Authors and Climbers

Anthony Grafton

  • Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750 by Anne Goldgar
    Yale, 295 pp, £25.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 300 05359 2

The sight that confronted the French Protestant d’Origny Delaloge when he left his London house at nine o’clock one morning in 1707 struck him as out of the ordinary. A fellow Huguenot, wearing a blond wig, a black suit with a damask vest and a hat with a rose on it, stood before the house and addressed him, first in English and then in French. He identified himself as Jean Le Clerc, the celebrated philologist and theologian from Holland who had edited the complete Latin works of Erasmus, produced a widely read periodical and written the first systematic modern manual of critical method, the Ars Critica. Explaining that he was travelling incognito, he nonetheless managed to reveal that he had come to occupy a chair in Oriental languages at Cambridge, his Latin inaugural lecture in his pocket. When Delaloge, who clearly found him impressive, invited him to dinner, Le Clerc spread himself in literary gossip, talking freely of the publishing houses and periodicals to which he enjoyed access. He even tried to appropriate a manuscript by Delaloge, which he promised to print in the Bibliothèque choisie. Only when foiled in this effort did Le Clerc finally leave, and even then he behaved oddly, insisting that he would walk after his puzzled host had called him a coach.

In the days that followed Le Clerc appeared at the houses of other ministers, who received him warmly and fed him well. Politely, the distinguished foreign savant invited his benefactors to a fine dinner at an inn in Romford, where he lavishly returned their hospitality. But when the bill came, he had vanished, leaving his fuming guests to pay up. The internationally famous scholar had apparently unmasked himself as a vulgar conman.

The grubby final chapter of this episode confirmed what Delaloge already suspected. This ‘Le Clerc’ was not the literary celebrity he claimed to be, but an impostor: a former monk named Frédéric-Auguste Gabillon. While in England Gabillon not only fooled the clergy, whose readiness to extend charity perhaps resulted from a professional deformation: he also succeeded at the harder task of cheating a bookseller out of a substantial amount of money, and misbehaved in public in ludicrous ways, making wild offers to the Queen, the Bishop of London and the Hanoverian envoy. The episode deeply pained the genuine Le Clerc, whom Delaloge and others kept apprised of the situation. Though in public he professed to feel only amusement at his impersonator’s antics, in private he organised a propaganda campaign to ensure that his name would not fall into discredit.

The story is typical of the dozens of anecdotes that enliven Anne Goldgar’s erudite, provocative and sometimes problematic book. It takes place in a peculiarly fascinating setting, the world of the French Protestant intellectuals who went into exile throughout Europe after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Le Clerc story suggests the extent of the personal and intellectual networks these industrious, attractive refugees spun. By implication at least, it conveys something of the inexhaustible energy they lavished on making contacts, soliciting manuscripts and winning publicity. Finally, and most important, it gives a sense of the larger thesis Goldgar puts forward. She holds that many intellectuals of the late 17th and early 18th centuries saw the framing of standards for good personal and scholarly conduct – and the prevention of violations of good form – as their central, overwhelmingly important task. Squelching such examples of blond ambition as Gabillon seemed to them more urgent, and perhaps more important, than sorting out the nature of the physical universe or the status of Biblical authority.

Both the black-coated, industrious Huguenots and their calf-bound, erudite writings circulated from darkest Berlin to coldest Scotland. In due course they became, if not the sole founders, at least the main pillars of the late 17th-century Republic of Letters. This was a sort of literary European Union, which drew its citizens from every civilised country, used French as its literary écu – and took Holland, land of tolerance and good publishers, as its capital. Within this efficient and cosmopolitan country of the mind, communications were remarkably good. The stock of a young author from a small provincial town in Brandenburg or Zeeland, once he published in the right places and attracted the benevolent attention of the journals, could rapidly become a known quantity on the bourses of celebrity from Posnan to Portsmouth. He would then have the power to offer favours to other men of letters, and the right to make claims in his turn on their friendship and hospitality: the false Le Clerc did both in London.

The communications networks of the Republic of Letters carried powerful charges. Intellectuals of very different origins and interests – like John Locke and Giambattista Vico–cared deeply about the French versions and summaries of their ideas which could bring them to, or distort them for, a European public unwilling or unable to read English and Italian. Unfortunately, like more modern literary circuits, those of the Republic of Letters often shorted. Prominent scholars refused to conduct their polemics in the courteous manner dictated by good taste. Young upstarts behaved bumptiously towards their elders and betters – or even, like Gabillon, appropriated their identities. Nonetheless, this French-speaking, Europe-wide literary community existed for decades and continues to command the interest of literary and intellectual historians. Its citizens included the great philosopher and dictionary-maker Pierre Bayle as well as his enemy Le Clerc. Its new language of reasoned criticism eventually developed into the polemical medium in which the philosophes of the Enlightenment waged their wars against superstition and l’infâme. The Republic of Letters–as Paul Hazard argued long ago in a classic book – provided the stage on which the crisis of the modern European mind was enacted.

Goldgar seeks to map this imaginary state, offering precise surveys of its borders and colourful sketches of its local topographies and communities. Instead of analysing the content of late 17th and early 18th-century thought, she reconstructs its contours and contexts, the personal relations and professional institutions within which intellectuals lived and worked. She enables the reader to see, for the first time, exactly how the citizens of the Republic of Letters went about the business of Pre-Enlightenment. And she brings to light a gallery of unjustly forgotten Grub Street characters whose eccentricities and exploits she describes with infectious zeal. No reader will forget ‘the ultimate demi-savant’, the crazed Prussian cavalry officer Christoph Heinrich Oelven, crippled by unsuccessful mercury treatments for venereal disease, who began writing vicious satires against his betters and wound up raving; or the short, fat, gouty corrector Charles de la Motte, described as a ‘pygmy’, a ‘Lilliputian’ and ‘that little figure of papier-mâché’ by the contemporaries who hurled epithets at him with all the zest and accuracy of a literary darts team aiming at a target adorned with the face of a too-successful colleague.

Lively in style and sometimes hilarious in content, Goldgar’s book has a perfectly serious purpose. She seeks to show how the literary and intellectual system of the Republic took shape and functioned. To that end, she has spelunked in dozens of archives across Europe, reading hundreds of unpublished letters that record the unrequited loves and unremitting hatreds of authors, reviewers, editors and publishers. Deft use of these vivid and often unguarded texts enables her to give voices and qualities to scores of forgotten intellectual hacks and more than a few highly creative thinkers. More important still, by putting shrewd new questions to her rich sources, Goldgar draws from them the forgotten rules and practices of a lost world of literature and scholarship. It looks, in more than one respect, surprisingly – and depressingly – familiar.

Goldgar explains for the first time, for example, just how authors from all over Europe managed to have their books published by the French-speaking libraires of Holland. The Lilliputian de la Motte, the better-known Prosper Marchand and other correctors served as the intellectual and commercial intermediaries who kept the publication system open and mobile. Receiving a manuscript from a distant author, sometimes a friend or acquaintance but often a complete stranger, they would search for a printer willing to bring the text out. At the same time, they would advise the author on whether or not to accept the format and type fonts that the printer suggested and the honorarium he offered, which could consist of money, copies of the book, or both. While savants usually knew little about publishers’ interests, methods and standard terms for publication, the corrector could give expert advice on all these points. And while savants could easily find themselves frustrated by the widely-noted decline of interest in learned books, which led many publishers to abandon the heavily annotated works of the learned in favour of more saleable plays, novels and accounts of voyages, the corrector could find the most amenable libraires and address them more persuasively than any stranger.

Once author and printer had reached their agreement, moreover, the corrector often continued to play a vital role in the drama of publication. He might well put the manuscript into better order, improve its spelling and punctuation, and make final decisions about its content. In return for all this formally unpaid assistance, the corrector received praise from the author, a copy of the resulting publication, and, if all went well, a paid commission. He hoped to correct the proofs of the work in question, a service normally provided not by the author but by a professional, and one for which the printer would pay a set fee. Something between an agent and a desk editor in modern terms, the corrector greased the squeaky gears of literary commerce, enabling authors to escape or mitigate what some already called the ‘Despotique Tyranny of Booksellers’ – though at the price of subjecting them to what modern authors often revile as the triumphant idiocy of copyeditors.

The existence of these figures, whom Goldgar describes, quite reasonably, as the first literary agents, points to the increasing specialisation and professionalisation of the world of letters. By contrast, the many widely read review journals which also came into being around 1700 show that ideals of cosmopolitanism and amateurism also continued to flourish in the Republic. By the later years of the 17th century, the streams of literature that had issued for more than two centuries from Europe’s presses had swelled and merged in an irresistible flood. Scholars found themselves increasingly hard-pressed to read all of this material, much less to cite it appositely and critically. The enormous older printed literature swarmed with multiple, divergent editions of crucial literary, historical and theological texts. Bibliographical ghosts and legends – like that of the famous, but non-existent, work of libertine thought, the Book on the Three Impostors – haunted collectors and libraries. At the same time, each year’s Frankfurt fair brought vast quantities of new texts and theories onto the market. The sprawling footnotes of Bayle’s Dictionary give a sense of the immense range of textual and bibliographical information which one had to master simply in order to follow the debates of the learned. The price of entry to the intellectual games of the Republic was very high.

In Holland, high incomes, cosmopolitan booksellers and good libraries enabled established literati to own the basic equipment of erudition and find more recondite or expensive materials when necessary. But in many poor and remote areas, young writers had no direct access to a large, up-to-date library. In the Holy Roman Empire, which the Thirty Years’ War had reduced to poverty, a curious form of oral performance often took the place of direct reading. Professors used the printed auction catalogues of great Dutch private libraries as the outlines for lecture courses on ‘Literary History’, in which they told their students a bit about each title listed and provided agreeably nasty gossip about each author. The students who took down at dictation speed hundreds of pages of minutely detailed bibliographical notes on books they had never seen could afterwards appear knowing even if they could hardly become knowledgeable. The basic poverty of this and other similar expedients clearly reveals how desperate readers had become. In much of Europe, apprentice literati who believed they had a duty to familiarise themselves with the entire encyclopedia could afford to buy and read only a few set texts. Even mature, well-to-do scholars found themselves doomed to fall behind in those fields which lay outside their special interests. In any event, a book trade fragmented by hundreds of customs barriers and forced to adapt to all the vagaries of local tastes could hardly bring the latest in physics or philology to isolated readers scattered across Europe’s provincial cities.

Eventually, as Goldgar shows, a new form of publication took shape, one which could carry the literary news efficiently and affordably from Ghent to Aix and beyond. Periodicals popped up, designed to offer a broad readership summaries and criticisms of new literature. Origins and staffing methods varied. Some journals were organised and largely written by a single editor, like Pierre Bayle, others by a sort of cooperative – such as the group of young Huguenots in Berlin who decided, in 1720, to create a Bibliothèque germanique in order to inform a European public of the many interesting works that appeared every year in barbarous German. Copy varied also: some journals concentrated almost exclusively on extraits or reviews, while others gave large amounts of space to articles and letters.

In every case, however, the journal’s existence depended on the co-operation of a publisher willing to obtain books for review, publish the resulting copy and pay for the privilege of doing so. In almost every case, the editor or editors took all or most of the libraire’s fee for themselves, even as they trawled the waters for gullible collaborators. In many cases, outside reviewers proved willing to turn out large amounts of copy in return for a free copy of the journal, some exposure to the public, and warm personal letters from the editor. These told contributors how urgently their unfinished work was needed, how long it would take before their previous submissions could possibly appear, and how sadly the life of an editor lacked beer and skittles. Above all, as Goldgar shows in some of her most absorbing pages, in almost every case editors tried to give their periodical a clear personality, something like – but not identical to – a modern editorial line. Each editor tried to show that his journal was – like himself – a model citizen of the Republic of Letters. Editorial statements regularly insisted that a given journal would not encroach on territory already well covered by another journal, would not allow reviewers to insult authors, would stand above religious and political parties and would judge – if it judged at all – by impartial standards of taste and accuracy. The journals, in short, stood in theory against party and competition, for an ideal of cosmopolitan co-operation – even if their practices rarely lived up to these high ideals, and their all-too-rapid expansion and all-too-common gaffes attracted the bent nibs of satirists, one of whom claimed that he planned ‘to put out on Tuesdays and Fridays a Gazette des ignorans’.

This was the terrain that many young intellectuals wanted to bestride. The means they chose were as varied as the resources at their disposal. One could provide texts or inscriptions for a more important savant, edit the letters of a departed celebrity, or translate the works of a living one into French. In any event, as Goldgar shows, the celebrities of the Republic could count on regularly hearing the noise that F.M. Cornford described in a famous passage: the strange sound of young men in a hurry – in a hurry to get their elders out of the way. She describes the tactics of these ambitious climbers and celebrity hunters in vivid detail: for example, the way in which Pierre Coste, who translated Locke, gradually claimed more and more space in his versions for notes of his own, in which he qualified or even controverted the philosopher’s views. Such passages will strike a hauntingly familiar note for any senior scholar who has ever received a flattering letter inviting him or her to comment, at a conference, on the exciting new research of three or four younger colleagues.

For all their sophisticated design, Goldgar shows, the gears and flywheels of the Republic’s machinery often turned anything but smoothly. Religious and political divisions continually threatened the cosmopolitanism which intellectuals professed to believe in; greed and ambition continually challenged their claim to co-operate in the public service. These quarrels do not, in themselves, disprove the existence or refute the ideals of the Republic. Goldgar rightly argues that the historian reconstructing an organisation may find its malfunctions more informative, in crucial respects, than its blueprints.

But Goldgar also argues that many debates proved impossible to resolve. Even within the world Of the Huguenots, disagreement raged – for example, on whether local churches had the right to demand a standard of orthodoxy from Protestant writers or to impose censorship on them. Between Catholics and Protestants, of course, walls of principle were even higher and thicker. New institutions of learning, like journals, academies, and the system of literary agents, promoted more efficient communication, but did so at the expense of fostering an impersonality and professionalism that could clash with the traditions of amateurism and literary friendship. Many of the Republic’s most prominent citizens feared that its own success in treating new literary forms might doom it to extinction. For example, the Catholic bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet, no Huguenot but the pupil and friend of Protestants, denounced the new review journals. Such short-cuts, he insisted, like the manuals and encyclopedias of late Antiquity, would eventually induce readers to ignore full texts for abridgments and thus prove fatal to accurate learning.

External threats also loomed. After 1700 the appeal of Latin publications rapidly declined. Scholars’ social prominence was challenged by the rise of a mondain culture, whose representatives mocked the pedantry and unworldliness of savants. Scholarly privileges became hard, or impossible, to enforce, even within the Holy Roman Empire, where Latin was still spoken and degrees and titles mattered a good deal: in Hessen-Kassel in 1762, ‘doctors’ were relegated to the same social rank as valets and pastry-cooks. Huet lamented, early in the 18th century, that his one (admittedly long) lifetime had seen both the rise and the fall of letters.

To meet these challenges, so Goldgar argues in the most ambitious – and contentious – pages of her book, the citizens of the Republic adopted a coherent strategy: they made the cultivation of politeness in the world of letters into the core of their enterprise. As good letters found less support in the outside world and consensus proved elusive even within the calf-lined libraries of the learned, it became clear that form – good form – must take precedence over content. The savants of the early 18th century spent enormous time and effort on exchanges of courtesies and information that now seem devoid of serious intellectual content. They developed elaborate strategies for the exchange and presentation of books. They sent florid letters, largely made up of exaggerated compliments, to total strangers. They made long literary voyages, meticulously recorded in thick diaries, in the course of which they tried to visit the library of every literatus in every small town in the Empire or the Low Countries. As often as not, their reward for these civilities seems small to the modern historian. A morning’s call on a given pastor or professor might well be repaid with nothing more than a cup of chocolate or coffee, a chance to handle two or three rare editions, and some bibliographical chat of stunning dryness.

Goldgar finds these activities as bizarre and meaningless as Alice’s caucus-race. But she also sees them as the central activities of the Republic. Their very sterility shows how important they must have been: otherwise they would have been dropped. They expressed a widespread and passionate concern to preserve the social networks of learning from inward corruption and outward assault: to show that letters, like military service, conveyed nobility. Like some recent historians of the Scientific Revolution, in short, Goldgar invokes the ideals of civility and gentlemanliness, the supposed rise of the civilising process, to explain the origins of vital Early Modern practices and institutions. More than once, moreover, she seems to argue that a social analysis of this general form can not only enhance, but should actually take precedence over, analysis of the books that her savants spent their lives compiling.

Here as elsewhere, the social history of ideas claims not to complement but to replace more traditional methods. At this point, however, Goldgar offers not a cogent new thesis but a good example of a well-known historical fallacy. She has mistaken the limited prospect afforded by the particular sources she has investigated for a view of her field as a whole. She would hardly have insisted that form mattered so much, content so little, in the Republic if she had drawn as heavily on formal publications as on unpublished correspondence. Considerations of manners, chastisements of bad behaviour and gossip about competitors certainly dominated the letters she has studied most intensely. Exactly the same questions dominate scholars’ electronic mail and late-night telephone calls nowadays; but like modern scholars, the citizens of the Republic of Letters had not only night thoughts but day jobs, which they took very seriously indeed.

Paul Hazard, Erich Haase, Hugh TrevorRoper, Rosalie Colie and Joseph Levine, among many others, have argued in classic books and articles that the Republic of Letters provided a forum in which the great philosophical and philological theses of the 17th century were debated. The intellectuals Goldgar studies worried about manners and precedence. But they also argued passionately about the natural philosophy of Descartes, the political and educational theories of Locke, the Biblical criticism of Simon, the ethics of Spinoza, the scepticism of Bayle and – last but not least – the Battle of the Books. An approach to the Republic of Letters which treats these questions as of marginal interest to the historian and the development of civility as central seems more than a little unbalanced.

In the end, Goldgar’s decision to separate social from textual history makes even her social history narrower than it could be. The substance of more than one of the late 17th century’s debates probably contributed at least as much as the social conditions Goldgar invokes to her savants’ pervasive sense of unease. Both the new philosophy of Descartes and the new philology of Richard Bentley, who sided with the Moderns in the Battle of the Books, called into question the perennial value of the ancient writers that the savants loved, studied and edited. The rise of a new religion of intellectual progress, a passionately expressed faith in the value of the modern, must have had more than a little to do with the status anxieties mat these classicists’ letters and quarrels reveal. But Impolite Learning offers no substantial account of these problems and no clear response to the earlier historical literature.

Goldgar’s general assessment of the enterprise of the 17th-century savants, in sum, carries less conviction than her particular analyses of their experience as authors and climbers. It will take studies based on the matter as well as the manner of the late 17th-century intellect to reveal exactly what formed the core concerns of the French-speaking, Huguenot-dominated Republic of Letters – as well as to clarify its relation to the Latin-speaking Respublica literarum of the early 17th century, from which it arose, and the Enlightenment of the mid-18th, into which it evidently devolved. But Goldgar’s particular observations, her meticulous and craftsmanlike accounts of how publishers, authors and editors operated, stand even if her larger analytical structure fails. Her remarkable erudition, exhibited on every page of this book, marks her out as the lineal successor of the 17th-century savants she knows so well. And her witty style shows that she also has learned a good deal from their mondain opponents.

The academies of the late 20th century – which are, of course, racked with status anxieties of their own – resound with jeremiads. Senior scholars denounce the young for their lack of historical scholarship and literary style. Anne Goldgar has both. The slippered pantaloon who writes these querulous lines cannot agree with a number of her arguments. But her energy, erudition and originality – like those of many other younger scholars – give me reason to hope that the Republic of Letters will survive its current crisis too.