The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America

By Richard B. Sher | Go to book overview

3
The Rewards of Authorship

PATRONS, PUBLISHERS, AND PLACES

Publishers as Patrons

In a famous passage in the Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell expresses sorrow that Johnson received only £1,575 for his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, from which he had to pay his staff of editorial assistants and support himself for almost a decade. “I am sorry too,” Johnson replies. “But it was very well. The booksellers are generous liberal-minded men.” Boswell then elaborates upon Johnson's ideas about booksellers: “He, upon all occasions, did ample justice to their character in this respect. He considered them as the patrons of literature; and, indeed, although they have eventually been considerable gainers by his Dictionary, it is to them that we owe its having been undertaken and carried through at the risk of great expence, for they were not absolutely sure of being indemnified” (BLJ, 1:304–5). In an age when patronage often defined power, Boswell's attribution to Johnson of the view that booksellers were “the patrons of literature” was significant. It was an assertion that publishers constituted the driving force behind serious writing—an assertion borne out in this particular case by the evidence of Johnson's own career as a writer who regularly responded to commissions from booksellers.

This passage occurs at the end of a long section on the making of the Dictionary, and it must be understood within that context. Early in the section Boswell reproduces Johnson's caustic letter to Lord Chesterfield of 7 February 1755, in which Johnson spurns the earl's pretense of patronage on the eve of publication by pointing out that when he was struggling to complete his work and badly in need of support, his supposed patron

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