Joseph Johnson

By Cox, Jeffrey N.; Galperin, William | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Joseph Johnson


Cox, Jeffrey N., Galperin, William, Wordsworth Circle


At the 124th Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, the Division on the English Romantic Period offered three panels. The first, organized by William Galperin, took up "The Romantic Event"; the second, with Saree Makdisi presiding, discussed "Romanticism, Empire, and the Global." The third, simply titled "Joseph Johnson," might seem by comparison to be quaint even parochial in its focus on a single individual, and not a "major" figure at that. The three papers presented on the panel demonstrated that "Joseph Johnson" designates not so much a particular person as a circle and a network and that this circle was very much involved in the events of the Romantic period--including the important events of publishing books--and it was connected into a wide world marked by imperialism and the stresses of globalization. These three papers reveal the rich insights to be gleaned by studying the Romantic period not from the perspective of an isolated genius or from the godlike perspective of the universal but from the middle-space of human communities and collective human action.

While Joseph Johnson was once considered a minor figure, he has become significant in the lives of canonical writers and as Romanticists have come to appreciate the importance of circles, coteries, and other gatherings of writers, artists, and intellectuals. Biographies such as that of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin or of William Wordsworth by Kenneth Johnston demonstrated the key role Johnson played in the development of these authors. Special sessions at conferences and special issues of journals such as The Wordsworth Circle have focused attention on the extended Johnson circle. In 2003, Helen Braithwaite published Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty, the first full length study of Johnson since Gerald Tyson's 1979 biography. The Johnson circle (or, really, circles, as Leslie Chard says) has become a key site--similar to the Lake School or the Cockney School to Holland House or the London theaters--for the investigation of the collective project that has become Romanticism.

While much debate has centered on placing him politically and religiously. Johnson appears eclectic in his interests and tastes. Himself a Unitarian, he worked closely with Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews as well as atheists. A religious man, he published some of the most advanced work in science and medicine. He was in the best sense of the word "liberal," open-minded and open to change, generous and committed to the pursuit of those arts and sciences "worthy of a free man" (OED). Joseph Johnson as a bookseller published some of the most pedestrian as well as some of the most striking works of his day; Johnson's publishing house was a force in disseminating the doctrines of religious dissent as well as the ideals of the Enlightenment and of advanced science; many of his authors wrote against the slave trade, and, in the 1790s, members of his circle offered intellectual support for political change, as Johnson published controversial responses to Burke's Reflections.

As a host, he gathered an astonishing group of artists and intellectuals who met to chat or take supper in his bookshop in St. Paul's Churchyard, where, according to Leslie Chard (BPNY, 1975) they ate "boiled cod, veal, vegetables, rice pudding, and wine under the brooding image of ... 'The Nightmare'" painted by Henry Fuseli. Gathering regularly at Johnson's were Fuseli, the Catholic Biblical scholar Alexander Geddes, John Horne Tooke, the philologist and radical organizer, the religious controversialist Gilbert Wakefield, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Sometime members included William Blake, Thomas Paine, and later in the 1790s. William Godwin. As the papers presented on the panel and published in this issue of TWC indicate. Johnson's network was extensive and intricate. While his London shop was a site of cultural production, his network moved out from the capital through ever widening connections.

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