Authors Unformed: Reading "Beauties" in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

AVAILABLE IN A RANGE OF FORMATS, from palm-sized octodecimos to octavos, compilations of exemplary "beauties" in prose or verse made ideal gift books in the eighteenth century; each volume was an edificatory vade mecum and together they formed an affordable library of compact classics. The Beauties of Shakespeare, first edited by the Reverend William Dodd in 1752, ran to thirty-nine editions by 1893, and volumes of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson in different series were especial favorites throughout the Anglophone world over many decades. (1) After Dodd, the London-based bookseller George Kearsley capitalized on the demand for such collections. He began with the largely unsuccessful The Beauties of Biography (1777) and moved onto new selections of Shakespeare around 1780, various bestselling editions of Johnson and Swift, among others, and finally Pope in 1783 (with further remolding throughout the 1790s). Through a close examination of the material conditions of these collections in this essay, I hope to illuminate certain anxieties surrounding authorship and readership that lay buried within a larger history of the role of the anthology in the dissemination of vernacular literature. Recent scholarship has substantially advanced our understanding of the privileged role of the reader in the shaping of normative English canons in the eighteenth century. As a rejoinder, the present study explores the shifting figuration, and disfiguration, of the author amid what was perceived to be a fraught capital exchange between the purveyors and consumers of literary value in print. (2) In attending to literary biography and textual appropriation more particularly, this essay offers a cross-genre corollary to Barbara M. Benedict's indispensable treatment of multiple authorship and communality in anthologies and miscellanies. (3)

Beauties collections emerged from longstanding anthological genres, principally the miscellany, even though Benedict has drawn a clear line between them: "Whereas miscellanies advertise light, humorous, and flesh works, Beauties promise quality: the best pieces by the best authors. Miscellanies boast of their novelty; Beauties vend the vetted and the venerable." (4) These are logical and, for the most part, highly useful distinctions. To be sure, many eminent figures, both ancient and modern, front their own monument-like volumes. In no small way this lends credence to the scholarly truism that as print culture expanded authors became increasingly visible proprietors of their own corpora, in name at least, even if booksellers retained their copyrights? However, the Beauties format has never been limited to canonical, popular, or otherwise salable writers, or even to imaginative works. Aside from fine literature, themes range from the voyages of Captain Cook to the political speeches of Burke, and also include the Bible, music, numismatics, biography, topography, art, and even botany. Evidently such selections were geared towards the demands of an ever-expanding readership eager for a broad range of materials that fortified private pleasure with a polite education. Readers, not authors, were the chief clients of what is outwardly an author-focused format. "The author has virtually disappeared from the presentation of his texts," as Benedict notes of the late-eighteenth-century miscellany more generally; "the reader now 'takes' the text as he wills where once he took it as the author's lesson." (6) Readers will often look into, "and be tempted to go on" Dr. Johnson said of The Beauties of Watts, when they otherwise "would have been frightened at books of a larger size and of a more erudite appearance." (7) In their modernist-era critique of anthologies, Laura Riding and Robert Graves dismissed Beauties, over-earnestly, as "nothing more ambitious than introductions to the complete works of the poets they included." (8)

Broadly speaking, Beauties are not merely containers of what Riding and Graves call "star passages" for their own sake but, as I wish to stress, are rather repositories of worthy lives and works that conformed to the dominant Horation principle of utile dulci and from which readers were expected to draw a moral example? …


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