Book Review: John Bugg (ed.), The Joseph Johnson Letterbook

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John Bugg (ed.) The Joseph Johnson Letterbook Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 272pp. ISBN 978-0-19-964424-7. £65.00 At the start of his introduction to this first-ever edition of Joseph Johnson’s Letterbook, John Bugg describes Johnson’s bookshop as a hub for some of the most important writers and artists of the time, ‘like City Lights in Beat-era San Francisco, or Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company in 1920s Paris’. As an American academic at Fordham University, Bugg has successfully made a transatlantic leap to set Johnson in the context of the European enlightenment and the English book trade. For anyone interested in the history of print culture in the late eighteenth century, the chance rediscovery of one of Joseph Johnson’s business letterbooks has been akin to finding the holy grail. Johnson was in business as a bookseller-cum-publisher for almost fifty years. His Letterbook includes copy letters and memos written in the fifteen-year period leading up to 1809, the year of Johnson’s death. He was the publisher of Joseph Priestley and of Thomas Paine, of Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth, and of course of John Newton and William Cowper. Leslie Chard considered Johnson ‘the most important publisher in England from 1770 until 1810’.1 His imprints included religion, science and medicine, languages, literature, politics, education, fiction and poetry. He was a shrewd businessman but one who also nurtured his authors. He was known by contemporaries for the weekly dinners that he gave at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, where he lived above the shop. Some of the greatest minds of the age met around his table to eat boiled cod, veal and vegetables. It was thought that all the records of Johnson’s business had disappeared, apart from a few letters found in his authors’ archives. And then, from nowhere, this one small Letterbook surfaced in 1994

John Bugg (ed.) The Joseph Johnson Letterbook

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 272pp.

ISBN 978-0-19-964424-7. £65.00

At the start of his introduction to this first-ever edition of Joseph Johnson’s

Letterbook, John Bugg describes Johnson’s bookshop as a hub for some

of the most important writers and artists of the time, ‘like City Lights in

Beat-era San Francisco, or Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company

in 1920s Paris’. As an American academic at Fordham University, Bugg

has successfully made a transatlantic leap to set Johnson in the context

of the European enlightenment and the English book trade.

For anyone interested in the history of print culture in the late eighteenth

century, the chance rediscovery of one of Joseph Johnson’s business

letterbooks has been akin to finding the holy grail. Johnson was in business as

a bookseller-cum-publisher for almost fifty years. His Letterbook includes

copy letters and memos written in the fifteen-year period leading up to

1809, the year of Johnson’s death. He was the publisher of Joseph Priestley

and of Thomas Paine, of Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth, and

of course of John Newton and William Cowper. Leslie Chard considered

Johnson ‘the most important publisher in England from 1770 until 1810’.1

His imprints included religion, science and medicine, languages, literature,

politics, education, fiction and poetry. He was a shrewd businessman but

one who also nurtured his authors. He was known by contemporaries for

the weekly dinners that he gave at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, where he

lived above the shop. Some of the greatest minds of the age met around

his table to eat boiled cod, veal and vegetables.

It was thought that all the records of Johnson’s business had

disappeared, apart from a few letters found in his authors’ archives.

And then, from nowhere, this one small Letterbook surfaced in 1994

at Pickering & Chatto in London. It was then bought by the New York

Public Library. An export licence was granted subject to photocopies of

the Letterbook’s pages being made available at the British Library. Until

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the appearance of this edition by John Bugg, British scholars have had to

make sense of the Letterbook via a mass of un-numbered and unwieldy

photocopies. But his excellent edition now makes this key source for

English literary history easily available.

The 217 copy letters and memos transcribed in this edition were mainly

written by Johnson, or on his behalf, between the years 1795 and 1809 to

some 130 correspondents. Most of the contents of the new edition come

from the Letterbook itself, but Bugg has also usefully included a few of

Johnson’s earlier letters found in other archives and so far unpublished.

These include five letters addressed to William Cowper.

The Letterbook brings to life the relations between a late eighteenthcentury

bookseller and his authors and printers. The letters also bear

witness to the challenging conditions in which booksellers like Johnson

had to do business. There was a constant threat of piracy from Scotland

and beyond. Books had to be parcelled up and sent by carriage to the

country or by ship, sometimes on long voyages to America and even India.

Booksellers like Johnson were just beginning to invest in the burgeoning

export business to the colonies, but payment could take years to arrive.

Liberal-minded booksellers like Johnson ran the gauntlet of government

suspicion as revolutionary ideas flooded in from abroad; one of the most

moving letters in this collection was written by Johnson from the Kings

Bench Prison where he was incarcerated in 1799 on the charge of seditious

libel. And the frequency of Johnson’s letters chasing non-payment of old

debts, even from prison, helps explain why so many bookselling businesses

foundered.

Towards the end of Johnson’s lifetime he was recognised as ‘the

Father of the Trade’. But the business disappeared within a few decades

of his death. Unlike some other prominent booksellers of the time such

as the well-documented family businesses of John Murray and the

Longmans, Joseph Johnson had no direct heirs. Gerald P. Tyson devoted

a monograph to him, Joseph Johnson, A Liberal Publisher (University

of Iowa Press, 1979), but its value was restricted by the lack of archival

sources. Now, thanks to this edition of the rediscovered letterbook, we

can document Johnson’s business practice. John Bugg has provided an

up-to-date biographical introduction and an assessment of Johnson’s

importance in the book trade. Additional sections in the introduction

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discuss Johnson and science, Johnson’s encouragement of women

writers, in particular Mary Wollstonecraft whom he knew well, his role

in the transatlantic book trade, and his trial and imprisonment.

As Bugg recognises, Joseph Johnson stands apart from most of his

contemporaries for one particular reason. Unlike some more fashionable

booksellers he was a dissenter. Johnson came from a Baptist family near

Liverpool, and retained his social and professional connections with the

nonconformists. He was apprenticed to a minor London bookseller who

had ties to the dissenting community in Liverpool, and it was probably

through these connections that he came into contact with Newton and

later with William Cowper. On 13 March 1764 Newton was in London

and wrote to his wife Polly, then in Liverpool, telling her to direct his

correspondence care of Johnson.2 This was the year that Joseph Johnson

published Newton’s anonymous Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable

and Interesting Particulars in the Life of *******, documenting Newton’s

early career as a slave trader and his religious conversion.

The Letterbook includes no letters to Newton himself. Presumably,

once Newton moved from Olney to St Mary Woolnoth in London, a

brisk walk away from St Paul’s Churchyard, there was no need to write.

But there are letters in the Letterbook about the printing and reprinting

of Newton’s works, both to the Warrington printer William Eyres and

to Murray & Cochrane in Edinburgh. The print orders were substantial;

in 1807 Johnson ordered 2000 more copies of The Olney Hymns from

Murray & Cochrane, 750 more copies of Cardiphonia and 250 copies

of Newton’s entire Works in nine volumes.

As for the five previously unpublished letters to William Cowper, four

come from the Hannay Collection at the Firestone Library at Princeton,

and one from the Morgan Library in New York. The first dates from

1782, when Johnson was already at work on the publication of Cowper’s

first volume of poems. It is clear from Cowper’s published letters that

he was impressed by the quality of Johnson’s editing. He had written to

John Newton on 25 August 1781 to praise his new bookseller:

I forgot to mention that Johnson uses the discretion my poetship has allowed

him with much discernment. He has suggested several alterations, or rather

marked several defective passages which I have corrected much to the

advantage of the poems.3

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Thanks to Bugg’s inclusion of these extra letters we can now understand

at first hand Johnson’s reluctance to include Newton’s intended preface

to the Poems. On 18 February 1782 Johnson wrote to Cowper to warn

that the preface ‘will infallibly prejudice the critics against the work

before they have read a line, & their judgment has no small influence

on the success of poetical compositions’. He does at the same time

acknowledge ‘Mr N’s genius & worth’. Evidently, despite Johnson’s own

nonconformist background he was sensitive to contemporary Anglican

antipathy to evangelicalism.

Any letters that Johnson might have written to Cowper about the lack

of success of the 1782 Poems, or the remarkable success of the second

volume containing The Task, published by Johnson in 1786, are yet to

be found. And there are no references in the Letterbook to any payments

owing to Cowper; Johnson of course had published the Poems at his own

risk and Cowper was paid nothing for them. But, also undocumented in

the Letterbook, when in 1793 Johnson published a fifth edition of The

Task he presented Cowper with the profit.4

The second unpublished letter that Bugg provides is dated 17

September 1788. Johnson refers to Cowper’s preoccupation with his

translation of Homer and encloses an unnamed manuscript for him to

look at. The remaining three letters, all from the Hannay Collection

and dated 1791, refer to Johnson’s plan for a ‘Milton Gallery’ to rival

Boydell’s successful Shakespeare Gallery. Johnson proposed that Henry

Fuseli would provide the illustrations. Cowper subsequently agreed to

act as editor and to provide translations of Milton’s Latin and Italian

poems, a project that he continued to work on until his death in 1800.

Cowper and Johnson never met. Cowper did however invite Johnson

to visit Weston Underwood in the summer of 1791. Johnson responded

to the invitation on 22 August that year:

I thank you very much for your kindness, there is no excursion for me this

summer, my first and last officers are both ill, & I think it my duty rather to

work double tides than dismiss a servant for the visitation of God.

I am Dr Sir

Yr obedt

J. Johnson

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The Milton project was to bring Cowper into contact with his future

biographer William Hayley. The Letterbook includes several mentions

of the publication of The Life of Cowper, one of the few books that

Johnson published for which he failed to obtain copyright. According

to Hayley’s own Memoirs, in 1801 Johnson travelled to Hayley’s house

at Felpham in Sussex by post-chaise to meet him and discuss terms.

Hayley described the meeting thus:

Terms were soon adjusted with the author, when Johnson, after an ineffectual

contest, acquiesced in the positive requisition of Hayley to have his work

printed in his native city of Chichester.5

For Johnson it must have been an unsatisfactory meeting. Unusually,

Johnson’s role was restricted to distributing the book rather than editing

it and having it printed; ‘You are sensible I have not interfered in the

slightest manner in the work in which you are engaged’, he wrote to

Hayley on 4 January 1802, while offering him the benefit of his forty

years’ experience as a bookseller. Later, in January 1807, he was to

advise one of his authors, Elizabeth Hamilton of Edinburgh, that ‘A

partnership between author and bookseller I do not recommend. It rarely

turns out satisfactory’. He advised Miss Hamilton that authors should

cede control of publication to their bookseller, presumably in return for

an agreed fee.

… the Authors have nothing to do but to send their manuscript in a legible

state to the bookseller; furnishing paper and employing a printer and

corrector of the press, advertising, vending, in short, everything else will be

his business.

John Bugg’s edition of the Letterbook is, as one would hope from

Oxford University Press, elegantly produced, with generous notes and

some useful supporting appendices. There are twelve black and white

illustrations. The four appendices include business letters written after

Johnson’s death, no doubt using up some spare pages at a time when

paper was expensive. Bugg also provides a hard-to-locate account of

Johnson’s dinners by an American visitor, William Austin, taken from

Letters from London Written During the Years 1802 & 1803 (Boston,

1804). Austin found himself dining at Johnson’s house in St Paul’s

Churchyard alongside Johnson’s two great friends, the painter Fuseli

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and the mathematician John Bonnycastle. The conversation ranged far

and wide, but as Austin writes, ‘The English don’t say much till the first

course is finished. But their manner of eating soon throws them into

a gentle fever, which invites to sociability, when they have sufficient

confidence in their company’.

The mention of Johnson’s friends Fuseli and Bonnycastle is significant.

When Johnson died they were beneficiaries in Johnson’s will. Johnson

died a comparatively wealthy man, no doubt thanks in part to his

ownership of Cowper’s copyrights. His estate was valued at £60,000,

and Bugg refers to the division of the estate between friends and family,

making reference to an often-quoted article by Phyllis Mann, ‘Death of

a London Bookseller’6. The business, to be known as J. Johnson and

Co. was put into the hands of Johnson’s assistants, his great-nephews

John Miles and Rowland Hunter. But neither Mann nor Bugg were

perhaps aware of a privately-printed collection of papers put together

by Johnson’s nephew, also called Joseph Johnson, who was co-executor

of the estate with Miles and Hunter. The collection, ‘References to the

Case of Mr Fuseli’s Legacy under the will of the late Joseph Johnson’

lurks in the British Library, awaiting a full study.

Hunter and Miles did their best to exclude their co-executor from the

settlement of the estate, and he found it necessary to contest the will

in the Ecclesiastical Courts. He accused Miles and Hunter of failing

to hand over the promised legacies to Fuseli and Bonnycastle, and of

withholding information about the copyrights owned by the company.

He had their correspondence printed as a record, in readiness for the

lawsuit. The bound compilation includes sensational accounts, ‘printed

and sold by all Booksellers and Newsmen, 1817, Price One Shilling’, of

a fraud committed by Miles and brought before the Court of Chancery in

1817. Despite this, the company lingered on until it was taken over by

Simpkin, Marshall & Co, whose records were apparently destroyed in

World War II. How this one Letterbook survived remains unknown.

The only other small criticism one might have of this otherwise

excellent edition is of the index, which is underwhelming, at least in

reference to William Cowper. The Letterbook contains at least two

letters written by Johnson in 1796, to Messrs Morison of Perth who had

printed Cowper’s poems without permission, perhaps misunderstanding

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how Johnson had registered the copyright of the poems. Similarly

Johnson’s copyright dispute with Joseph Cottle, the Bristol-based

publisher of Wordsworth and Coleridge, is not indexed under Cowper’s

name. Such piracy was an important indicator of Cowper’s popularity.

Johnson’s fury at the theft is evident from his letter to Cottle, dated 6

December 1804: ‘Had you, in your collection, taken thirty or even sixty

lines from Cowper I should not have objected, but you have taken nearly

one thousand, this is insufferable…’.

But despite these minor criticisms, this edition of Joseph Johnson’s

Letterbook is a magnificent addition to our understanding of the history

of publishing in this period and a work of real scholarship. Beg, borrow,

or better still buy, a copy.

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.

References

1 Leslie Chard, ‘Joseph Johnson: Father of the Book Trade’, Bulletin of the New

York Public Library 79 (1975),82.

2 I am indebted to Marylynn Rouse of the John Newton Project for this

reference.

3 Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ed. James King and Charles

Ryskamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1986), I, 513.

4 Russell, Norma, A Bibliography of William Cowper to 1837 (Oxford: Oxford

Bibliographical Society, 1963),45.

5 William Hayley, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Hayley, Esq., the

Friend and Biographer of Cowper, (London: Henry Colburn, 1823), II, 32.

6 Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 15 (1964), 9.

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