As I’ve been reading Sher’s account, one of the more intriguing stories that has emerged is the manner in which the books published by the Scottish Enlightenment writers served as a kind of literary monument to the movement itself, fostering Scottish national pride and bolstering Scottish identity. This is as true of the self-conceptions of men of letters like Hume as it is in the belligerent and defensive responses of English writers like Johnson or Walpole.
Yet thinking about the Scottish Enlightenment in this manner immediately takes us to the paradoxes of Scottish “nationalism,” which freely surrenders its claims to an autonomous state in order to secure access to British trade and a more expansive British identity. So Hume reminds Gilbert Elliot that the Scots may not have a sovereign kingdom or their own Parliament, but they were still “the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe” (43). And even if this statement was not strictly true when written in 1757, it was certainly true within a few decades. So one of the stories featured here is about Scottish culture, Scottish literature, and literary reputation generally as a form of compensation–what Scottish elites strove for and received instead of political representation at this time.
In my view, Chapter one’s most memorable moment remains its analysis of Hume’s carefully cultivated self-image as a British man of “polite letters,” even while the famously skeptical philosopher fended off clerical enemies at home and bigoted xenophobes in England, to win some degree of comfort and respectability in spite their efforts. This idealized self-portrait of Hume as “jolly bon vivant” and “calm, contented philosopher,” is, as Sher points out, completely at odds with the “demanding, anxiety-ridden and sometimes accusatory” picture of the man we find negotiating with his publishers in correspondence (55). (Though I suspect that none of us are at our best when dealing with publishers)
I was also interested to see how much this impulse toward self-fashioning drove Hume to repackage his earlier writings in subsequent editions, to choose particular genres (the essay) to draw the attention of a wider public, and even to orchestrate the reception of his first posthumous edition with “some small addition” from his friend Adam Smith (55). So just as Hume laboriously constructed what amounted to a textual memorial to his own literary career, the writers and publishers of the Scottish Enlightenment, beginning with the friends and editors of Francis Hutcheson’s posthumous System of Moral Philosophy (1755), fashioned the books that would monumentalize their own achievements, and help to advance the reputation of Scotland as well.
The second portion of chapter one lays out what I suspect will be one of the more lasting contributions of Sher’s study, which is his very useful table of Enlightenment authors and books contained in the appendices. Sher explains his choices, details the range of formats, subjects, and print runs for his group of texts, and talks a little about the range in popularity between the absolute best sellers (about 13% of the titles) and those at the other end of his list. It is the sheer impact of all these books, produced and sold one after another over all these decades, that allows Sher to conclude that “books were the basic building blocks of the Enlightenment, an edifice erected one block at a time.” This superbly managed collective endeavor calls to mind a similarly impressive architectural feat of this era, the building of the New Town of Edinburgh, which helped to announce to the world (and to England) the modernity and collective intelligence of its inhabitants.