Joseph Johnson: Webmaster

By Gaull, Marilyn | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Joseph Johnson: Webmaster


Gaull, Marilyn, Wordsworth Circle


Over forty-eight years, Joseph Johnson published and marketed 2700 books or fifty-six books a year, 1242 in the stormy 1790's alone, as Leslie Chard observed in "Joseph Johnson in the 1790s" (TWC, XXXIII:3 [summer, 2002]100) He read few of them, edited even fewer, and, except for one recently discovered letter book, left almost no record of his thoughts, dealings, motivations, humor, character, conversations, connections. However successfully he gathered authors, fed them, introduced them to a community, inspired admiration and even affection in some, he was not social himself, and, according to some of his authors, even those most indebted to him, he was demanding, critical, remote, austere, abrasive, withdrawn, laconic (common terms authors apply to publishers). And, except for a remark to Barlow that he would not "hang" for him (which may be apocryphal), he said little quotable to my knowledge. Still, because of his association with famous and successful authors, he has always been an appealing subject--the topic of four panels in only ten years.

In 1998, at Strawberry Hill, in a combined meeting of BARS and NASSR, Kenneth Johnston assembled a panel on Joseph Johnson, the papers were published in ER. In 2001, the Wordsworth-Coleridge Association sponsored two panels on Joseph Johnson at the Modern Language Association in New Orleans--where the MLA had gone to heal after 9/11, and before that healing place was destroyed by a hurricane Katrina. The time and the place, like Johnson's, were perilous, but the papers were exceptional, the authors among the best, ranging, diverse, provocative, published in a special issue of The Wordsworth Circle XXXIII:3 (Summer, 2002), and soon out of print (but available on line through various search engines). Every essay opened a new line of inquiry. It began with Nicola Trott's keynote address, "Framing Romanticism," an exploration of the idea of "frame" in the evolution of Romanticism itself and concluded with Seamus Perry's "In Praise of Puny Boundaries," considering the various ways that the Johnson's circle, its "coherence and incoherence" overcome the "puny boundaries, " the "imponderables" of literary classification. In "Continental Literature, Translation and the Johnson Circle" Angela Esterhammer conveyed how Johnson's translations and reviews, his dissemination in Europe of his various publications made him a catalyst, a mediary, an ambassador in British and European intellectual life. In the 1790's alone, according to Chard, Johnson published fifty-three books in French, German, Italian, Spanish, twenty in Latin, and 110 translated from French, German, Latin and Greek into English (100).

In "William Godwin and the Joseph Johnson Circle: The Evidence of the Diaries," Beth Lau recovered from Godwin's unpublished diary an image of Johnson as caring, altruistic, and sociable, and named dozens of people Godwin identifies as attending Johnson's dinners--suggesting here that more information about Johnson lay in unpublished, un-found, unread diaries of what are often considered peripheral figures. Laura Mandell in "Johnson's Lessons for Men; Producing the Professional Woman Writer" identifies Johnson's contributions to education through text books by women such as Anna Letitia Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer, and Maria Edgeworth, published for women who were responsible for educating the young, and how his practice in turn influenced other publishers. Alan Richardson, "Erasmus Darwin and the Fungus School" highlights Johnson's contributions to the literature of science, radical science, focusing on Erasmus Darwin whose Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life, which Johnson published in 1794-96, "had an impact on the scientific, philosophical and literary culture of the era that has yet to be fully grasped." Debbie Lee's "Johnson. Stedman, Blake and the Monkeys" identifies Blake's subtle contributions to the works that Johnson engaged him to illustrate, in this case, the "mock-mimicry" of sixteen engravings for John Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. …

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