a few questions about Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book

I’m still working on my post on chapters one and two, but in the meantime I wanted to throw out a few opening questions in response to Eleanor’s overview of the book and its aims.  I know Rick will be chiming in at some point, but I’m hoping that others might be interested, as well:

  • from the perspective of  literary studies (as opposed to book history), the biggest surprise is the active, entrepeneurial, and editorial role of the publishers detailed here, particularly figures like Strahan and Creech, who tend to disappear when treated alongside the better-known authors they published.  We get a sense of the deliberations they made (individually and collectively), the pressures they were under, and the costs (literal and figurative) of the decisions they arrived at.  This model of author-publisher collaboration seems indispensable to me, because it can illuminate aspects of both production and reception, but where are its limits?  And how might it revise otherwise over-idealized accounts of the author in isolation, as literature, intellectual history, and certainly philosophy tend to do?  In other words, what, besides the outward form of the commodity, do the books in those appendices share?
  • if we are talking about this period’s “print capitalism” (Anderson), so to speak, can we say that there is such a thing as an Enlightenment theory of the “organization,” or better yet, “firm”?  In other words, to what extent does the ability of author-publisher collectives to work outside established institutions help them respond creatively to the demands of an amorphous, indeterminate public?  And to what extent does this model of transnational diffusion work against the nationalist histories of print?
  • it seems to me that any story of modernization and economic development in a specific time and place tends to feature both winners and losers.  So who are the losers in this story of modernization in Edinburgh and more generally, Scotland?  This seems to me to be what’s at stake in the debates over the status of Fergusson, Macpherson, and Burns, for example.



8 responses to “a few questions about Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book

  1. Eleanor Shevlin


    So sorry to be chiming in so late. Your first two points particularly interest me.

    In the first point, when you ask “where are the limits of the model of authorship based on author-publisher collaborations, I am not sure exactly what you are asking. Is your question directed towards the limitations of this model for use in literary studies, philosophy, or intellectual history? Or are you questioning how far this model can be taken before it reverts to an idealized conception that creates a distortion akin to the idealized model of the isolated, highly individualistic genius? This latter portrayal of the author as unique/genius/individualistic emerges in aesthetic constructions of authorship and serves to advance certain agendas in this realm. The “genius” model as also crossed over and intersected with the legal realm and has served at times (as David Saunders has argued) to create distortions in historical interpretations of the legal construction of authorship in the eighteenth century. Your question (or my response) also seems related to questions of genres and/or disciplinary values/interests. Just as Sher points out that book historians have relied too much on English literature to the exclusion of other kinds of texts, Saunders sees aesthetic views of authorship rooted in the figure of the literary author clouding our understanding of how the law constructed the author in the eighteenth century. Like a Venn diagram the various realms in which authorship have been constructed all have overlaps with one another at certain points, but the realms also have self-enclosed areas.

    Moreover, I wonder if Sher, rather than constructing a “model” of authorship, is instead recuperating practices that have been obscured and distorted by later historical accounts of eighteenth-century relationships between authors and booksellers. If we view his account as revealing actual practices, then we might assess these practices against the theories of authorship that have been constructed. To your follow-up question about how Sher’s account might revise, say, literary studies, it seems that it might encourage approaching aesthetic constructions of the author-as-isolated-genius from the perspective of the use-value of such a construction. This particular view of the author is intertwined with notions of “art” and “genius” as incompatible with commercial concerns and success–and these notions have deep roots and arguably existed in different forms and expressions before they assumed their character as products of Romanticism.

    My own work on less well-known London publishers has uncovered similar patterns of collaborative habits as well as tensions and ruptures. In addition, my research has taught me again and again that many received “facts” are actually errors and misconceptions once they are inspected against archival records.

    As for your third question, the book is at once both a commodity and a conveyer of ideas; it is the material incarnation of the abstract, of human thought. While the two realms overlap–the book’s form affects its meaning (think of Beattie’s comments, quoted in chapter 3, about the histories in quarto, “the octavo philosophers”)–but they also have independent existences. Saying this is no doubt stating the obvious and does not truly address your question about what the books in the appendices share beyond their status as commodities. What I gather you are asking is how does our understanding of the commercial forces that produce the books listed in the appendices affect our view of the relationship of what these works share beyond their status as commodities, right? In other words, the “so-what” question. Sher’s discussion of Blair’s second sermon (32-34) in which he contrasts its interpretation with and without a book history frame aims at illustrating what is gained in general–insights about reception, about “the contemporary meaning of these published books” (34). Your interest in generic systems and hierarchies you noted previously seems very relevant here.

    • Eleanor Shevlin

      As for Dave’s second bullet point, he again raises very interesting questions. Yet I am not sure how much I see these author-bookseller collectives working “outside established institutions.” Rather publishing is itself an established institution, but like other institutions, it was also subject to transformations–at this time, these changes included the integration of the author as a more active and acknowledged participant in the commercial practices and operations of publishing. In responding to the demands of the “public” (be that “public” defined as one or all of Sher’s three connotations–the reading public, the purchasers, or public opinion), these collectives also helped shape those demands. One possible way to consider concretely how these collectives/publishers engaged with the public is through newspapers, particularly the way they advertised works. Additionally, it is perhaps useful to remember that authors and publishers were also readers and members of the public.

      Moreover, the Enlightenment and the book trade were engaged in their own dialectical exchange that extended arguably beyond the role of the book in the spread of ideas to the book itself. Changes in the physical features and appearance of eighteenth–century books were driven largely by Enlightenment principles and commercial transformations. An interest in scientific experimentation, the systematization of knowledge, progress and perfection fuelled efforts to improve production technologies and enhance the functional appearance and aesthetic appeal of books and other printed matter. Marketplace pressures similarly spurred attempts to discover more efficient and cost–effective means of production.

      As “to what extent this model of transnational diffusion works against the nationalist histories of print,” this question is timely. From the first emergence of book history as a recognizable field, the “book” was recognized as inherently an international product that required an international approach. Yet despite many calls for international approaches, efforts instead were directed at creating national histories. Yet, even as these histories were being written, the calls for international work continued. That efforts have been directed at the national level probably can be attributed to a number of reasons. One is the problem of translation that Sher notes in his introduction. Also, given the newness of the field, scholars probably operated under the slogan think globally/act locally as a way to start the process. Also, there were problems with developing methodologies–and Sher’s work offers one advance on that front.

  2. Thank you Dave and Eleanor for sussing out these issues. You were quite comprehensive in your replies, Eleanor, so I will deal with one point that I don’t think you addressed: who are the losers in this account? I would say that the producers (and consumers) of ephemeral print are the losers. Like St. Clair (and many others) before him, Sher focuses on the book at the expense of other print forms, such as review magazines but even more so plebeian forms like the chapbook. In my own work I feel the need to recuperate this history of the losers in print culture. At the very least I think we need to see ephemeral print as the Other that helped defined book print.

    Joseph Byrne

    • Eleanor Shevlin


      I indeed did not address this question that Dave posed, so I am glad you did. And your positing that the producers of ephemera were the losers merits definite consideration. (Stephen Brown also faults Sher’s work for its neglect of ephemera, pamphlets, etc. in his PBSA review).

      Yet, while these producers (or their products) are often the “losers” in book history accounts (that is, the lack of attention they have received). Their neglect, however, has definitely been changing–attention to periodicals, for one, has garnered much interest over the past decade or so and can boost their own scholarly societies and journals. These producers–the Diceys come to mind–were not always financial losers by any means.

      Yet, while I could definitely see a place for pamphlets here, I am not sure the relevancy of ephemera, cheap print, and job printing to Sher’s study, especially given its focus on author-bookseller relationships. My uncertainty about its pertinence stems, in part because of the anonymity of ephemera, chapbooks and similar productions–and even their lack of an author per se (for example, handbills, notices, and the like). Moreover, while the role of ephemera/job printing has received increasing attention in terms of its significance to understanding the whole spectrum of print culture, ephemera/job printing’s economic/financial importance (these forms of print kept the presses busy, provided cash flow, etc.), rested primarily with printers. While publishers, as Sher also notes, were also often performing other roles in the trade, fewer doubled as printers: publishers were more typically booksellers. (There are many exceptions to this claim, of course. The numbers publisher on whom much of my work focuses, for instance, was not only a publisher, bookseller, editor, and author (poetry, fiction writer, song lyricist), but also a printer.)

      Based on your work with chapbooks, how might these forms be integrated into this account of the Scottish Enlightenment? And/or what is the fall-out created from their absence here?

      That said, I am quite sympathetic to your point in the larger scheme of things. My own work is very much involved in periodicals and numbers publishing–and numbers publishing in particular has suffered from neglect and misconceptions. I can also say that the recovery work here can be extremely arduous. Not surprisingly, the records of many now neglected (not to mention the documents of those who were perceived as minor at the time) publishers, booksellers, printers have been lost or not survived (so much for London was destroyed in the WWII bombings).

  3. Eleanor, forgive my ignorance, but what’s a numbers publisher?

  4. Eleanor Shevlin

    Sorry, Dave, I should have glossed. A “numbers publisher” is a publisher who issues works in parts or “numbers”. In the case of Harrison these parts or numbers were issued weekly for some titles, monthly for others. Many of his titles included the word “magazine,” but these publications were not really magazines at all in the modern sense of the word.

    I am focusing on James Harrison at 18 Paternoster Row, and next door to him was John and then Charles Cooke at no. 17, with Alexander Hogg having a shop adjacent to Cooke’s at no. 16. These men have all been lumped together as “Paternoster Row Numbers Publishers.” Yet when one begins to really examine their operations, there are significant differences separating them.

  5. I agree that a discussion of ephemera in Sher’s book may not have been in order. For the same reason I hold my fire on St. Clair (him again!) for also slighting emphemera: he had his hands full just with books, and there really is not enough material evidence, not enough ephemera preserved, to give it the kind of work both he and Sher (and other scholars such as yourselves, Eleanor and Dave) do with books.

    As for integrating chapbooks into a discussion of the Scottish Enlightenment, I’m not sure it can be done, since chapbooks (in Britain anyway) represented a shadowy yet carnivalesque (and largely plebeian) Other to the (largely bourgeois) and Enlightenment-serving book trade. Besides, I’m still trying to figure this dialectic in England. Once I do, I can move on to Scotland and Ireland.

    Eleanor, your work with numbers publishing sounds very interesting. And as for Paternoster Row–I’m still working my way out of St. Paul’s Churchyard!

  6. Eleanor Shevlin

    Harrison’s use of numbers publishing placed his works in a border zone that straddled the periodical and the book–so theoretically he offers some rich opportunities (I am looking at everything he produced–including ephemera that has survived there are very, very few financial records that I have uncovered, but copyright suits as well as other sources that I have dug out at obscure local record offices provide enough for me to work with). Newspapers have been extremely important to my work. His first partner for 7 years had an upholstery shop in St. Paul’s Churchyard which he sold before entering into a very, very silent partnership with Harrison. His later partner also had a shop in St. Paul’s–he was a hairdresser. He actually has been associated primarily with cheap print and that’s one reason little attention has been paid to him. Thomas Stothard, William Blake (the Blake), James Heath and, later, all worked for him early in their careers. After a bankruptcy, a subsequent rival of his business, and then closing of the resurrected firm, he continued as a writer and editor. Indeed, he is the same James Harrison that acted as Lady Emma Hamilton’s spin-doctor by writing a biography of Lord Nelson aimed at securing Hamilton a pension.

    My question about chapbooks wasn’t meant to be a trick question at all (so please don’t take it that way) but I asked because I actually saw this “genre” as well as ephemera and other non-book forms (with the possible exception of pamphlets) as being ill-suited to Sher’s goals.