summary of chapter 6 of richard sher’s enlightenment and the book

As Dave mentioned in his blog entry concerning chapter 3 of Sher’s book, chapter 6 on William Creech is more descriptive than argumentative. Sher’s thesis for the chapter is fairly straightforward. He contends that Creech’s relationship to the London publishers Strahan and Cadell was not deferential and slavish, as some of Creech’s critics would have it, but rather a partnership that allowed Creech to forward the agenda of the Enlightenment. Sher goes on to argue that the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable, one of Creech’s major critics, had his own agenda in downplaying Creech’s contribution and touting his own accomplishments. Namely, Constable was somewhat ashamed of his humble beginnings, and anxious about his own legacy. He was right to be anxious in that Constable is perhaps best known for the spectacular failure of his business in 1826.

As is hinted at above, issues of class come into play when discussing rivalries between publishers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unlike Constable, according to Constable, Creech “had all the advantages of a privileged education, extensive connections with eminent booksellers [such as Kincaid, Strahan, and Cadell] who greased his path to the top, and much experience in London and on the Continent” (435). Creech was mistrusted by some because it was thought that he put on airs, and pretended to a distinction that he had not earned. Or as Sher puts it, Creech was “sometimes resented by booksellers and men of letters alike for blurring the distinction between them” (404). Of course, a major component of Sher’s thesis is that such distinctions were regularly blurred in the eighteenth century, as the patron was replaced by the publishing entrepreneur and many ad hoc relationships between authors and publishers were established and then replaced by something else, another temporary fix, until new factors arose to call forth new arrangements. But it is exactly this instability that makes print culture in this period so interesting. It certainly gives us something to think and write about as we make our attempts to publish our own print projects!

There are a lot of “juicy bits” in the chapter in terms of behind-the-scenes maneuvering between publishers. First we have Strahan conniving with Creech to get Alexander Kincaid to dump John Bell in favor of Creech (which, eventually, Kincaid did, making Creech’s career). Then we have Creech secretly siding with his London colleagues when the issue of perpetual copyright was debated around the time of the Donaldson decision in 1774. Strahan and Cadell, and the rest of the publishers in London, supported perpetual copyright which Scots publishers like John Bell and John Murray were dead-set against, since it undermined their profits based on reprints. Sher also spends some time discussing Creech’s conflicted relationship with Sir John Sinclair, editor of the massive The Statistical Account of Scotland (21 thick quarto volumes), published between 1791 and 1799. Sinclair believed that Creech mishandled the publication and cheated him out of profits, but Sher does an admirable job defending Creech, explaining that Sinclair had a poor understanding of the publishing business (Sher makes the same answer to similar charges about Creech’s publication of Robert Burns: he just didn’t get it).

Though Sher seems to relish these conflicts for their color, he does eventually bring it back to the Enlightenment. The Statistical Account is important not for the conflict between editor and publisher, but because it was a landmark and touchstone of the Scottish Enlightenment, according to Sher. As Sher puts it, “the success of The Statistical Account was to be measured not by financial profits but by the service it did as a source of enlightenment about the nature of late-eighteenth-century Scottish society” (425). It is Creech’s service to Enlightenment values that is important to Sher, as it should be. In that cause, in putting out The Statistical Account, Creech actually lost a good deal of his own money.

The same cause often led Creech to go against the wishes and business sense of his London partners, Strahan and Cadell. According to Sher, Creech was “a publisher who was willing to take substantial financial risks for the sake of scientific learning and enlightened principles, whether or not there was a likelihood of profit, and whether or not he had the support of his principal London partners” (427-28). This is the bulk of his argument against those who claim Creech was too beholden to his English partners. Creech was willing to confound Strahan and Cadell, and lose money, if the Enlightenment agenda could be better served.

The rest of the chapter takes up Constable’s campaign against Creech in a memoir published in 1821. He was not alone in his animosity towards Creech. John Bell was Constable’s main source of aspersions against Creech. J. G. Lockhart (in 1819, with the input of Sir Walter Scott) also basically argued that Creech was a preening non-entity, a characterization which is reproduced by other writers in the nineteenth century, such as Henry Cockburn in 1840. Sher does a good job showing how anti-Creech sentiment was part of a larger effort to highlight the importance and centrality of Edinburgh print culture in the nineteenth century, circa the Edinburgh Review, at the expense of the efforts of publishers like Creech in the eighteenth century. I will say however that Sher gets a little too ad hominem himself when he refers to Constable as a man with illusions of grandeur and not the innovator he claimed to be, and subtly seems to argue that eighteenth-century Edinburgh was superior, in regards to publishing, than nineteenth-century Edinburgh, when in fact these two phases were equally important, with one building upon the accomplishments of the other.

In the end, Sher makes a strong case for “The Achievement of William Creech” (the title of the chapter). Contrary to the accounts of his critics, Creech vigorously encouraged new authors, helped build up Edinburgh as a publishing hub, and cooperated with his London mentors only to further an Enlightenment agenda which acknowledged the importance of Scotland to the Enlightenment. Creech was truly “an Enlightenment publishing entrepreneur of the first order,” not averse to making money, but more interested in serving the advancement of learning and social melioration represented by the Enlightenment (440).

Joseph Byrne

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3 responses to “summary of chapter 6 of richard sher’s enlightenment and the book

  1. Eleanor Shevlin

    Well, we’re moving right along now with our discussion–thanks for this very fine summary, Joseph, and for being far more prompt than I have been.

    Your opening interestingly draws attention to Dave’s earlier remark that the second chapter is “more descriptive than argumentative.” That Dave’s remark refers to chapter 2 and not 3 (the chapter I did) is a telling slip because I actually felt that in some ways I could have said much the same about the third chapter. However, I think this sense of “descriptive” or “expository” speaks to Sher’s rhetorical skill in shaping his arguments. As I noted at the close of my post on the third chapter, Sher fleshes out, revises, and develops a more nuanced view of author-bookseller collaborations and tensions in ways that are highly persuasive.

    Although focused more narrowly on Creech, this chapter is yet another example of Sher’s skill in conveying the human faces of the parties involved.

    As for Sher’s depiction of Constable, you might find some confirmation in passing in Ross Alloway’s work. See, for example, Alloway’s “Cadell and the Crash,” Book History, 11 (2008): 125-147.

  2. Now I want to go back in and fix that miscue but can’t because you’ve commented on it! But I’m glad you did, and glad you turned it into a “teaching moment.”

    I really like Sher’s writing, and his ability to be persuasive, and tell a good yarn (reveal the “human faces”), at the same time. I aspire to a similar balance in my own work.

    And I do apologize for my mistake! I read your posts with pleasure, but also read Dave’s at the same time, so it all got a little blurred in my noggin.

    • Eleanor Shevlin

      No need to apologize! I found myself getting confused with which thought came from which post, too, so I definitely understood. Why I even drew attention to the slip was because Dave’s characterization of chapter 2 seemed, at first glance, also apt for chapter 3. Yet in the end it seemed that what could be viewed as exposition was really a subtly presented argument. However, Dave’s characterization of chapter 2 does seem accurate.