Monday, 17 August 2009

John Buncle, Junior, Gentleman, 1776

The first two chapters of Thomas Cogan's John Buncle, Junior, Gentleman (1776) feature an interview between the fictional author, the hero of the story, and two booksellers. John Buncle takes his manuscript to each in turn. The discussions which follow are an amusing—and revealing—satire on publishing and bookselling in the 1770s.

A copy of this book was digitized by Google from the library of the University of Michigan. I have edited the scrambled OCR against the page-images and converted the text to HTML for publication here. I will publish the second half of this text next week. [I have now done this, see here]

Title Pages, and Editions.

Parva leves capiunt animos
Ovid. Ars. Amor.

——but then
These little things are great to little men.

[Chapter 1] Title Pages.

But what’s your Title, sir, your Title? cries the first dealer in science to whom I applied, the moment the MSS. was put into his hands.
  You see, “John Bungle, junior.”
  With a significant pish, he declared it was too simple, much too simple; it would never take.
  Why not? says I, it will distinguish mine from every other publication; and let its merits do the rest.
  Merits! This is just the stile of a young author! Why, sir, tell me, in the name of common sense, can the merits of a book ooze themselves into the first page, or sweat thro’ the binding? Your’s is a title that says nothing; and therefore cannot possibly display its merits, supposing it possessed any.
  I was going to reply, but he saved me the trouble by continuing his harangue.
  “Is not this an age, Mr. Buncle, in which every man, who would make his way in the world, will take care not to conceal the least shadow of merit that may belong to him? Will a tradesman be contented with having the choicest assortment of goods in his shop, without tempting the eye with an exhibition at the window? Do not our news-papers, and advertisements in every corner of the streets, abound with such descriptions of vendible commodities, as may best allure men to purchase? Are not their advantages, their beauties, their elegancies carefully displayed, from a noble man’s villa, to your patentee blacking-cakes? from your superb hotels at the polite end of the town, to a twopenny lodging in Broad St. Giles’s? from your refined academies, which profess to give human nature its last polish, to a night-school, where reedin and spellin is carfuly taut? In a word, is not every thing upon a large scale? Do you not see great choice of goods promised, where you can scarcely meet with a single sample? The best Coniac, and Wines neat as imported, at every gin-shop? The Warehouse for shoes and boots inscribed upon every cobler’s stall?’ [sic, for ”]
  ‘But Literary productions, sir, are superior to such mean arts.’
  He laughed heartily at my simplicity. “You pretend to describe men and manners, forsooth! Why, sir, they are fully as necessary here, as in any other article put up to sale.” He assured me, that many an excellent treatise, to his knowledge, was sunk down to everlasting oblivion, merely by the dead weight of its title-page: and that as to himself, he had rather be concerned in the worst performance that ever reeked from the brain of a Dunce, artfully set off with a name that possesses some secret grace to attract the public notice, than in the works of the most towering Genius, ushered into the world with a flat, tame, insipid appellation. “When I was green in the businesses, sir, I tried the experiment: I entered into the humour of the author, simply announced the publication to the world, and as simply depended upon its merits for success.—But it would not do.—They were a drug upon my hands; and might have remained so to this day, had I not wiped off their dust, vampt them up with a new title-page, that was either interesting or pleasing, and sent them forth from our ark, never to return, thank heaven. If it was not in their nature to soar high in reputation, or fly to the most distant parts of the earth, I have often lent them wings strong enough to carry them fluttering thro’ an edition or two, in spite of all the sands, bogs, and hillocks, which would otherwise infallibly have stopped their course.”
  This naturally excited my curiosity to know a little more of the secrets of his art: and as he was in a talkative mood, he readily gratified it.
  “In some cases, said he, the merit is entirely our own; in others, the authors themselves shew so much ingenuity in this way, that the whole forte of their book seems to lie in its title.
  “When we publish the works of an author, whose name is up, as we phrase it, then indeed we dress them out in the plainest garb imaginable, prudently reserving our ornaments for those who stand more in need of them. The History of England, by Rapin de Thoïras, Philosophical Essays by David Hume, the Works of Alexander Pope, Dryden, Swift, &c. sufficiently recommend themselves; and in these cases, we love to shew how much we scorn to make use of little puffing arts, in order to impose upon public credulity.
  “Again, if an author has not yet arrived to so great a degree of eminence, why we charitably hope the best, as in your case; and by a spirit of prophesy,—which I confess sometimes fails us—we announce him to the world as the Ingenious, the Learned, the Celebrated, carefully displaying all his titles and offices, down to the chaplainship of a regiment; if they appear either posts of honour or of intelligence.
  “These bays we generally reserve for Historiographers, Biographers, writers of voyages and travels, and the rest of the troops that are in our own pay, Mr. Buncle.
  “In slight summer readings, consisting of cursory remarks, light essays upon trite subjects, private histories, novels, romances, pieces of poetry, &c. address is peculiarly requisite: and here, to confess the truth, authors share the bays with us at least. These publications are to be devoured immediately—like a morning-paper, or a hot-roll—or they are not worth a button. In these cases we take no pains to make the Title of the book agree with its contents—quite the contrary—The less we reveal, the better chance of a sale—Our business is to catch the attention, which alone can be done by exciting curiosity; and this again by keeping people in the dark. We therefore make choice of some quaint but insignificant phrase, or curious antithesis, which, without revealing any thing, is calculated to set your superficial readers alonging. Titles of this sort are admirably adapted to Circulating libraries: every pretty Miss sends for them with impatience, and reads them with avidity. I could give you a list of them as long as my shop.

  Something New.
  Did you ever see such damned Stuff?
  Agreeable Ugliness.
  Beauty put to its Shifts.
  The happy Extravagant.
  Each Sex in their Humour.
  Witty Extravagant.
  Happy Repentance.
  Happy Unfortunate.
  Lucky Disaster.

  “Alliteration again, succeeds incomparably well in fictitious names and titles, and saves an author’s wit for the inside of his book. As for example:

  Adultery Anatomized.
  Benjamin Bernard.
  Betsy Biddle.
  Betty Barnes.
  Country Cousins.
  Devil Dick.
  Female Falsehood.
  Fortunate Foundling.
  Frederic the Forsaken.
  Jemmy Jessamy.
  Merry Medley.
  Sally Sable, &c. &c.

  “Where a performance, on the contrary, is rich in materials, and we are not ashamed of our goods, we generally take care to let the world know it. The title-page now becomes a downright chapter of contents; exhibiting, like a broker’s shop, such a variety of articles to the view of the spectator, that the deuce is in it if none of them will catch him.
  When all these methods fail, and we can not get our ware off our hands”—
  ‘—You curse the author, I suppose, for a blockhead, or the world, for its want of discernment; and sit down contented with your gains upon more fortunate productions.’
  “No, not yet. We have still another card to play: which is such a master-stroke of policy, that the inventor ought to have a statue erected to his memory in Stationer’s Hall.
  “What think you, sir, of reprinting the first page of a book, that has not been asked for a dozen times, and boldly calling it the Second Edition, corrected and improved?[”]
  ‘What think I? that it is a direct falshood, and a gross imposition upon the public.’
  “Hush, hush! take care how you abuse your friends—You may stand in need of the assistance yourself, ere it be long. It is true, we had rather they would save us this trouble: but if they cannot be prevailed upon to read for their edification, it is no fault of ours; and why, in the name of justice, should the loss fall upon us? Besides, sir, if, by this artifice, we make mankind wiser and better, which is the undoubted tendency of all our publications, I think, in my conscience, it is a fib well spent.”
  ‘Were I to allow of this curious casuistry, Mr. Editor, I should still doubt of the efficacy of the means; for if the first edition has nothing in it to engage the public attention, its being called a second or a twentieth, cannot make it a whit the better book.’
  “That’s true, sir, but it makes it appear the better, and this is enough for us. You must know that the generality of purchasers never trust to their own judgment in the books they buy. Some people have no opinion of a work till it has gone through two or three editions: and would scorn to disgrace their shelves with the first impression of a Locke, a Pope, or a Milton. Others again, do not desire to be wiser than their neighbours, and yet hate that their neighbours should be wiser than themselves. The sight of a second edition makes these gentry presently ashamed, and they run to our shops with numberless apologies for their inattention. In a word, sir, there are thousands who would have nothing to do with a book that does not seem to take, though it were written by the pen of inspiration; and if it takes, they will have it at all events, though too plainly penned with a goose quill.”
  ‘But to return, Mr. Editor, to this little production of your humble servant. What name would you advise me to give it?’
  “Why, faith, I don’t know. It is such a heterogeneous performance, that I can scarcely tell what to do with it. There is a share of merit in it, and it is too good for my common-place ones, and yet none of my best will fit it, I fear. However, my catalogue of virgin titles is not quite exhausted, I believe.—We will run it over, and see what we can find.”
  ‘Virgin titles! what do you mean?’
  “Why, sir, a man’s inventive faculties are not always at home; when they are, he ought to use them. I often set myself down, when I am in a happy mood for composition, and invent a set of names, for productions, long before they exist.—They are sure to come into play one time or other—”
  He was turning to the word Sentiment:—but I checked his hand.—‘Though to possess genuine sentiment, said I, be the characteristic of every virtuous and sensible heart, yet at this delicate æra of British refinement, when every Cook-maid talks sentiment, and every Porter boasts of his sensibility, the word is become so wretchedly prostituted to subjects void of sentiment, that it must soon be thrown off amongst the exploded phrases. Positively, it begins to sound as disgusting in my ears as ’tis great, very great, immensely great, applied to Breslaw’s tricks with a leg of mutton; or ’tis clever, amazingly clever, infinitely fine, referring to a boy beating minuets upon his chin.’
  “Well then, let us look amongst the miscellaneous articles. Here is

  The Miscellaneous Traveller.
  Yet another Traveller.
  Something Newer.
  The Mental Don Quixote.
  The Spiritual Light-horse-man.
  The Moral Hussar.
  Truth wrapt up in a Falsehood.
  A regular History of a Roving Mind.
  A Word to the Wise, and a Scourge to the Unwise.

Or, if you like our Alliteration better; what think you of calling yourself,

  Billy Buncle.
  Chearful Chatterer.
  Lively Loiterer.
  Talkative Traveller.
  Prating Philosopher.

  It must absolutely be something in that stile.”
  ‘’Tis hard, quoth I, very hard, that after an author has carefully skimmed the cream of his thoughts to regale the public, he must be obliged to inscribe Asses Milk to be sold on the Postern.’
  This unlucky expression offended my gentleman so greatly, that he turned from me without uttering another word; and wishing him a good day, I departed.

[For Chapter 2, see here]

No comments: