The Literary Scene



IN the background were newspapers, magazines, publishers, circulating libraries, theaters, all multiplying recklessly, bringing to an ever wider public the conflicts of parties and talents. Several journals were now born: The Literary Magazine and The Critical Review in 1756, The Public Ledger in 1760. Johnson’s Rambler began in 1750; The Gentleman’s Magazine, which fed Johnson in his struggling years, had begun in 1731, and was to survive till 1922. The London newspapers doubled their number and total circulation in this period. The Monitor began in 1755, The North Briton in 1761, The Morning Chronicle in 1769, The Morning Herald in 1780, The Daily Universal Register in 1785, becoming The Times in 1788. The Public Advertiser struck gold in the letters of Junius; its circulation rose from 47,500 to 84,000. Most of the other dailies subsisted on narrow clienteles; so the circulation of The Times in 1795 was only 4,800. They were more modest in size than in speech—usually four pages, one of which was given to advertisements. Johnson in 1759 thought that newspaper advertising had reached its limit.

Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promise, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic. … The vendor of the beautifying fluid sells a lotion that repels pimples, washes away freckles, smooths the skin, and plumps the flesh. … The trade of advertising is now so near perfection that it is not easy to propose any improvement. But as every art ought to be exercised in due subordination to the public good, I cannot but propose it as a moral question to these masters of the public ear, whether they do not sometimes play too wantonly with our passions?1

Printers, booksellers, and publishers were still largely confused in one profession. Robert Dodsley had published Pope and Chesterfield, and now printed Walpole and Goldsmith. Thomas Davies had a popular bookshop, where he allowed leisurely browsing, and Johnson and others came there to sample the books and ogle the pretty wife. William Strahan won fame by publishing Johnson’s Dictionary, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire— the latter two in the annus mirabilis1776. Oxford established the Clarendon Press in 1781. Booksellers paid well for good books, but could get hacks to prepare articles and compilations for a pittance. Says a bookseller in Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality (1766): “I can get one of these gentlemen, … on whose education more money has been spent than … would maintain a decent family to the end of the world—I can get one of them to labor like a hackney horse from morning to night at less wage than I could hire … a porter or shoeboy for three hours.”2Authors multiplied to saturation of the market, fought desperately for their starveling share, and satirized one another with poisoned ink. Women added to the competition: Mrs. Anna Barbauld, Sarah Fielding, Mrs. Amelia Opie, Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, Fanny Burney, Hannah More. A country parson entered the game and walked away with the prize.

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