Without Regard to Good Manners: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart, 1743-1786

Without Regard to Good Manners: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart, 1743-1786

Without Regard to Good Manners: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart, 1743-1786

Without Regard to Good Manners: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart, 1743-1786

Excerpt

Who is that Drawcansir?

Why Sir, a fierce Hero, that . . . does what he will, without regard to good manners, justice, or numbers.

George Villiers, The Rehearsal (London,1672), IV, i

When Gilbert Stuart is mentioned it is most often unfavourably. Typical of the dismissive regard with which he has been held is Austin Alhbone's remark in the Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1870) that 'more than most readers will care to know about such a sot, grumbler, scold and literary Ishmaelite will be found in the authorities cited below'. In the Calamities of Authors (1812) Isaac D'Israeli described him as a 'literary assassin' who 'derived the last consolations of fife from an obscure corner of a Burton alehouse' and added no more favourably that 'his historical works possess the show, without the solidity, of research'. More recently Ernest Mossner, the biographer of David Hume, characterised Stuart as a 'malevolent genius' who 'hated everything Scottish and endeavoured to work off his literary spleen through literary vituperation'. These men have exposed one side of Stuart's life and writings, but in doing so they have obscured other more important ones.

Rather than defend him from the aspersions of critics, I intend to examine the conditions which contributed to his development. Stuart's life is characterised more by his encounters, adventures and difficulties than by his ideas and innovations. The intensity of his polemics has tended to obscure the issues on which they were based. Stuart fought against adversaries whom he had little hope of defeating, yet he persisted in the belief that his principles were just and he could overcome anything. William Godwin, the author of An Enquiry concerning Political justice (1793), was one of the few who publicly defended the integrity of Stuart's creed. Shortly after . . .

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