That sh—te Creech

James Buchan

  • The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in 18th-Century Britain, Ireland and America by Richard Sher
    Chicago, 815 pp, £25.50, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 75252 5

In March 1776, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson visited Pembroke College, Oxford and called on the master, William Adams. According to Richard Sher, Boswell wrote in his journal how dismayed he had been to see in the master’s library a copy of the quarto edition of David Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects of 1758, handsomely bound in morocco leather. Boswell believed, Sher writes, that an ‘infidel’ writer such as Hume had no right to such marks of ‘politeness and respect’ from Christian gentlemen.

This story, which opens Sher’s learned account of the 18th-century trade in Scottish literature, illustrates his belief that the form in which the Scottish Enlightenment was communicated to the world has been neglected and that the physical characteristics of volumes such as Hume’s Essays and Treatises have been obliterated by a preoccupation with their contents. ‘Had Adams 0wned a duodecimo edition of Essays and Treatises, plainly bound, it is unlikely that Boswell would have cared so much,’ he writes.

For Sher, whether the sheet of paper was folded into four to make a big square volume (quarto) or eight like a modern hardback (octavo) or 12 like a livre de poche (duodecimo), who printed a book and who sold it and for how much, how many editions a book went through and how much money the author and publisher made, whether there were engravings, frontispieces or printed advertisements – all those have important things to tell us about works such as Hume’s Essays and Treatises, his country and his age. As befits such an argument, Sher’s book is beautifully illustrated.

‘Even among bibliographers and book historians who specialise in the 18th-century book trade’, he writes, ‘relatively little work has been done to connect publishers and the conditions of publication with authors and their books. One of the primary tasks of this book is to re-establish that connection.’ For Sher, the Scottish printers and booksellers of the second half of the century, such as Andrew Millar, William Strahan, Thomas Cadell (father and son) and George Robinson in London, and Alexander Kincaid, John Balfour, John Bell and William Creech in Edinburgh, were not ‘mechanicks’ as Strahan once complained, but collaborators in a London-Edinburgh publishing enterprise that put Scotland on the literary map. For John Pinkerton, an Edinburgh attorney and antiquary, the London booksellers were ‘in fact, the sole patrons of literature in this country’. Strahan, in particular, kept in close touch with his Scottish authors and it was to him in November 1776 that Adam Smith wrote his famous letter on Hume’s last days.

Even the parasites or free-riders on the London-Edinburgh trade, such as the men in Dublin and Philadelphia who reprinted texts without permission, nonetheless propagated Scottish notions of liberty, improvement, politeness and sentimentality. Rather as Robert Darnton a generation ago diverted scholarly attention from the philosophes to the printers, engravers and booksellers of Paris in The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’, so Sher looks through all that Scottish mind and heart to the paper, cash and receivables behind. Other scholars, such as William Zachs in his study of the London-based Scottish publisher John Murray, have passed this way but none with such labour or at such Darntonian length.

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