An excerpt from
The Enlightenment and the Book
Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America
Richard B. Sher
Toward a Book History
of the Scottish Enlightenment
The Problem of Enlightenment Publishing
“To a man sincerely interested in the welfare of society and of his country, it must be particularly agreeable to reflect on the rapid progress, and general diffusion of learning and civility, which, within the present age, have taken place in Great Britain.” So began the preface to one of the most popular books of the late eighteenth century, A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World by William Guthrie, Esq., first published in London in 1770. After contrasting the state of British political culture with that found in “some other kingdoms of Europe,” where “illiberal prejudices” prevailed, the preface continued: “Among us, learning is no longer confined within the schools of the philosophers, or the courts of the great; but, like all the greatest advantages which heaven has bestowed on mankind, it is become as universal as it is useful.” Britain was leading the way not only in the “rapid progress” of learning but also in its dissemination, for only in Britain had the “general diffusion of knowledge” advanced to the point where “the great body of the people” could share in it. This had happened, on the one hand, because “in Great Britain, the people are opulent, have great influence, and claim, of course, a proper share of attention”—which is to say, they constitute a public. On the other hand, in Britain “books have been divested of the terms of the schools, reduced from that size which suited only the purses of the rich, and the avocations of the studious, and are adapted to persons of more ordinary fortunes, whose attachment to other pursuits admitted of little leisure for those of knowledge.” The diffusion of learning through popular books is exalted, even over “the works of our Bacons, our Lockes, and our Newtons,” as the means by which “the generality of our countrymen” have attained their “superior improvement” over their counterparts elsewhere.
The phenomenon described in the preface to Guthrie’s Geography has become familiar to students of the Enlightenment and eighteenth-century British culture. “Print proved the great engine for the spread of enlightened views and values,” wrote the late Roy Porter in his popular account of the Enlightenment in Britain. As part of an occurrence that Porter variously termed “the print explosion,” “the print boom,” and “print capitalism,” “literature became a commodity circulating in all shapes and sizes” and “Britain found itself awash with print.” Along with these developments on the supply side came changes in patterns of consumption, as “reading became second nature to a major swathe of the nation.” Similarly, John Brewer has written perceptively on the “print revolution” that occurred in eighteenth-century Britain, involving both a “remarkable transformation in British publishing” (which he sometimes calls “the publishing revolution” or “the publication revolution”) and an expansion in the quantity and variety of reading, as well as in the institutions that facilitated it, such as bookshops, different kinds of libraries (e.g., subscription, circulating, church, coffeehouse), book clubs, and private collections. Like Porter and the author of the preface to Guthrie’s Geography, Brewer views these developments as intimately connected with the growth of “modern commerce and refinement.” The findings of the learned, the diffusion of knowledge, enlightened attitudes, opulence, civility, and the rise of a broad and highly commercialized public culture were all inseparable from what Brewer calls more than once “the ubiquity of books.”
Despite the notion of British exceptionalism that permeates the preface to Guthrie’s Geography, many commentators who treat eighteenth-century culture within a broader geographical context have reached similar conclusions. Following the well-known thesis of JÆrgen Habermas, James Van Horn Melton credits England with establishing a literary public sphere earlier than the rest of Europe, but by the time his account reaches the second half of the century, France and Germany are sharing in “the eighteenth-century print explosion.” Similar views have been a fixture in social and cultural histories of the age of the Enlightenment since at least 1969, when the second volume of Peter Gay’s seminal synthesis discussed the emergence of a broader reading audience, the appearance of lending libraries and coffeehouses, the development of publishing in place of aristocratic patronage, increasing financial compensation for enlightened authors, and the decline of censorship and repression as key features of the republic of letters. In a general survey of Europe published in 1982, Isser Woloch asserted that “the expansion of publishing and the growth of the reading public … constituted the eighteenth century’s pivotal cultural development.” More recently, Thomas Munck has argued that “an unprecedented growth in the accessibility of the printed word to those who could read” was crucially important for the expression and proliferation of the Enlightenment, and T. C. W. Blanning’s explicitly Habermasian account of Old Regime culture emphasizes “a revolutionary change in the production of books” and corresponding changes in the character and sites of reading. These developments have in turn been linked by Michel Foucault and others with the rise of modern institutional structures for categorizing and regulating both authors and books. In Carla Hesse’s succinct summation, the modern literary system that arose in eighteenth-century Europe may be equated with “the civilization of the book,” meaning “the stabilization of written culture into a canon of authorized texts, the notion of the author as creator, the book as property, and the reader as an elective public.”
Britain, then, was not unique in developing a ubiquitous book culture that was intimately tied to the espousal and promulgation of the Enlightenment. That was to some degree a feature of the Enlightenment everywhere. Few would deny, however, that eighteenth-century Britain was in the vanguard of the movement. As the author of the preface to Guthrie’s Geography and other contemporaries realized, printing and publishing faced fewer constraints there than on the Continent, with significant consequences. In the absence of most forms of censorship and other restrictive regulations, such as the one that limited the number of master printers in Old Regime Paris to thirty-six, the number of printing offices and bookshops increased dramatically in London and throughout Britain, and so did the quantity of accessible reading material, including books, periodicals, and newspapers. The Enlightenment book trade in Britain did not have to go underground or abroad, as was so often the case in France and other European countries, and the producers of learned books were not subject to the high degree of instability and uncertainty, as well as licensing requirements, that existed in seventeenth-century England. In spite of disagreements over the precise nature and duration of copyright, there was widespread acceptance in eighteenth-century Britain of the principle of copyright itself, extending at least the fourteen years (or twenty-eight years, if the author were still alive) allowed by the so-called Statute of Anne, the copyright act that went into effect in 1710 and was upheld as the law of the land on appeal to the House of Lords in 1774. There arose an auxiliary species of journals, such as the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, to guide the public’s selection of the best new books. Books took their place within a burgeoning culture of material consumption and commercialization, well beyond what existed elsewhere.
All this is familiar enough. But the tendency to posit the existence of a print boom in eighteenth-century Britain has greatly outpaced our knowledge of what was actually taking place. We have many generalizations but little concrete understanding of the complex historical processes and interplay of human actors that connected the book trade to the Enlightenment. More than a quarter of a century has passed since Robert Darnton’s pioneering publishing history of the Encyclopédie established book history as a vital component in Enlightenment studies. Since then there have been several excellent studies of individual Enlightenment publishers and their relations with authors, and book history has flourished and grown as a scholarly discipline. Despite differences among practitioners, there is universal agreement that the starting point for all approaches to the field is the conviction that books do in fact have histories which reveal a great deal about life as well as letters, and that books are therefore to be taken seriously in every possible mode in which they appear—as homes for texts written by authors and read by readers, as physical artifacts crafted by skilled and unskilled workers using particular technologies, as commodities bought and sold in the marketplace, as instruments for the transmission of knowledge and values, as fodder for great libraries and popular amusements, as objects of government regulation and censorship, as cultural symbols, and much more. Few historians of the book would deny that these modes are necessarily interrelated and therefore cannot be successfully studied in isolation from each other, or in isolation from the specific historical settings in which they occur. Yet the book history of the Enlightenment, especially the English-language Enlightenment, remains a story waiting to be told.
The second half of the eighteenth century was a particularly interesting time for author–publisher relations. It not only signified the beginning of modern notions of authorship as a commercial category but also marked a critical transitional era for publishers. During this period, substantial publishing houses emerged in Britain, but they were not yet the large, impersonal, specialized entities they would later become. Publishing was still something that members of the book trade did in addition to something else—usually bookselling (which accounts for the fact that publishers were still called “booksellers” much of the time) but in some cases printing or occasionally even bookbinding. Publishers were sometimes deeply involved with the works they produced, and authors who dealt with the leading publishing houses often had direct, substantive contact with the head of the firm. “Cadell and I are going to prepare the second edition of ‘Fatal Falsehood’——,” wrote Hannah More to her sister in 1780. “We talked over all the affairs. He gave me some very good advice.” There was nothing unusual about this exchange, even though Thomas Cadell was then at the head of the largest and most prestigious publishing enterprise in Britain, if not in the world.
The success of books depended on publishers in many ways. In the process of generating new books, publishers had to make critical decisions about whether to publish, when to publish, and in what format to publish, as well as how to promote published books, how much to charge for them, and how much to pay authors for them. Of course, to say that eighteenth-century publishers had important choices to make does not mean that they were free to do whatever they pleased. Various kinds of factors—technological, economic, institutional, legal, cultural, intellectual, ideological—operated at many levels to restrict and direct choices. But such factors did not always point toward the same conclusion, and publishers were therefore able to operate with a great deal of freedom most of the time.
The actions of publishers were not strictly determined by external forces such as the economic or technological “logic” of print, or print capitalism, favored by Alvin Kernan, or the equally rigid theory of monopoly with which William St. Clair explains book production in the period 1710–74. Nor were they virtually free of technological and other material constraints, as others have suggested or implied. “Is history conditioned by print, or print by history?” Adrian Johns asks in his debate with Elizabeth Eisenstein on the status of early modern printing, answering that “the latter is the case.” Perhaps the best response to Johns’s question, however, is to reject its either/or premise and to opt instead for another formulation by Johns himself, “that print is conditioned by history as well as conditioning it.” To the extent that print can be considered apart from history at all, the relationship between print and history, like that of any technology and history, is complex and dialectical; neither one is caused or conditioned exclusively by the other. Technologies like printing do not dictate or determine the course of history, but they frequently create conditions, opportunities, and constraints that influence the construction of cultures, just as cultural factors shape the social construction of technologies. Because eighteenth-century British printing was famously free of technological innovation and firmly rooted in a secure commercial system, Enlightenment publishers operated within a relatively stable environment in which the social construction of printing over the course of several centuries was taken for granted.
The publishing process was too complex to conform to any simple formula. Enlightenment book publishing cannot be reduced either to unrestrained outbursts of authorial creativity (as historians of ideas often assume) or to business endeavors involving the production and distribution of marketable commodities (as historians of books sometimes insinuate). In the second half of the eighteenth century, publication of new books was almost always a cooperative act or partnership between authors and publishers. Often these partnerships were harmonious and polite, and occasionally they were intimate, but sometimes they were tense and strained, even hostile, as one might expect when the stakes involve not only money but also status and cultural authority. Enlightenment book publishing, then, was a negotiated, collaborative, often contested activity that occurred within the economic, technological, legal, and intellectual contexts of the day.
The more Enlightenment book culture is viewed as the product of interaction between authors and members of the book trade, contingent to a large degree on decisions made by publishers within a given technological and social setting, the more important are questions concerning the roles of publishers and authors and their relationships with each other, as well as with that mystical, abstract entity known in the eighteenth century, and ever since, as “the public.” Publishers naturally paid close attention to economic self-interest when making decisions about publishing and marketing books, but other motives frequently came into play as well. To the extent that such motives were personal, ideological, and yes, intellectual, they form a contrast with the businesslike persona that publishers frequently tried to project, especially when dealing with authors. Authors too had complicated agendas, and they therefore should not be treated as rarefied intellectuals who were unconcerned with fame, money, and other factors besides the substance of their texts. As John Brewer has remarked: “Both bookseller and author shared in the balancing act between pecuniary reward and intellectual interest that gave eighteenth-century publishing much of its energy.”
In their capacity as the managers of printers, stationers, and binders, publishers were largely responsible for translating authors’ texts into material reality. They were therefore critically important in helping to determine not only which books would be produced but also how those books would look. Their central position between texts and books had implications that extended into the public realm. Foucault’s famous concept of the “author function” has rightly drawn attention to the author’s name as the primary mode of categorizing books. It also seems appropriate to speak of a “publisher function,” however, because in the late eighteenth century, like today, the names of publishers could be as important as those of authors in providing the public with a mechanism for organizing and prioritizing books.
Besides the interaction of authors and publishers, two other relevant methodological problems of Enlightenment book history concern the range of physical locations and the range of genres or subjects to be studied. In his magisterial account of the production and reception of scientific book learning in seventeenth-century England, The Nature of the Book, and in other writings, Adrian Johns has called for the adoption of “a local focus” as the best way to study the historical relations between “print and knowledge.” “In general, … print entailed not one but many cultures,” he writes, and “these cultures of the book were themselves local in character.” Johns treats a time when scholarly English-language “printing and bookselling were concentrated almost exclusively in the vast social morass of London” and when communication among publishers of learned works in different places was excruciatingly slow. These circumstances may help to explain his decision to concentrate on the institutional structures and professional relationships that characterized scientific publishing in the English metropolis. But how well does such a local, metropolitan approach hold up during the late eighteenth century, when there were other centers of learned printing and publishing in Great Britain and the English-language world besides London? Has Johns given us the key to “the nature of the book” in general, or merely a rich history of the making of one genre of books in one particular time and place?
London remained the undisputed capital of the English-language book trade during the late eighteenth century, and Johns is surely correct about the contextual nature of book culture and the need for empirical investigation of local circumstances, in London as well as in every other site of publication and reception. But the development and diffusion of Enlightenment book culture cannot be explained by a local, or even a comparative, model, let alone a model that is limited to a single species of knowledge in one particular time. Robert Darnton has correctly observed that “by its very nature … the history of books must be international in scale.” From the middle of the fifteenth century, book trade practices shared many similarities throughout Europe, and printed books were “international objects of merchandise, and therefore of reading.” For this reason, it can be argued that the relationship of “print and knowledge” always requires more than a local, metropolitan approach. Certainly by the mid-eighteenth century the sites of book culture were too closely interconnected, both within Britain and beyond, to be studied in isolation. This judgment applies not only to the trade in books but also to the relationships that prevailed among the makers of books: authors in France negotiated with publishers in Amsterdam, Neuchâtel, and Geneva, just as authors in Scotland dealt with publishers in London, and publishers had similarly expansive interactions with printers, booksellers, and stationers. In such circumstances, the key to understanding the relationship between print and knowledge lies not in any particular local context but rather in the dynamic interplay of authors, publishers, and other members of the book trade in a variety of locations. Enlightenment book history must be viewed through a wide geographical lens.
The foundation work in the field of book history, Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book (first published in 1958 as L’apparition du livre), adopted a broad geographical approach, mainly European but with some attention to America too. By the late 1960s, however, the focus of most serious scholarship on eighteenth-century book history had withdrawn to a single country or region, and with few exceptions it has remained so ever since. As this work goes to press, major multiauthor volumes are about to appear on the book history of the eighteenth century in each of the four geographical areas comprising the subject matter of this volume. These publications represent milestones in the respective book histories of England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America, but they should also be seen as steps toward a more comprehensive, international understanding of the field.
With regard to subject matter, similarly, Enlightenment book history must be multidisciplinary because it is necessary to consider different genres of books in order to know whether a particular form of publishing was typical or unusual, a paradigm or an aberration. Johns’s contention that “piracy and plagiarism occupied readers’ minds just as prominently as fixity and enlightenment” may be true of scientific books in seventeenth-century London, but it is not necessarily true of books in philosophy, law, or fiction from that same time and place. Limiting his analysis to scientific books prevents Johns from establishing the universal significance of his model for book history. As far as eighteenth-century Britain is concerned, there is currently no basis for accepting his suggestion that print culture—particularly scientific print culture—was mainly perceived by contemporaries as “destabilizing and threatening to civility” rather than as a “rationalizing” force.
The primary genre bias in British book history is not toward science but toward English literature. The strong textual orientation of literary critics encourages a dualism of text and book that associates literature with mind and bibliography with matter. In the introduction to the January 2006 PMLA special issue “The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature,” Leah Price traces the invisibility of books among modern literary critics to a lack of training in the analysis of material culture and “a commonsense Cartesianism [that] teaches us to filter out the look, the feel, the smell of the printed page.” As a result, much of what passes for book history among literary critics maintains a literary and textual emphasis. Furthermore, the genres of fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism tend to be privileged over other kinds of writing. Too often, the canonical writers in London who wrote books in those genres are seen as the new cultural heroes of the age of print; the professional literary author is exalted as the paradigm of modernity; and figures in the book trade are rendered worthy—or not—on the basis of their contributions to those authors and their works. This literary bias accounts for the proliferation of exaggerated claims about the place of Samuel Johnson, Robert Dodsley, and other London literary figures in eighteenth-century print culture. Throw the genre net wider, to include the writing of history, political economy, philosophy, medicine, and other forms of polite literature and learning, and the situation will look very different. It may even turn out that the paradigm of the “modern” author is not independence in the sense of having no occupation other than writing for publication but rather independence in the sense of integration into appropriate professions and professional institutions.
These observations point to the need for a kind of book history that takes seriously and explores fully—in multiple genres and in local, national, and international contexts—the values, aspirations, actions, and interactions of eighteenth-century authors and publishers, and that does not seek to restrict one to the realm of the mind and the other to the realm of the purse. This book provides such a history, centered on one segment of the Enlightenment, but with methodological implications that may extend beyond it. In focusing first on authors and publishers, and then on the reprinters of their works, it shows how developments in eighteenth-century publishing served the Scottish Enlightenment, and how the Scottish Enlightenment served the domain of publishing. As this formulation implies, the relationship was symbiotic. Scottish authors of new Enlightenment texts provided British publishers with their most prestigious and potentially lucrative raw materials for books, while publishers provided Scottish authors and potential authors with opportunities for international fame, glory, and wealth.
From the Enlightenment to the Scottish Enlightenment
The January 2006 issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist is devoted to the question “The End of Enlightenment?” One might think this inquiry has to do with the debate over the demise of the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century, as the phrase has traditionally been used. But no, in this debate, the existence of the Enlightenment itself is under review. In one contribution, Graeme Garrard discusses the history of anti-Enlightenment thought, “including the accusations that it was atheistic, morally nihilistic, and fatuously optimistic; that it perverted reason with destructive consequences; that it had a blind faith in science, which it conceived of as almost wholly benign; and that it was intolerant of difference.” Some of these and other accusations date back to the beginnings of “counter-Enlightenment” thought during the second half of the eighteenth century and immediately after the French Revolution, but many have been expressed most forcefully during the past seventy-five years.
The modern era of anti-Enlightenment thought began in 1931, with the publication of The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers by Carl Becker. The impact of that work was increased when the author’s colleague at Cornell University, Preserved Smith, paraphrased Becker’s thesis three years later in what was perhaps the first book to use the term “the Enlightenment” in its title. “The Enlightenment resembled a new religion,” Smith wrote, “of which Reason was God, Newton’s Principia the Bible, and Voltaire the prophet.” Despite a convincing rebuttal by Peter Gay, whose overly secular, antireligious interpretation of the Enlightenment was shaped largely by his antipathy to the Becker thesis, Becker’s book has returned in a new edition published by Yale University Press in 2003, and it is now being hailed as “incredibly prescient” because of its anticipation of later, postmodern attacks on the Enlightenment.
If Becker’s essay anticipated some of the main currents of the postmodern view, so did Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1947 work, translated from the German in the 1960s as Dialectic of Enlightenment and reissued by Stanford University Press in 2002. Here the Enlightenment’s “program” is characterized as a kind of dictatorship of reason grounded in a tendency to promote “the self-oblivious instrumentation of science” and “the disenchantment of the world.” Building on this book and other counter-Enlightenment writings, postmodernists have continued to argue that Enlightenment thinkers were fundamentally narrow and intolerant because they advocated a single, universal, program founded on reason or science—what John Gray terms “the Enlightenment project of universal cultural homogenization.” The Enlightenment’s substantial role in the creation of “modernity,” which has often been cause for celebration, has been turned against the Enlightenment on the grounds that the creation of modernity entails responsibility for the ills of the modern world—from racism and sexism to colonial oppression, genocide, and nihilism. In its most extreme form, anticipated by Horkheimer and Adorno but articulated more vigorously by various postmodernists, this view holds that “the Enlightenment led straight to Auschwitz, just as it had led to the Terror” during the French Revolution.
From Becker to Horkheimer and Adorno to Gray, most modern and postmodern critics of the Enlightenment have had only a superficial familiarity with it, and their writings are more often polemical attacks on an abstraction of their own creation than careful and contextual analyses of works by Enlightenment thinkers. In these polemics, a single name, most commonly Voltaire or Kant, is frequently invoked to vilify a vast array of thinkers, and a movement devoted largely to the ideal of toleration is transformed into its opposite by fiat. Yet contending with these phantom critiques is taking a toll on the study of the Enlightenment, which seems to be languishing.
Faced with these external challenges, as well as with decades of internal bickering about the contours of their field, scholars of the Enlightenment have reacted in different ways. Several have tried to engage in thoughtful dialogue with postmodernist critics. In the same spirit, some have edited Enlightenment anthologies that devote a significant portion of their space to recent critics of the Enlightenment, at the expense of authors from the Enlightenment itself or modern writers analyzing Enlightenment thought in a nonpolemical manner. Others have offered substantial refutations of key aspects of the postmodernist critique, such as Sankar Muthu in his treatise on the anti-imperialist strand of Enlightenment thought in France and Germany. Still others have countered with polemical defenses of the Enlightenment as a radical political movement.
Another strategy, adopted by Muthu among others, has been to pluralize the Enlightenment and to qualify references accordingly. We do well to speak of “English, Arminian, Parisian” and Scottish Enlightenments, writes John Pocock, but not of “The” Enlightenment, because Enlightenment “occurred in too many forms to be comprised within a single definition and history.” For Dorinda Outram, similarly, the appearance in the 1970s of books on the Enlightenment in the Americas by Henry May and A. Owen Aldridge “made it impossible any longer to see the Enlightenment as a unified phenomenon.” Outram and others seek to redefine the Enlightenment as “a series of interlocking, and sometimes warring problems and debates,” an approach that highlights the institutional settings in which those debates occurred and emphasizes the extent to which the Enlightenment was a process rather than a common set of beliefs or values.
Finally, some commentators have attempted to reassert the unity of the Enlightenment by means of an approach that one of its supporters, Robert Darnton, has dubbed “deflation.” According to this view, the Enlightenment “industry” has become unwieldy because of the very multiplicity of Enlightenments that others have been so keen to create and promote: the Russian, Romanian, Brazilian, Josephinian, Pietistic, Jewish, musical, religious, radical, conservative, and Confucian Enlightenments are cited to demonstrate that “the Enlightenment is beginning to be everything and therefore nothing.” For Darnton, making “the case for the Enlightenment” means going back to basics by focusing on the “elitist, Voltairean, and incorrigibly Parisian” Enlightenment that consisted of “a self-conscious group of intellectuals”—exclusively male—who set out “to persuade, propagandize, and change the world.” Men of letters elsewhere soon joined the fray, but they did so in emulation of the Parisian philosophes, whose ideas and values were subsequently “diffused” among them. Although John Robertson defines the problem in the same way as Darnton and uses the same title phrase in some of his writings, his “case for the Enlightenment” involves maintaining its broad geographical range as a European phenomenon but limiting its subject matter to a cluster of topics involving the science of human nature, political economy, and the historical development of human societies.
If there is a common denominator in these approaches, it is that all of them assume a defensive posture toward the Enlightenment. In contrast with the strategies of retrenchment that are now in vogue, I contend that the Enlightenment should be viewed as a very big movement, requiring correspondingly broad conceptualization, geographically, intellectually, and socially. The Enlightenment may be perceived as a grand symphony with multiple variations. Such an approach may not yield a conception of the Enlightenment that is as tightly demarcated as some would wish, but the retreat to a narrowly defined Enlightenment or to a multitude of discrete Enlightenments with no overriding unity is not likely to do much better in this respect because there will always be uncertainties about which thinkers and books fall within the purview of the delineated spaces.
Although few would dispute the place of Paris as the capital of the Enlightenment, a diffusionist model emanating from Paris is an oversimplification of a complex process, partly because Paris did not always dictate the terms of eighteenth-century intellectual life and partly because men (and sometimes also women) of letters were increasingly engaged in a complex, international exchange of ideas and information that did not always start in one place or move in just one direction. In the same way, restricting the content of the Enlightenment to political economy and the science of man and society requires us to sacrifice too many rich and important fields of enlightened intellectual inquiry for the sake of a particular ideal of intellectual coherence. Breaking up the Enlightenment into a multitude of unrelated segments exaggerates differences among geographical areas and intellectual schools at the expense of their underlying similarities. Graeme Garrard points out that the tendency to pluralize the Enlightenment “is an overreaction to the unavoidable vagueness of language and creates many problems of its own.” We do not discard the word “Asian” just because the boundaries of Asia are uncertain or because that word has been defined in many different ways. There will always be borderline cases, but these should not drive our understanding of concepts that prove useful for making sense of history. “Nor does the absence of complete unity among the philosophes necessarily invalidate the use of the term the Enlightenment,” Garrard adds. “There is a common core to their views, notwithstanding differences that separate them on many points.”
In my view, that common core resides not in a fixed body of doctrine or a universal reform program or an institutional structure or a particular field or school of thought but rather in a set of general values to which proponents of the Enlightenment adhered. These values could be found among men of letters from the Americas in the west to Russia in the east, and from Scotland in the north to Naples in the south, despite variations within different national and regional contexts, among different schools of thought, and among particular individuals. They included improvement, or a commitment to bettering the human condition, morally and perhaps spiritually as well as materially, sometimes with a local or national focus and sometimes with an eye on mankind as a whole; humanity and cosmopolitan sensibility, or a sense of sympathy and fellow feeling toward other human beings, and opposition to torture, slavery, and other practices judged to be inhumane; sociability, or an awareness of, and a preference for, the social character of human nature and human society; toleration of those holding different beliefs about religion and other matters, and a corresponding adherence to basic liberties of worship, speech, and written communication (even if there was disagreement about just how far those and other liberties should extend); intellectualism, or dedication to cultivating the powers of the mind for understanding human nature, society, and the natural world, in accordance with Kant’s famous motto of enlightenment, “Dare to know,” and a concomitant belief in the power of learning as a means of bringing about improvement; and aestheticism, or an appreciation for the arts, including painting, music, poetry, and imaginative literature.
This list is not a closed one, and it is pitched at a high-enough level of generality to accommodate the different national, regional, and topical manifestations of the Enlightenment, as well as the differences and debates that characterized salons, academies, clubs, and lodges throughout large parts of Europe and the Americas. Adhering to this general pattern of values were both secularists (including some atheists but more deists) and devout believers in moderate or rational varieties of institutionalized religion; both proponents of enlightened absolutism and those who believed that the power of rulers should be limited; both radical critics of the existing order and social and political conservatives. These core values were often promoted self-consciously by individuals and groups whose ideas and activities were sufficiently prevalent to set the tone for the age. Yet these values were not “everything and therefore nothing” because intolerance, inhumanity, injustice, ignorance, prejudice, religious enthusiasm and fanaticism, anti-intellectualism, narrow-mindedness, selfishness, immorality, sectarianism, belligerency, corruption, and insensitivity toward other human beings continued to exist, and sometimes to flourish.
Such a conception of the Enlightenment is deliberately open-ended. Like the concept of Asia, it is big enough to withstand border disputes. We may find that certain individuals and groups, even regions and nations, appear to be partly in and partly out of the Enlightenment. Commentators may explore the tensions inherent in enlightened values, perhaps even to the point of paradox. Yet as long as “the Enlightenment” captures the spirit of the main trends and general tendencies of the philosophes or literati who are associated with it, the term remains useful with the definite article intact. More than that, this conception of the Enlightenment points toward a way out of the current malaise in Enlightenment studies by encouraging investigations of Enlightenment thought and practice that cross the boundaries of nations and disciplines. It provides a framework for undertaking the comparative history of variations within a larger pattern of unity.
The Scottish Enlightenment was one of those variations. Although those who study it have had their share of disagreements over the nature and boundaries of their patch of the Enlightenment, they have generally been spared the wrath of modern and postmodern critics. The Scottish Enlightenment’s version of the “end of Enlightenment” debate has centered on a different problem, defined by two contrary trends in popular historiography. One approach, associated chiefly with a best-selling book by Arthur Herman, claims that “the Scottish Enlightenment created the basic idea of modernity,” meaning nothing less than that eighteenth-century Scotland generated “the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age.” Of course, modernity in this sense is thoroughly admirable and contains none of the reprehensible features of the modern world. “As the first modern nation and culture,” Herman writes, “the Scots have by and large made the world a better place.” Herman is correct to draw attention to the enormous impact of Scots and the Scottish Enlightenment—far beyond what might be expected from a country of Scotland’s size or previous accomplishments in the republic of letters. The Scottish influence was extensive in its global reach and intensive in the depth of its impact. Yet the Scottish Enlightenment was only one part of a much larger movement. To the extent that certain praiseworthy aspects of the modern world have been shaped by Enlightenment thinkers, we must take into account the work of Newton and Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, Kant and Beccaria, Franklin and Jefferson, along with Hume and Smith, and countless others. We must also keep in mind that not all aspects of the Scottish contribution to the modern world were praiseworthy. Overstating the case the way Herman has done may actually diminish the chances that the magnitude of the Scottish intellectual and cultural contribution will be taken seriously because such excessive boasting makes it easier to dismiss the entire phenomenon as a made-up story. That is the reaction of Ian Rankin’s hard-nosed Edinburgh detective John Rebus when he encounters Herman’s book at a local library: “Rebus picked a book off the shelf. It seemed to be saying that the Scots had invented the modern world. He looked around to make sure they weren’t in the fiction section.” Some scholars who are more familiar with the Scottish Enlightenment than Rebus have had a similar experience.
The other recent view, promoted by Roy Porter and Gertrude Himmelfarb, goes to the opposite extreme, by contending that the Scottish Enlightenment never existed. Not that Porter and Himmelfarb deny the importance of David Hume, Adam Smith, and other eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers, but they insist that their contributions should be considered within the framework of a larger entity called the British Enlightenment, which they view as the prime source of modernity (once again defined with reference to the features of the modern world that are deemed most admirable). They trace the concept of the Scottish Enlightenment to perspectives that are narrowly nationalistic or parochial. Porter argues that “to draw rigid distinctions between the English and Scottish enlightened traditions is anachronistic, largely because such a delineation merely reflects later nationalisms.” Himmelfarb justifies the eradication of the Scottish Enlightenment on the grounds of a few alleged instances of Scottish Anglicizing by Hume, Smith, and other literati (including the false claim that “many of these philosophers chose to identify themselves as North Britons rather than as Scots”) and concludes that “the Scottish Enlightenment, therefore, was not as parochially or exclusively Scottish as might be thought.” Both Porter and Himmelfarb readily acknowledge that the Enlightenment took different forms in different national contexts, and both assert the special character and significance of the British Enlightenment against the versions of the Enlightenment that prevailed in France and elsewhere. But their willingness to recognize distinctive national variations of the Enlightenment stops abruptly at the Scottish border.
Like Herman’s claim that the Scottish Enlightenment was virtually everything, the counterclaim that it was, in effect, nothing cannot be substantiated. Readers of this book will see that the Scottish Enlightenment did exist as a recognizable entity, although not in a rigid or narrowly parochial sense. Here the Scottish Enlightenment is defined broadly, to mean the Scottish manifestation of the international movement dedicated to the proliferation of polite, morally and intellectually edifying literature and learning during the eighteenth century, written by authors whose work can be identified with the general values of the Enlightenment discussed earlier. It was a cultural and intellectual phenomenon that is not reducible to any single branch, school, or mode of thought, be it history (narrative or “conjectural”), natural science, medicine, common sense philosophy (or moral philosophy generally), rhetoric and belles lettres, imaginative literature, or political economy and what are now called the social sciences. In all these fields of intellectual activity, and others too, a good case can be made for regarding eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers as among the most innovative, eminent, and influential authors of their day. The books of eighteenth-century Scotland were disproportionately influential in many areas and were conspicuous in shaping modern academic disciplines and scholarly fields, from English literature, political economy, and sociology to various branches of science and medicine. Equally remarkable is the fact that so much of this literature was written by individuals who associated with each other, socially and professionally, in the urban centers of Scotland, and sometimes also in London, and moved easily as authors from one enlightened genre to another. This sense of social, intellectual, and cultural integration and cohesiveness gives a distinctive character to the Scottish Enlightenment, setting it apart from the Enlightenment in England.
Almost half a century ago, Franco Venturi wrote in an essay on the European Enlightenment that “English intellectuals … did not constitute a party, one particular trend, but represented all the nuances of a free and diversified public opinion. Only in Scotland, where the unified action of scholars, erudites, and intellectuals sharing common ideas proved more necessary, was a movement born which had strong resemblance to the French movement.” In Venturi’s view, the sense of unity among Scottish men of letters, reflected in their celebrated clubs and their efforts to undo their nation’s image as “a poor, abandoned, despised and rebellious country,” was closely connected with Scotland’s emergence as “one of the brightest centres of the European Enlightenment,” home to “a pleiad of writers such as only Paris possessed.” Social conditions and intellectual accomplishments were inseparable, and it was not coincidence that Europe’s two greatest national bodies of Enlightenment authors, the French philosophes and the Scottish literati, were the two national groups that displayed the highest degree of social cohesiveness and personal interaction.
In rejecting Venturi’s distinction between the Scottish and English Enlightenments and Venturi’s avowal of the underlying connection between the social and the intellectual spheres, Porter argues that writers in eighteenth-century Britain are best understood as “autonomous individuals,” along the lines of Karl Mannheim’s notion of a “free” (or free-floating) intelligentsia. They were free, that is, of primary connections with institutions and patrons, and “beholden to none but themselves, the public who bought their writings or subscribed to their lectures, and such cultural middlemen as publishers.” Thus, “Mannheim’s reading illuminates the British scene better than Venturi’s.” Such an approach fits with Porter’s insistence on subsuming the Scottish Enlightenment into a “British” (or, linguistically speaking, “English”) Enlightenment, consisting of all authors who lived in Britain during the eighteenth century and wrote in English on enlightened themes, with little regard for their personal and institutional connections, outlooks, and identities. To the extent that these factors are considered at all, they are dismissed as irrelevant because “English and Scottish thinkers were in constant dialogue.”
Surely this approach obscures more than it clarifies. Although Scottish and English intellectuals often interacted meaningfully during the eighteenth century, just as they interacted with men and women of letters elsewhere, there were powerful and distinct national traditions, patterns of thought, and social bonds among the Scottish literati that were often different from those that operated among their English counterparts. As we shall see, eighteenth-century Scottish men of letters were involved in a self-conscious attempt to glorify and improve the Scottish nation through the publication of learned and literary books. Even Scottish authors and publishers who resided in London were often bound by national ties and imbued with a strong sense of Scottish identity and national pride.
For Venturi, the ultimate significance of the intense social interaction that prevailed among the Scottish literati lay in its authorial payoff: the creation of “a pleiad of writers such as only Paris possessed.” This aspect of the Scottish achievement has not always been fully appreciated, even by scholars with a solid grasp of the social nature of enlightened knowledge and the distinctiveness of the Scottish scene. In his splendid study of chemistry as a “public” science in late eighteenth-century Britain, Jan Golinski contends that, in contrast with England’s scholarly arena, “credit and reputation in the Scottish academic world rested much more on teaching performance than on success as an author.” Scotland’s star academic chemists, William Cullen and Joseph Black, “did not significantly exploit the potential of the printed word,” whereas their English counterpart, Joseph Priestley, did. Restricted to the field of chemistry, Golinski’s claims may be valid. As an argument about the nature of the Enlightenment in Scotland and England, however, they are very far from the mark. Success as an author was at least as important as success in teaching for establishing the credit and reputation of Scottish professors, and Cullen himself was one of the masters at exploiting learned publishing—in his main publishing field of medicine, that is. The term “English Enlightenment” appears least problematic in regard to those topics, such as natural science and applied arts, that most interested Priestley and others in England who participated in distinct social communities of polite learning. More generally, England produced large numbers of connoisseurs and dilettantes, antiquarians and virtuosi, performers and collectors; it can plausibly be argued that they gave eighteenth-century English culture its distinctive character, and that the British Museum, which opened its doors to the public in January 1759, constituted the closest thing to an institutional embodiment of enlightened learning in London. As authors of Enlightenment books, however, the Scots far surpassed their southern neighbors. In short, Venturi was right.
Viewed from this standpoint, this work is about the disproportionately large Scottish component in Enlightenment book culture and the immense contribution of the book trade in cultivating it. It investigates how one of Europe’s smallest and poorest nations became a fountainhead of Enlightenment books. This does not mean that book publishing was the sole or even the chief factor in accounting for the Scottish Enlightenment, but it was certainly a principal factor, and a neglected one too. The development and international expansion of the Scottish Enlightenment through the power and influence of books is therefore a primary theme of this study.
As we shall see, the new books of the Scottish Enlightenment resulted from interaction and collaboration between publishers in London and Edinburgh, who contracted to publish works by Scottish authors residing in various places. But the success of the Scottish Enlightenment also owed much to the propagation of Scottish books in places far from the English and Scottish capitals. To cover this subject fully, we would need to study the massive Continental dissemination of Scottish Enlightenment books, above all in France and Germany, where translations of works by Scottish authors were plentiful, often augmented by significant new introductions, prefaces, and notes by their editors and translators. As a result of these developments, the Scottish Enlightenment exerted a powerful influence on European thought and culture, extending to nineteenth-century movements such as German Romanticism and French academic philosophy. These are important topics that require careful examination, but they involve different kinds of methodological issues and research skills. The present study is therefore limited to the spread of Scottish Enlightenment books in the English-speaking Atlantic world during the late eighteenth century, especially as a result of reprinting in Dublin and Philadelphia. In this process of diffusion, authors eventually dropped out of the picture, but commercial, technological, cultural, demographical, legal, ideological, and personal factors remained in play among those who elected to reprint Scottish Enlightenment books in Ireland and America.
Once again a dynamic, comprehensive, geographically expansive approach is needed in order to explain these occurrences—an approach that encompasses all genres of polite literature and that views the Atlantic Ocean as something more than a liquid barrier separating so many local domains of print culture. Atlantic studies have become so faddish that one commentator has recently quipped: “We are all Atlanticists now—or so it would seem from the explosion of interest in the Atlantic and the Atlantic world as subjects of study among historians.” But Atlantic studies can mean many different things, and it has also been noted that “books and articles with ‘Atlantic’ in their titles rarely connect different lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean; more often they showcase one part of that oceanic geography.” This criticism has been applied particularly to the discipline of early American history, which currently places a premium on Atlanticization but does not consistently implement it in a manner that is both sophisticated and comprehensive, and that regards the Old World as something more than a backdrop for the New. Conversely, America often appears in recent books by historians of eighteenth-century Scotland as a site of Scottish empire-building rather than as part of an intricate process of Atlantic interaction. Because it embodies immigration, diffusion, exchange, and appropriation and incorporates a broad range of historical modalities, from material to intellectual, the history of books represents one way to reconceptualize the Atlantic world and transcend the Britain–North America dichotomy. In accordance with this theme, the closing chapters of this book investigate how the Scottish Enlightenment was imported and reprinted in late eighteenth-century America, especially by Scottish booksellers in Philadelphia who followed and often emulated their precursors in Dublin. The goal is both to reveal the material foundations of the “general diffusion of knowledge” exalted in the preface to Guthrie’s Geography and to illustrate the complex, interactive manner in which American book culture was constructed.
Designs and Disclaimers
Copyright and Reading
Having indicated what this book is meant to be, I now add a few words about two important topics on which it has relatively little to say: literary property regulations and the reception and reading of books. Unlike many recent studies, this work does not view changes in copyright law as the central theme of eighteenth-century British book history. It is not difficult to see why the issue of literary property has attracted so much scholarly attention. Because the issue was contested in legal cases and paper wars, there exists a huge body of legal papers and published pamphlets that scholars can consult. Intellectual property has continued to be a vibrant issue ever since, and it therefore possesses relevance today beyond many other eighteenth-century topics: the Statute of Anne and its affirmation by the House of Lords in February 1774 are widely recognized as the starting point for modern copyright law.
Despite all this, it can be argued that overemphasis on the issue of literary property has encouraged exaggeration and misrepresentation regarding eighteenth-century British book culture. Because scholarship on this subject has often been written with what might be called an authorial bias, there has been a tendency to treat the history of copyright as the story of authors’ property rights, even though those rights were not always what legislators and judges had in mind. Authors were certainly affected by the Lords’ decision to uphold the Statute of Anne, but the position of authors was ambiguous, and it is still not completely clear how the Lords’ decision affected them. Although the bookseller-publishers who fought to establish the legal justification for perpetual copyright did what they could to recruit authors to their cause by scaring them with predictions of severe decreases in copy money if the duration of copyright were restricted by statute, their efforts met with limited success. David Hume permitted his London publishers to use his name publicly, but in private he told one of them that he did not think the elimination of perpetual copyright would be likely to have “any such bad Consequences as you mention.” By and large, Hume was correct. After the abolition of perpetual copyright in 1774, publishers paid authors as much or more for the rights to publish their new titles, perhaps because the certainty of copyright regulations mattered more than the duration of the copyright period.
A single-minded focus on problems relating to copyright has led to a preoccupation with the reprinting of old books by dead authors and a failure to appreciate the more innovative, and often more cooperative, activities of the book trade in the publication of new books. It has also inflated the role of the law in relation to that of the trade. In practice, laws were not always decisive, not only because they were sometimes evaded by means of unauthorized publishing or piracy but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the men at the top of the London book trade, like their brethren elsewhere, routinely bypassed the legal regime by establishing and enforcing regulations within the trade itself. This was the principle that the elite London publishers followed after the defeat of perpetual copyright in 1774; as James Boswell observed in 1791, “honorary copyright” continued to flourish among them, regulated by “mutual compact” rather than by law. It was based in the Chapter Coffeehouse, where participating booksellers kept a private register of copies (now, unfortunately, lost) for the express purpose of minimizing competition and conflict. In this sense, the ideology of literary property functioned as a subset of the ideology of corporate order. Moreover, sale of copyright prior to publication was only one of several publishing arrangements available to authors and publishers. For all these reasons, it seems advisable to proceed by asking not only how the law regulated literary property but also how the publication process actually worked. In this book, therefore, names such as Millar and Donaldson signify real booksellers and, beyond that, real people, rather than merely the principal parties involved in famous lawsuits about literary property.
This point leads directly to another. Exaggerating the importance of copyright law has contributed to distorting the interests, motives, and roles of publishers. The regulations governing literary property were sometimes a matter of pressing interest to the eighteenth-century British book trade, especially when the legal crisis came to a head in the early 1770s. But literary property was only one of many issues that concerned the publishers of Enlightenment books, and it should be kept in perspective. By relying more heavily on personal correspondence than on copyright pamphlets, and by focusing attention on the making of new books (as well as on their reprinting), this study attempts to present the full range of issues that engaged authors and publishers as they put the Scottish Enlightenment into print.
William St. Clair’s critically acclaimed book, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, marks the climax of the tendency to establish 1774 as the chief turning point in the history of eighteenth-century British books. Although St. Clair is chiefly interested in the expansion of reading during the early nineteenth century, eighteenth-century publishing and marketing practices constitute the foundation of his argument. St. Clair reasons that because readership depended on access to printed material, because access to printed material depended on price, and because price depended on intellectual property regulations grounded in the relationship of the book industry to the state, it follows that copyright laws were the key to the growth in reading that occurred in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Building on this formula, St. Clair paints a dismal picture of the London publishing industry during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. In his account, the refusal of the book trade to accept limits on the duration of copyright produced an era of artificially large and expensive books catering to a small number of wealthy book buyers, “as perfect a private monopoly as economic history can show.” The existence of such a monopoly dictated that books would be overpriced, with little regard to production and marketing costs, and would be reprinted in smaller sizes as the high end of the market became saturated. Although St. Clair acknowledges that this period saw “the publication of an impressive range of innovative texts” in a variety of fields and an increase in copy money paid to some authors, he believes these developments had little to do with the general reading public. The London trade employed an imposing battery of devices to restrict access to published books, including “cartel, conspiracy, price-fixing, predatory pricing, rent seeking [i.e., “the devising of imaginative means of enhancing and maintaining the monopoly”], repetitive and baseless litigation, entry barriers, market division, credit-fixing, collective refusal to deal, exclusionary joint ventures, resale price restrictions, tying, and vertical non-price constraints.” In St. Clair’s analysis, the end of this unhappy age of monopoly and “the explosion of reading” that transformed England into a “reading nation” occurred as a direct result of the House of Lords’ decision in 1774 to limit the duration of intellectual property, “the most decisive event in the history of reading in England since the arrival of printing 300 years before.” Because of that ruling, St. Clair has written elsewhere, “prices tumbled, production soared, and access widened.”
This book espouses a different interpretation, which suggests that Britain began to emerge as a “reading nation” long before 1774 and that the impact of the Lords’ copyright decision should not be exaggerated. Contemporaries such as the author of the preface to Guthrie’s Geography believed that the decades immediately preceding 1774 were dynamic and innovative from the standpoint of both the production and the dissemination of books, and their perceptions should not be dismissed hastily. It is true that during this period many learned books originally appeared in expensive quarto formats and were later reprinted in smaller and more affordable formats if they proved to be popular. But the ominous gloss that St. Clair places on this practice is unwarranted. Eighteenth-century publishers usually pitched their books, even scholarly books, to the general reading public, and most of the titles that were commercially successful among elite readers also appealed to a broader readership not only in Britain but also abroad. It is misleading to stress “the weight, price, and immobility” of books published before 1774 because huge folios had degenerated into a novelty format by the mid-eighteenth century, if not sooner; quartos were used only for certain kinds of genres and were more readable than smaller formats (an important consideration when trying to read by candlelight or without precision eyeglasses); and octavos, which were considered affordable by much of the book-buying public, had dimensions no larger than most paperback trade books today. No matter what the format and price, new books were increasingly accessible to large numbers of readers through the various kinds of libraries that were rapidly springing up throughout Britain.
If publishers were going to downsize their popular quartos within a few years anyway, what difference would it make for this practice whether they owned the copyright for fourteen years or in perpetuity? A limited copyright, after all, is a limited monopoly, no matter how long the copyright period may be. Perhaps this is why so little changed in the way that most kinds of new books were published and marketed after the Lords’ decision in 1774. In our own day, scholarly books often appear first in expensive hardcover editions for the library market and then, after a suitable time lag, in paperback editions that are priced considerably lower. But whereas price differentials between these hardbacks and paperbacks usually have little or nothing to do with the content of the editions or their production costs, in the eighteenth century a quarto first edition and an octavo second edition were very different entities (always in their paper and type, and usually in their content), and their respective prices bore some relation to differences in their costs of production.
Above all, it is necessary to apply rigorous historical methods to the study of the book trade. Why suppose that soaring book production at the end of the eighteenth century was the result of the Lords’ ruling in 1774 when the same phenomenon is evident in places not affected by that decision, such as Dublin and Philadelphia? Similarly, when like formats are compared and adjustments are made for inflation, did the prices of new British books really plummet after 1774? More empirical research is needed on this issue, but it is worth noting that contemporaries such as John Nichols complained of the growing “luxury” and expense of books during the 1780s and 1790s, and anyone who has compared book prices in the third and fourth quarters of the century will understand why. Furthermore, where is the evidence that during the third quarter of the eighteenth century the London book trade operated a “perfect” monopoly that was brought to an end by the Lords’ ruling in 1774? The list of exclusionary business practices that St. Clair attributes to the pre-1774 London trade is drawn from a discussion of monopoly in an economics textbook rather than from an examination of the actual practices of the book trade. Whatever the state of copyright law, and however monopolistic the leading London publishers wished to be, they could never realize anything approaching a perfect monopoly during the third quarter of the eighteenth century because the textbook model of monopoly was mediated by the complexities of real life—including cheap Scottish and Irish reprints, ongoing legal disputes, competition from other publishers in London, and uncertainty about the behavior of the public. Expensive books entailed significant risk on the part of publishers, whose control over copyright—whether limited or perpetual—could not assure them of profits at any price. All publishers who owned copyrights had to take expenses into account when setting prices, and they had to be prepared to produce smaller, cheaper editions in response to competition and demand. Moreover, after 1774 the leading London bookseller-publishers continued to assert their pretended right of perpetual copyright by enforcing, to the extent they were able to do so, the principle of “honorary copyright” within the trade. Thus, the Lords’ decision in 1774 was not the critical turning point that St. Clair and others have made it out to be, and the “reading nation” was not created in that year.
St. Clair is on firmer ground when he argues that a nucleus of best-selling authors from the second half of the eighteenth century formed an “old canon” that remained popular until well into Victorian times. A high proportion of the authors whom he names in this context were Scots, such as James Beattie, Hugh Blair, William Buchan, David Hume, William Robertson, Adam Smith, and Tobias Smollett. If changes in copyright law alone cannot explain the enduring popularity of the old canon and the strong Scottish representation within it, how can we account for these developments? Although this question is too large to be answered here, it is a matter of considerable importance. Publishing and reading, production and consumption, were vital components of what Robert Darnton has described as “a communications circuit that runs from the author to the publisher … , the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader.” In order to understand the Enlightenment communication circuit, we need careful historical research into the ways in which Enlightenment books were actually received.
With regard to the Scottish Enlightenment, empirical research of this kind has just begun to appear. In a series of articles and a forthcoming book, David Allan investigates the appeal of works by Scottish Enlightenment authors such as those in St. Clair’s “old canon” to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English readers, using both individual reactions (found in unpublished marginalia, commonplace books, and the like) and statistical patterns (identified through the titles listed in library inventories, sale catalogues, and similar sources). Allan is well aware of the difficulty of merging these two kinds of data into a coherent analysis of reading and reception that will answer James Raven’s call for “an approach to the history of reading that will be various enough in its methodologies and in its objects of study to establish and explore the often conflicting, contradictory ways in which general social changes and individual experience interact.” Nevertheless, efforts like these are beginning to provide an empirical foundation for understanding the attraction of the Scottish Enlightenment to several generations of English readers.
The emphasis on publishing in the present volume may be justified in other ways. Under the influence of postmodernism and its offshoot, reader-response theory, recent scholarship has so thoroughly privileged reading and reception over production that some correction is necessary. “Abandoning the Author, Transforming the Text, and Re-Orienting the Reader”—this chapter title from a book by Pauline Marie Rosenau captures the postmodern turn from authors, whose intentions and concerns are minimized, to readers, who are empowered (either individually or as part of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretative communities”) to create meaning out of texts. The postmodern abandonment of the author has also entailed an abandonment of the publisher and the entire process of book production. What Roger Chartier has called “the dialectic between imposition and appropriation”—that is, between bookmaking and reading—has been skewed to the detriment of the former, with unfortunate results for our understanding of the history of books.
At the most basic level, publishing takes precedence over reading and reception because in the eighteenth century (unlike in our modern world of electronic communication), texts that were not widely accessible in print simply could not be read by large numbers of people. The literature on scribal or manuscript books in early modern England and America supports this point: whatever social functions such writing may have served for certain women, elite families, colonists, and others, manuscript books were usually read only by small, select audiences, and they were far less prevalent in the eighteenth century (especially the late eighteenth century) than in the preceding two hundred years. The process of making and marketing books and the nature of books themselves must be recognized as crucial factors in shaping reading and reception. I am referring not only to the size and appearance of a book, its typography, and other physical attributes that directly affect the reading process; the role of these traits in the making of meaning has already received some consideration from perceptive bibliographers and historians of books. The price of a book, the number of copies printed, how it was advertised and promoted, and even the contractual arrangements between the author and the publisher, or among the copublishers, must all be taken into account, because supply-side factors such as these affected reception in various ways. As Robert Darnton has written in a slightly different context, “Our knowledge of production and distribution can compensate, to a certain extent, for the limitations of our knowledge of reception.”
As an illustration of the truth of Darnton’s statement, let us look at the following passage from a sermon titled “On Sensibility” by the Scottish Presbyterian minister Hugh Blair:
In modern times, the chief improvement of which we have to boast is a sense of humanity. This, notwithstanding the selfishness that still prevails, is the favourite and distinguishing virtue of the age. On general manners, and on several departments of society, it has had considerable influence. It has abated the spirit of persecution; it has even tempered the horrors of war; and man is now more ashamed, than he was in former ages, of acting as a savage to man. Hence, sensibility is become so reputable a quality, that the appearance of it is frequently assumed when the reality is wanting. Softness of manners must not be mistaken for true sensibility. Sensibility tends to produce gentleness of behaviour; and when such behavior flows from native affection, it is valuable and amiable. But the exterior manner alone may be learned in the school of the world; and often, too often, is found to cover much unfeeling hardness of heart.
As an assertion of fundamental Enlightenment values, this passage can be read profitably without any reference to book history. The notion of modern manners, and society as a whole, being transformed by the spread of humanity or sensibility went to the heart of the Enlightenment worldview. Civilization was by definition the product of a softening of the heart stemming from this attribute, which for Blair was grounded in Christianity; without sensibility or humanity, Blair states elsewhere in the sermon, “men would become hordes of savages, perpetually harassing one another.” The distinction between true and false humanity is another significant part of the passage, for the Enlightenment was continually grappling with the problem of affectation, or right actions not accompanied by appropriate or authentic sentiments. Blair’s aim was not only to draw attention to improvements in social and political conduct, including a lessening of “persecution” and of the brutality of warfare, but also to encourage his readers to become truly virtuous by internalizing the sentiments from which good conduct springs.
Now consider how additional information about the conditions of publication and distribution can add another dimension to the contemporary meaning of this passage. “On Sensibility” was the second sermon in the third volume of Blair’s published Sermons. When that volume appeared in 1790, Blair was already famous for having written “the most admired sermons that ever were published” and for having “obtained the highest price that ever was given for any work of the kind,” as one of his publishers put it in a pamphlet first published in the 1780s. In 1807 the Critical Review declared the complete five-volume series “the most popular work in the English language” except for the Spectator. Bibliographical evidence concerning the number of printed and published editions confirms the immense scale of circulation. The book crossed denominations, was translated into French, German, Dutch, and other European languages, and was widely excerpted, reprinted, pirated, and anthologized. The sermons were read aloud at family prayer and were borrowed by other clergymen. Aware of his status, Blair prefixed to the third volume a dedication to the queen, justified by “the favourable manner in which the Public has received Two Volumes.”
Viewed in these terms, the quoted passage may be interpreted as a self-conscious declaration of Enlightenment principles. It came from a man who was aware of having his finger firmly on the pulse of European culture, and it was directed not to the congregation of a single church but to a vast readership throughout Europe and America. Although we will never know exactly what these words meant to each person who read or heard them during the late eighteenth century, the conditions of publication and distribution allow us to make inferences about reception that carry more weight than accounts by individual readers. Blair’s preaching on humanity may seem to be an extreme case because of the special circumstances surrounding the publication and reception of the work in which it appeared. Yet the methodological principle that I have invoked it to illustrate holds true across the board: the conditions of publication and distribution can help us to recover the contemporary meaning of published books.
In these ways, I hope this study of publishing and reprinting will help to facilitate further investigations of the reading and reception of Scottish Enlightenment books by contemporaries as well as by later generations. Perhaps the postmodern formula articulated by Rosenau can be revised to represent reading as a process that commonly reflects, rather than subverts, the work of publication by authors and publishers. The new slogan might be: “Revitalizing the Author and the Publisher, Re-Situating the Text within the Book, and Re-Orienting the Reader.”