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.

The heart or backbone of Sher’s enterprise is an ‘empirical database’ of 115 Scottish authors and 360 works published after the Forty-Five. While such list-making appears at first to show 18th-century system run riot, Sher deploys his data to alter the general or vulgar view of the Scottish 18th century. He shows that for the purposes of the trade the truly important titles were not Hume’s two Inquiries or Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, nor even Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect but William Robertson’s History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V of 1769, William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine of the same year, William Smellie’s 1771 Encyclopaedia Britannica and the five volumes of Hugh Blair’s exquisitely sentimental Sermons (1777-1801).

Sher became the authority on the polite Scottish writers after his portrait of the Moderate or anti-evangelical Presbyterian clergy of Edinburgh and surrounding parishes, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1986). He now brings into his fold the Grub Street Scots, such as William Guthrie, Robert Heron, Gilbert Stuart and Dr John Brown. Some of these men had fallen foul of Robertson, who became principal of Edinburgh University in 1762, or Dr William Cullen of the city’s medical school, and so had to make their living in London, while keeping up a crapulous small-arms fight against the literary magistrates at home.We also learn that the decline in Scottishliterature for half a generation after Adam Smith’s death in 1790 – ‘nothing in the way of literature is going on here,’ William Smellie claimed – had less to do with the Edinburgh sedition trials than with the commercial conditions of wartime.

Yet Sher’s handling of the Boswell story shows a very slight blinkering of view. Boswell’s dismay arose not simply or even primarily from the presence of the handsome quarto in the master’s lodgings of his friend’s old Oxford college, but in the conduct of Adams in certain particulars that Boswell lists and Sher does not. (By now, Boswell had convinced himself that he had studied not at Glasgow under another philosopher of doubtful religion, Adam Smith, but amid purple Anglican divines at Oxford.)

In first place was the ‘politeness’ with which Adams treated the ‘infidel’ in his Essay on Mr Hume’s Essay on Miracles, printed in 1752 as a response to the provocative tenth section of Hume’s Inquiry concerning Human Understanding. Then, Adams had sat down with Hume at a dinner in London (which Johnson had always refused to do); had shaken hands with him; called on him and received him in return; and, finally, possessed the offending quarto of the Essays and Treatises (which may or may not have been handsome). ‘Of all this,’ Boswell wrote, ‘I disapproved.’ We are thus thrown back at the text, to use the cant academic word, and Sher’s argument begins to sound a little strained. Are the texts of the Scottish 18th-century masterpieces so very insignificant, even against the charm of handling a $50,000 quarto or the thrill of casting up the Strahan-Cadell ledgers? Are the precise contents of The Wealth of Nations so unimportant?

In the first number of the Edinburgh Review, launched in 1755 in a self-conscious attempt to press Edinburgh writers on the world, Alexander Wedderburn (later lord chancellor) listed two obstacles that held up Scottish literary improvement: a lack of both a ‘standard of language’ and a tradition of good printing. As it turned out, Edinburgh was not yet producing enough good books to support the review and it folded after two issues. By 1759, however, with the publication by Millar, Kincaid and Bell of Smith’s Moral Sentiments and by Millar alone of Robertson’s History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI, Scottish authors were swamping the booksellers’ lists. Meanwhile, in England, Tobias Smollett complained that ‘Genius is lost, Learning undervalued, and Taste altogether extinguished.’

What Wedderburn meant by a ‘standard of language’ was a literary style that did not betray its locality, and Smith, bred up at Oxford, wrote English as well as a Southerner and better than most. As for the printing, by 1763 there were six printing houses in Edinburgh, and there was the London Scot Andrew Millar and then, after his death in 1768, the astonishingly fruitful alliance of the printer William Strahan and the bookseller Thomas Cadell. This was part of the breaking of Scottish isolation after the Forty-Five. Manuscripts, sheets and books went to and fro either on horseback (like John Home’s Douglas in the snowy February of 1755), on the Leith packet or by stagecoach, which, according to the Edinburgh bookseller William Creech, increased from one service a month in 1763 to 15 a week 20 years later.

In addition to linking talent where it was to capital where that was, this collaborative approach helped writers in Edinburgh to bypass the censorship or supervision, first of the kirk ministers and elders who had tried to excommunicate David Hume and Henry Home in the 1750s; and later, with the triumph of the Moderate ministers in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, that of senior justices such as Home (now Lord Kames), Monboddo and Hailes, as well as Principal Robertson and Dr Cullen. At the same time, Scots writers were spared moving to London as Smollett or James Thomson had done in the previous generation, and facing the anti-Scots prejudice whipped up through the 1760s by John Wilkes, Charles Churchill and, at literary tables, by Dr Johnson himself.

Modestly off in their clerical, judicial or academic livings, the polite Scots writers could enjoy but did not need aristocratic patronage. Adam Smith was paid £8000, or the better part of a million pounds in today’s money, to take the young Duke of Buccleuch to France and Geneva for three years. Such independence permitted some Scots (such as Lords Monboddo and Buchan) to adopt an aristocratic attitude to their writing, and speak airily of wishing only to be ‘useful’. Others grumbled in the way of all writers about the greed and incompetence of booksellers. Yet, whether they sold their copyrights, or took payment by the sheet, or published by subscription (like Burns), or shared profits (The Wealth of Nations, or so Sher has argued), or shouldered the financial risk themselves (as Boswell did with his Life of Samuel Johnson), the most successful authors earned large sums of money. Adam Smith, Sher says, made £1100 from The Wealth of Nations, even though the quarto did not sell out for eight years. Blair earned £2765 from his Sermons, and Burns £700 for the Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Since the average Church of Scotland minister’s living was £52 a year, and a labourer’s wage a shilling a day, those were good sums of money. William Buchan, however, whose Domestic Medicine was reprinted dozens of times on the Continent and in America and did more for public health in the 18th century than William Cullen or all the professors of the Edinburgh medical school, received just £50 each time there was a revised British edition.

‘Historicall truths,’ Adam Smith said in 1763, ‘are now in much greater request than they ever were in the ancient times.’ He surmised that was because there were ‘now severall sects in Religion and politicall disputes which are greatly dependent on the truth of certain facts’. He was surely correct, but Sher reminds us that historical truths could also be turned into cash. When Strahan and Millar paid William Robertson £4000 in 1759 for his three-volume History of Charles V, the floodgates opened. ‘All the Solan geese of Orkney can hardly furnish quills for the historical hands that are now said to be at work in Scotland,’ said the Aberdeen poet and philosopher James Beattie. History bestowed prestige, for both author and publisher. Having failed at tragedy and epic (John Home’s Douglas, William Wilkie’s Epigoniad) in the 1750s, the Scots still hankered for the next best thing: the dignity of the ‘Quarto historian’. Sir David Dalrymple, a churchy antiquarian later raised to the Court of Session as Lord Hailes, remarked that his wife ‘could not bring herself to suppose’ that octavo was ‘consistent with the dignity of History’.

For all its dominance in both London and Edinburgh, the Strahan-Cadell syndicate was forever grumbling about the cupidity of Scots writers: ‘You paint the extravagent [sic] Demands of Modern Authors in very lively, as well as in just Colours,’ Strahan wrote to Creech in July 1776. ‘They are indeed beyond all Credibility.’ For all that, and his fulminations against unauthorised reprinters, Strahan was operating 11 presses at his death in 1785, had been a Member of the House of Commons and left an estate of £100,000. Thomas Cadell the elder left £150,000. ‘The most profitable trade now in Edinburgh,’ the English traveller Captain Edward Topham wrote in 1776, ‘appears to be that of a Bookseller.’ In the 1790s, according to Sher, it was not so much Lord Braxfield’s conception of what constituted sedition that destroyed Scots philosophy and history-writing but a public too busy or anxious to read. ‘Business is very dull here,’ George Robinson wrote in July 1794, ‘and not a guinea to be had for books.’ By then, the Strahan-Cadell hold on Scottish literature was disintegrating under competition from new houses such as John Murray. Sher has a chapter on Strahan and Cadell’s most important associate in Edinburgh, the bookseller William Creech, whom he tries to rescue from the opprobrium of Burns – that ‘sh—te Creech’ – and the condescension of the Scots publishers of the next generation such as Archibald Constable. Sher argues that Sir John Sinclair’s stupendous Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99) would never have appeared but for Creech’s efforts and deep pockets.

The final section of his book deals with the practice of reprinting in Dublin – in Ireland, neither the statutory 14-year copyright nor ‘customary’ (cartel) arrangements held sway – and in Philadelphia. In America, once again, the ground-breaking titles were Robertson’s History of Charles V, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and the third edition of Smellie’s Britannica. Sher appreciates the irony that Scottish seceders such as William Young, who had crossed the Atlantic to escape the tyranny of the Kirk Moderates, ended up making their living from the atheist Hume or the worst sort of Erastian in the guise of Principal Robertson. As for the transmission of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ to America, Sher’s lists reveal that the Reverend Fordyce’s unctuous and reactionary Sermons to Young Women was reprinted in America within a year of its appearance in London, while Smith’s incomparable Moral Sentiments had no American printing until well into the 19th century. These chapters, extraordinarily interesting as they are, lift readers up and put them down at some distance from the Cross at Edinburgh. Sher himself points out that his database comprises only a fifth of the titles published in Philadelphia and a third of those in Dublin.

This admirable book can give rise to an occasional longing for the open air. To justify using the term ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, Sher must engage in a shadow fight with anti-Aufklärer of various hues, during which his good English deserts him and Foucault is forever lurching into view, raving about discursive sets, like a drunk at some hellish critical-philosophical wedding. Sher has an almost Scottish passion for remote kinship. The reader is reminded that Adam Ferguson’s mother was ‘the great-aunt of the wife of George Campbell and the aunt of Joseph Black, whose niece Ferguson married’. The deep taverns of the Edinburgh High Street, where Boswell drank away his career and Robert Fergusson his sanity, turn out to have been ‘informal sites of cultural interaction’.

Those are small faults. Sher reports, from the researches of Warren McDougall and others, that in August 1776 Scots customs officials stopped a ship from Dublin carrying 14 sets of a three-volume bootleg octavo of The Wealth of Nations. While present generations scavenge Devon beaches for Pampers and German motorbikes, their ancestors in Scotland in July 1784 were down in the surf landing copies of the first two volumes of Blair’s Sermons and, two years later, of Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers in octavo. Now that’s what I call Enlightenment.