chapter 1: nationalism and the book?

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.


3 responses to “chapter 1: nationalism and the book?

  1. Dave,

    Thank you for this summary. I’m curious to see the chapter now for Sher’s treatment of Hume. From what you describe, it seems that the value of his study is in showing the contradictions between the projected image of writers like Hume and their actual negotiations with the marketplace. Fascinating.

    I haven’t seen the appendices but I trust they are very helpful. What you say about Sher’s appendices would seem to apply to St. Clair’s appendices in Reading Nation: we may be making use of the stats long after some of his arguments have been refuted or built upon by others (such as Sher).

  2. It may seem dismissive of the book to praise the material collected in the appendices, but what I’m hoping is clear is that Sher did a tremendous job creating a representative sample of authors as a group or class, which permitted him to look beyond individual biographies towards sociological commonalties of profession, region, etc.

    The only question that I would have is whether Sher ends up endorsing the collective self-image of the Enlightenment authors, by extending it to publishers, rather than exploring the divergent interests involved in those collaborations. This is one of the reasons why I was interested in the “losers,” because there had to be people left outside these circles who did not share in their successes. What could those people tell us about the Enlightenment, too?

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    Many, many people have praised St. Clair’s work for its appendices –and despite their clear emphasis on these supporting documents, I don’t think they were necessarily intending to be dismissive of the body of the work.

    If my memory of the Sher reviews I have read serves me correctly, the appendices are praised but most reviewers focus on other issues. (I did not view your comments, Dave, as giving short shrift by any means to the work as a whole.)

    I actually thought your question about “losers” was aimed at those who were left on the outside. But I did not address your query because I did not have even a speculative answer. Some authors emerge in the third chapter who did meet with disappointment– Thomas Sommerville is a ready example (250-251) –and they were indeed aiming to be in this circle. Sher’s account indicates that the situation for Scottish authors was not the breeding ground for losers as, say, France seemed to be (of course, *very* different sociocultural and political contexts at work here). In Scotland the opportunities existed for talent to be recognized and rewarded; publishers, while at times no doubt acting as gatekeepers, also facilitated the opportunities to test the marketplace.

    At the same time, I would also think that there were others who had different concerns, interests, and motivations and did not aspire to be a part of this world view or who simply were operating under different tenets and interests. In the introduction Sher provides a long list of values associated with his definition of the Enlightenment, but as broad and flexible as that list may be, it still leaves room for other principles or concerns. I also wonder if those who were on the periphery of the “circle” or even outside it but who strove to enter this realm would have felt some vicarious sense of belonging because they too were Scottish. Still, I think your question about what these “others” –no matter where they stand or what their orientation might be–could tell us about the Enlightenment merits asking.

    I see Sher pursuing and detailing divergent interests at work in author-bookseller collaborations–and not shying away from the fall-outs and resentments that did arise. Perhaps because I associate “sociological” with a focus on the institution foremost and less so on individuals (admittedly I am perhaps too reductive in doing so), I see SHer providing a more sociohistorial account. In other words, as opposed to a sociological study that examines and privileges the trade as an institution over specific author-publisher configurations (I am not suggesting this is what you, Dave, are saying Sher does–rather this formulation stems from my connotations of the “sociological”), I see Sher constructing a sociohistorial portrait of multiple individuals and practices operating within the book trade as an institution and then presenting the sum of those parts as a collective portrait.