Carlyle at His Zenith (1848-53)

By David Alec Wilson | Go to book overview

XIII
CHEAP BOOKS, &c. (1852)

ONE of the literary excitements this summer was a row among the booksellers. According to Carlyle's private letters,1 the 'little' booksellers were willing to do business for a profit of 15 per cent or 10 per cent of the price, while the 'big booksellers insist on taking from 45 to 60 per cent of the sale price for the mere act of selling any new book.'

Carlyle sympathised with the 'little' booksellers, and did not conceal his opinion, and when the debate was ending he was thus writing to one of them, Robert Chambers, who became a 'big' one in the end, but was always more an author than a publisher, and wrote many good books, besides being the author "anon" of the book which in 1844 anticipated Darwin, 'The Vestiges of Creation.' He had been calling on Carlyle lately, and the letter was to enquire where to see a certain old ballad, but went on:--'The Paternoster Row Grandees have received their quietus much more speedily than could have been expected; and must feel rather absurd, one would think, under this new aspect of affairs! There is likely to be a great cheapening of books by and by, and an immense increase of reading in consequence,--which, if it were certain that we should get truth and sense to read, or if it were all one (as it is to a dreadful degree all two) whether we read sense and truth or falsity and nonsense, would be an indisputable benefit for mankind! Anyhow, we must try it; and then see what next.'

Carlyle did not like the Vestiges, the authorship of which he would know before now. Like many another teacher by trade, he was too keenly conscious how prone men are to

____________________
1

Unpublished. The letter to Robert Chambers here quoted was dated 27.5.52, and is taken from a copy transcribed from the original MS. by C. E. S. Chambers, a grandson of the addressee, Dr. Chambers.

-414-

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