genial Jacob Tonson had, in Pope's own case, called forth into print the young poet's first works, and this because, as he flatteringly wrote to Pope, he had seen "a pastoral of yours in Mr. Walsh's and Mr. Congreve's hands, which is extremely fine, and is generally approved of by the best judges in poetry." Here, as in most of his publishing, Tonson was certainly reflecting the best educated taste of his time, and much the same can be claimed, some-what less convincingly, for most of the other well-established booksellers of the time. In any case the main income of the big booksellers like Tonson, Lintot, Longman, Millar, Dodsley, and of the wealthy printer-publishers like Buckley, Tooke, Barber, Richardson, Strahan, came either from copyrights in works of authors now dead (Tonson, for example, claimed an exclusive right to publish Shakespeare and Milton), or from various other monopolies—government printing contracts, or patents giving exclusive rights to publish special kinds of material, educational, legal or religious, for which there was a continual demand. Their primary interest, therefore, was to defend the prices and the copyrights of these valuable properties, and they were not


Page 16
mainly dependent on current writing. To Horace Walpole's charge in 1764 that "our booksellers here at London disgrace literature by the trash they bespeak to be written, and at the same time prevent every-thing else from being sold," they could fairly answer that he naturally tended to reflect the hostility of their envious rivals, the printers, and further that the main things which they in fact bespoke were large and valuable projects like Johnson's Dictionary or Hume's History, works which could not have been produced otherwise. James Ralph—another Dunce, incidentally—pictured in his The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade Stated (1758) how "the sagacious bookseller feels the pulse of the times, and according to the stroke, prescribes not to cure, but flatter the disease"; he gave as his example the novel, and it is no doubt true that fiction, from the time of the seventeenth-century publisher "Novel Bentley" until the days of the mass production of fiction in the late eighteenth century by the Noble brothers and the Minerva Press, was much stimulated by booksellers without noticeable regard for literary value. But here again the main booksellers could claim that though of course they catered to all comers, the dominant tendency of their editorial policy was nevertheless to reflect the solid and traditional tastes of the educated reading public, if only because they were the main purchasers of the substantial volumes on which they made their largest profits.

Even so I believe that Pope and the other alarmists were in a sense right: something like Sainte Beuve's "Littérature Industrielle" (1839) was coming into being. In Pope's day it was mainly confined to Grub-Street, but as the century wore on the implications of the new context of literature became more evident. The mere fact that even the greatest authors increasingly had their eye on the reading public as a whole, rather than on their patrons or on their peers in taste and knowledge, must have had incalculable effects on the style and content of what they wrote: not all of these effects, one imagines, were bad, and yet they were almost certainly bad for the kind of matter and manner we find in Pope, for example: much of his perfection of form and compressed intransigence of statement must have been lost on what Shenstone called "the mob in reading." Certainly, any commercial pressure towards haste in composition is particularly disastrous for poetry; as Oldham put it in his imitation of Horace's Art of Poetry, though not, perhaps, without inviting an invidious reflection:

But verse alone does of no mean admit;
Who'er will please, must please us to the height;
He must a Cowley or a Flecknoe be,
For there's no second-rate in poetry.


Page 17

On the other hand the new situation was uniquely favorable to the very antithesis of poetry, journalism, which provides the readiest means for printers, publishers and writers alike to engage the attention of the largest number of readers. Goldsmith made the logic of this tendency explicit when he wrote in 1761 that "the effort . . . to please the multitude, since they may be properly considered as the dispensers of rewards," made writers concentrate on bringing "science down to their capacities." "This," he continued, "may account for the number of letters, reviews, magazines, and criticising newspapers, that periodically come from the press." As time went on journalism, by Gresham's law, started to drive out much of the older literary currency; this at least was what Crabbe suggested in his "The Newspaper" (1785), a poem which he considered to be "the only one written on the subject":

For these [newspapers] unread the noblest volumes lie;
For these, in sheets unsoiled the Muses die;
Unbought, unblessed . . .


If the more directly commercial context of literature, unintentionally perhaps, but inexorably, favored the most ephemeral literary forms over poetry, traditionally and actually the most perennial, it had equally disastrous results, as the Augustans saw it, on those responsible for the maintenance of the literary tradition. The "Grubean race," as Swift called them, were the result of the same specialization as had led to the rise of the bookseller: and like them they responded to the dictates of economic individualism. People of every class were now flocking to London as never before, in an attempt to find fame and fortune in the profession; but, as many economists, from Petty to Adam Smith, pointed out, all the established professions were vastly overstocked—even teaching. Once in London, the possibility of living by one's pen beckoned, and it had the unique advantage that no special training was required. So Grub-Street pullulated with hackney authors: its miseries were real enough, but they were the result, not so much of the malice or parsimony of the booksellers as of the economic law that a labor surplus brings down wages; the social historian, indeed, may see the legend of Grub-Street primarily as an early and revealingly hostile social definition of a new professional class. Certainly there is evidence that the writers themselves were feeling the need to establish a less unflattering public identity, for the expression "author by profession" began to gain currency in the fifties, when it was used by Ralph, Murphy and others. It is interesting, incidentally, to note that there was an analogous and almost contemporary movement in France, by


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which the term "homme de lettres" came to apply only to writers and not to the literati, the men of taste in general; and in 1764 Jean-Jacques Garnier wrote his monograph on L'Homme de Lettres.

The emergence of the new social group is an important part of the subject of the Dunciad: fitly, for the epic traditionally deals with the birth of a new nation. And if at first its two successive heroes seem incongruous, and we feel like objecting that after all Theobald was not foolish and Cibber was not dull, the context of the new literary professionalism may help us to discover a real kinship between them: both were unauthorized professional intruders into the republic of letters—Theobald, not only an attorney by trade but, like Bentley before him, a pedantic scholar who wouldn't stay where he belonged, and who had the impudence to know better than a man of wit, and even to receive 652 pounds 10 shillings for his edition of Shakespeare; and Cibber, a vagabond player, now presuming from his success on the stage and from the growing social recognition given to the actor's trade that he was entitled to write a book telling the world about his life and opinions.

The dates of the Dunciad, from 1728 to 1743, mark an important transitional era in the history of the profession of writing. Under Queen Anne enlightened political patronage had bestowed wealth and power on the greatest writers of the time, on Prior and Addison and Swift; while the most successful of the booksellers, Jacob Tonson, by maintaining close ties with the literary and political leaders of the time, and by publishing only what was consistent with the educated tastes of his circle, had achieved a unique combination of the tradition of literary patronage and the new power of the bookseller. With the advent of the Hanoverians, Tonson's retirement in 1719, and the dissolution of the Kit-Cat Club soon after, there came a decisive change. Bernard Lintot's list[5] had none of the discrimination that is evident in the elder Tonson's; while the outstanding feature of the thirties in respect to patronage was Sir Robert Walpole's massive purchase of journalistic support without any regard to literary merit. William Arnall, for example, is said to have received more for his polemical writings in four years than did Pope for his Homer; he is, of course, remembered in the Dunciad, which belongs to this last era of patronage, that which took a flagrantly political form, and which was succeeded by the era which saw the final triumph of the booksellers and the professional authors.


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It was not easy for Pope to define his position in the new situation which the development of bookselling was creating. He could hardly identify himself with the emergent class of professional writers, and yet the same new social and economic conditions as had produced them were fast making literary patronage obsolete. In any case his religion, his politics, his temperament, and above all, perhaps, the pattern of the new individualism, would have made it very difficult for him to adapt himself to the accommodating role that would be expected of him by a patron, if one had been available. In the event, however, he managed, somewhat like Tonson, to make the best of both worlds. Adopting intact from the old literary order Boileau's role of the poet as the legislator of Parnassus, he removed himself far enough above the common throng to be able to voice "la haine d'un sot livre" with the full sacerdotal commitment. At the same time, however, he was able to assert his independence from patronage through the new resources which the booksellers had made available. Boileau, of course, had loftily refused payment for his works from his bookseller, as did Blackmore, and as Gray and Cowper were to do; but Pope set out to beat venal booksellers and hacks alike at their own game. By an extraordinary example of the interpenetration of opposites, which Professor Sherburn's edition of the letters now enables us to trace in fuller detail, Pope turned his aristocratic friends, not into patrons, but into publishers—he set Lady Burlington, the Earls of Orrery, Islay and Granville, and the Viscount Simon Harcourt to soliciting subscriptions, dispatching and storing books, keeping accounts and collecting money, and he also made the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Burlington and Lord Bathurst proprietors of the copyright of The Dunciad. Not content with this, Pope set himself up as a kind of unofficial literary agent, for Swift and others; he inspired the starting of a newspaper, the Grub-Street Journal, to voice his point of view in opposition to that of the booksellers and their Dunces; and he secured support and influence within the trade by setting up one of his protégés, Robert Dodsley, as a bookseller; thus, incidentally, providing the true apostolic succession in Augustan letters for, of course, it was Dr. Johnson who remarked ironically, "Doddy is my patron."

Pope's phenomenal success was in one sense prophetic: it showed that potentially the new individualist and capitalist order could, under favorable conditions, make possible a much greater freedom for the writer than ever before, and this without any pandering to the taste of the masses. But Pope's personal and unrepeated triumph did not blind him to the likelihood that the main pressure of events was in a quite


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opposite direction, and so he declared war on the Dunces. The nineteenth-century critics were inclined to write off the war as motivated by personal spite, and this may be in part because the implications of what Goldsmith called "that fatal revolution whereby . . . booksellers, instead of the great, become the patrons and paymasters of men of genius"—were not yet so clear. Now that we have so much more reason than Dr. Johnson to insist on the distinction between a book as a "subject of commerce" and a book as an "increase of human knowledge," and so much more opportunity to observe what happens when the publishing system turns literature into a marketable commodity, we can better admit the truth of Pope's attribution of the rising flood of bad writing "not so much to malice or servility as to dulness; and not so much to dulness, as to necessity." Pope had the economic necessities of underpaid hacks in mind, but there is another kind of historical necessity, perhaps, behind the Dunces: Dr. George Cheyne, author of The English Malady, diagnosed an even more universal syndrome when he wrote to Richardson that "all booksellers I fear are Curlls by profession": publishers are sinners, we may say, not by choice but by necessity.

Today, Pope's own gallant stance in the face of these intricate necessities must be allowed to excuse his malice and to authorize his pride; we know, now, that he was right to warn us against underestimating the power of the Dunces: "Do not gentle reader rest too secure in thy contempt of the Instruments for such a revolution in learning." The instruments and the revolution have now assumed giant proportions; if there was ever any hyperbole in the famous lines about the coming triumph of Dulness time has rendered it almost imperceptible:

She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old . . .
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored,
Light dies before thy uncreating word.
If the writer's laws the writer's patrons give, and if today the well-patronized publishers of Time, Confidential and the comic books laugh all the way to the bank, can we in the academy, who have inherited the tradition which Pope defended, find any other comfort than the reflection which Lord Chesterfield made, with the professional authors of the time in mind, as he addressed his peers: "Thank God! We, my Lords, have a dependence of another kind"?



A paper read on September 6th, 1957 at the sixteenth session of the English Institute in New York, as part of a program on "Publishers and the Reading Public" directed by Richard D. Altick.


In addition to Beljame and Collins I am particularly indebted to: Ellic Howe, The London Compositor (1947); Frank A. Mumby, Publishing and Bookselling, 3rd ed. (1954); Marjorie Plant, The English Book Trade: An Economic History (1939); William M. Sale, Jr., Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (1950); H. R. Plomer's three Dictionaries of Booksellers and Printers; James Sutherland's edition of The Dunciad in the Twickenham Pope; George F. Papali's unpublished doctoral dissertation "The Life and Work of Jacob Tonson" (London, 1933); and Peter Murray Hill, who lent me his unpublished paper "Two Augustan Booksellers: John Dunton and Edmund Curll."


Alfred B. Beaven, The Aldermen of the City of London (1908, 1913), II, 101, 125, 130, 131.


E.g. Edmond Werdet, Histoire du Livre en France, 5 vols. (Paris, 1861-2); André Brulé, Les Gens de Lettres ("La Vie au Dix-Huitième Siècle," Paris, 1928); Jean-Alexis Néret, Histoire Illustrée de la Librairie Paris, 1953). David T. Pottinger's excellent The French Book Trade in the Ancien Regime 1500-1791 (1958) appeared too late to be used in this paper.


Bodleian Library, Rawl. mss. D 72, f. 66.


See the M.A. thesis "The Firm of Lintot" by Marjorie W. Barnes (London, 1942).