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I. The Low-Life of Literature

In an essay in The Adventurer on the dangerous effects of the widespread “itch of literary praise,” Samuel Johnson dubbed “the present age . . . The Age of Authours; for, perhaps, there never was a time in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press” (3: 106-07). What did it means to be part of this “age of authours”? There was no shortage of answers. Then as now, a crisis in literary production (a disruption in what Clifford Siskin has described as our ways of knowing and working) manifested itself in a self-reflexive turn towards an interest in the changing nature of the literary field (2). The question of what it meant to inhabit this range of contending social and literary pressures cannot be answered if one assumes, whether consciously or unwittingly as a set of outmoded but not wholly discarded assumptions, either a Romantic model of self-originating creativity or one that takes as its starting point “the disappearance or death of the author” in favour of a vision of textuality as a “tissue of quotations” (Foucault 117; Barthes 146). But if neither of these models – the autonomous author or autonomous text – can be reconciled with the limited agency implied by writers’ attempts to negotiate the pressures which confronted them as they adapted to the changing nature of their habitus, it is also inadequate to equate the search for historical complexity with a multiplication of factual details about textual production, or as Jonathan Rose has put it, an approach which values historical texts for the “data” which can be “gleaned” in ways that ignore the layers of mediation which invest these facts with the cultural significance which helped to shape their occurrence in the first place (62). Or in other words, it is inadequate to adopt approaches which ignore what Pierre Bourdieu has described as the “the literary field [as] the site of a struggle over the definition of the writer” (Bourdieu 42).[1] This definitional struggle, which extended beyond the question of what an author was to a host of related questions about the definition of literature itself, the relation between the various genres which comprised it (or which were to be excluded from it) and the nature of the reading public, was always about symbolic power as much as statistical force.

Ironically, it may well be the failures and marginal successes – the “men [and women] of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment” who tried their hand as authors with varying but usually limited degrees of success – rather than the small minority of highly successful authors who best illuminate the highly mediated nature of the evolving literary field (Johnson 3: 107). Or we need both perspectives – those writers who managed to carve out a degree of success in the daunting world of late eighteenth-century letters and their far more numerous counterparts, the largely unremembered hoards who belonged to “the low-life of literature . . . who failed to make it to the top and fell back into Grub Street” (Darnton, Literary 16). In joining what are now (in large part thanks to Robert Darnton’s work) the academic hoards who have made this broad cultural landscape of the evolving literary field – both the heights to which some writers ascended and the murky depths which others “fell back into” – a central area of critical investigation, my own interests follow Darnton’s suggestive comment that “the summit view of eighteenth-century intellectual history [which] has been described so often and so well” must be enriched by concentrating on the nether regions which formed the dominant literary culture’s underworld (Literary 1).

Darnton’s work on illegal and forbidden books written and circulated by obscure figures who lived “on the shady side of the law” in pre-Revolution France has itself been enriched by our growing knowledge about a set of writers in Britain whose marginalization was cultural rather than legal, who were sometimes Whig or even Tory but just as often shifting or agnostic in their political allegiances, and who were upwardly mobile rather than revolutionary in their self-image (Literary vi). They belonged to a world of “adventurer[s] in literature” as Boswell described Samuel Johnson in his earliest days in London, forging what routes they could to literary success, or if not success, then at least to personal survival (81). It is a romantic image, and some of them (such as Johnson) did establish themselves as writers of extraordinary talent and achievements despite their “low-life” beginnings, but most of them were “adventurers” in a more dubious sense. They made up for intellectual weakness with cunning and enterprise, and where these fell short, their failures gave them a sharpened sense of a literary field whose intricacies they had learned so much of by hard experience.

II. The Highways of Literature

In his own analysis of the reasons why “the Literary character has, in the present day, singularly degenerated in the public mind,” Isaac D’ Israeli refined Johnson’s earlier assessment. “De Foe called the last age, the age of Projectors, and Johnson has called the present, the age of Authors. But there is this difference between them; the epidemical folly of projecting in time cures itself, for men become weary with ruination; but writing is an interminable pursuit, and the raptures of publication have a great chance of becoming a permanent fashion” (Essay xviii). The problem for many critics, however, was the difficulty of distinguishing genuine authors from the debased world of projectors: those opportunistic and untrustworthy visionaries who preyed on others’ naivety. One person’s charlatan was another person’s struggling writer, pursuing their literary fortune along whatever paths seemed to be the most promising or, failing that, most available.

Few authors better exemplified the difficulty of maintaining these sorts of distinctions than Herbert Croft. Few were more ambitiously entrepreneurial, and in the end, less successful. Croft is best remembered, when he is remembered at all, for a popular epistolary romance entitled Love and Madness, A Story Too True, and occasionally, for having written the chapter in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets on Dr. Young, author of Night Thoughts and father of Croft’s Oxford friend, Frederick Young. But Croft was also the author of a wide range of fugitive pieces, political pamphlets, and miscellaneous productions including a 1779 periodical entitled The Literary Fly (short-lived, despite the distribution of 10,000 free copies of the first issue). If Croft ultimately failed, it was not for lack of effort. The year after his periodical experiment, he published Love and Madness (dismissed by Thomas Carlyle as “a loose, foolish old Book . . . which is not worth reading” though the European Magazine praised an account of Chatterton which it contained) and a satirical collection of epitaphs of famous and notorious people entitled The Abbey of Kilkhampton, or Monumental Records for the Year 1780 (Carlyle 286). The Abbey of Kilkhampton shared Love and Madness’s mixed fate. It was popular enough to go through at least fourteen editions, though T. J. Mathias denounced it as “a vile pamphlet” filled with “inscriptive nonsense in a fancied abbey,” the sort of “trash” which “every age produces” penned by “garreteers obscure and shabby” (19-20).[2]

Judging by the newspaper puffs for The Abbey of Kilkhampton, Croft put almost as much energy into his promotional efforts, which became a kind of sub-genre in themselves, as he had into the book. His various notices were designed to arouse public curiosity by emphasizing the book’s titillating nature in ways that extended the original work into new fictional dimensions. “The men, my dear friend, have all deserted us; the general election will deprive us of their company for some time,” a notice in the 21 September Morning Post entitled Extract of a Letter from a Lady of Brighthelmstone, to the Hon. Mrs. D––. declared, making the most of the gossipy potential of epistolary fiction:

Apropos. Our bookseller, who is a good kind of animal enough, has lately received from a London a new pamphlet, in which a considerable number of us find our own Epitaphs. It is impossible to describe the effect it has had upon the D–––ss of B–––. The author has to be, sure, taken great liberties with her Grace, and several of her friends. . . . It is called The Abbey of Kilkhampton, or Monumental records for 1980. You will, I suppose, find it at any of the booksellers in London. Lord W––– G––– and his new friend are expected here next week. Adieu.

qtd. Lysons 2: 62

A notice eight days later, entitled Extract of a letter from an officer at Finchley Camp, exploited the same fictional device. Admitting that “we soldiers, from the subaltern to the General, are very fond of amusements,” the correspondent declared that “a Wag has written a humorous collection of epitaphs upon several of us and our friends, under the title of Kilkhampton Abbey, or Monumental Records for 1980. The idea is quite new, and the execution is as singular as it is whimsical.” Like the mortified D–––ss of B––– and her friends, many of these officers found themselves exposed in the book. “However, good humour was the word, and the Author’s health was drank in a bumper with three cheers.” Having described the high-spirited festivities which these epitaphs inspired, the “letter” finished: “if you have heard it whispered, or can learn, who is the author of the pamphlet, which I have made the subject of this letter, let me know; it is a piece of information we are all aiming for” (qtd. Lysons 2: 62). Building on this attempt to stir public interest in the book by cultivating the aura of this mysterious author, another letter started by asking,

“Who is Junius? This, says a correspondent was the question a few years since, and notwithstanding the enquiry was general, it still remains a profound secret. –– Who is the author of Kilkhampton, or Monumental Records for 1980? is now the general question; a fellow who seems to know the foibles and follies of every body, yet is known to no-body. He fights in masquerade; he pricks and tortures all the company he has associated with, from the plain country ‘Squire to his Grace; yet avoids the effect of their resentment, by making himself invisible!’

qtd. Lysons 2: 63

Like most effective advertisements, Croft’s puffs did far more than assure people of the quality of the product on offer. They implied the promise, as vague as it was delicious, that in reading this book they too would become part of these scenes of fashionable life which were themselves the standard fare of endless romance novels: ladies gossiping about a scandalized Duchess’ outrage, or military officers drinking spirited toasts to a favourite wag. If the mysterious identity of this author who seemed to be everywhere, and to be in on everyone’s secrets, implied a possible intimacy with the reader’s secrets as well, the notices’ extension from discussions of the book to accounts of “real life” (“Lord W––– G––– and his new friend are expected here next week”) suggested a further extrapolation from the drama of these fictional scenes to the world of the reader him- or herself.

Croft was as versatile as he was busy. Two years later he published a very different kind of text in which he outlined an ambitious project which he would never ultimately complete, entitled Some Account of an Intended Publication of the Statutes, on a Plan Entirely New. The proposal was dedicated to the King, whose legal authority would be greatly enhanced (so he argued) by the availability of this sort of standardized digest of the country’s laws. The 1783 edition of the New Annual Register praised Croft’s plan of “arranging and publishing the statutes of England in a more scientific and philosophical manner than hath hitherto been done” as a “noble . . . design” which, “if properly executed, could not fail to be of great public utility,” though it also noted that the immense time and labour involved would require “significant encouragement” from the public (218-219). The European Magazine’s review of the Account was more sceptical. It dismissed the proposal as “the idea of an ingenious visionary, who never will be able to carry his scheme into execution.” It also credited Croft with having published a pamphlet on the Gordon Riots during this immediate period, and hinted that he was “suspected to have been the writer of several other pieces, some of them not much to his reputation” (1782: 1: 209).

If Croft’s efforts across a number of genres, “some of them not much to his reputation,” rooted him squarely within “the hurry of life” that many writers saw as the defining characteristic of a polite modern nation, his periodical writing aligned itself with other works of its kind in making these pressures and opportunities its favourite subject (Smith, Lectures 112). The title of Croft’s periodical, The Literary Fly, employed a conceit which dramatized miscellaneous writers’ emphasis on the energy and heterogeneity of a commercial society. Playing on the idea of a periodical magazine as a public carriage (no less than “the Carriage of British Literature,” he announced on his first page), Croft’s opening number depicted a lively scene of cultural traffic on “the highways of Literature” (4). There was news, The Literary Fly reported, of “an old Elegy” travelling “up from Oxford,” of “a Poem written for Mr. Seaton’s prize, and an Essay on the mathematics” “in a returned hearse . . . from Cambridge,” and of “two lame irregular Pindaric Odes . . . trudg[ing] it on foot – from Holyhead.” The scene culminated in word of “a promising train of literary artillery” travelling down from Edinburgh: “a tall, slender, emaciated History on horseback, with a bold young dog of an Epic Poem before, and a fretful, whining, dirty-nosed Tragedy clinging behind. This group was attended by a patient jack-ass loaded with natural philosophy and politics, poetry and metaphysics, bread and cheese similies and systems; episodes, problems, metaphors, and cold meat; in short, with all the motley baggage and bastard brood of Literature” (2).

III. Our Future Johnson

Croft’s most intriguing project, an attempt to compose a new English dictionary, substituted a rhetoric of selfless and even heroic commitment to the public good in place of his periodical’s fascination with the carnivalesque world of modern writing – “the motley baggage and bastard brood of Literature” – but his various accounts of the project were driven by an equally entrepreneurial knack for self-promotion that reflected (and sought to exploit) the network of overlapping discourses of cultural and civic authority within which it was inscribed. In two letters in Gentleman's Magazine in August 1787 and February 1788, and in his Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt (March 1788), Croft canvassed the public for intellectual and financial support for his proposed dictionary, serving notice of the vital national role that such a project would play. Croft worked hard, and on the whole successfully, to gain the respectful attention of his contemporaries. The Gentleman’s, which entitled the project the “Oxford Dictionary of the English Language,” featured his two letters as the lead item in each month’s edition. It added a supportive note to Croft’s first letter which cited his contribution to Johnson’s Lives as proof of his literary abilities and offered “to transmit any thing to him privately, or to print in our Magazine any thing of merit which relates to his work, provided it be not too long for our purpose” (57: 652).

Work seemed to be progressing well. In his 1787 letter Croft announced that he had compiled “more than 5000 words, which are not in the wonderful, though very imperfect Dictionary of my good friend and master Johnson” (57: 652). In his Letter to Pitt a half-year later, Croft noted that he had now amassed “near nine thousand words, good bad or indifferent, which are not in Johnson’s dictionary” (34). By 1793 he had added “more than 20,000 words” that were missing from Johnson’s (Germany 3). Publication seemed to be imminent. In his second letter to the Gentleman’s, in February 1788, Croft had assured readers that “in the course of the summer it is hoped that a volume will be ready, to shew (what a few pages will not shew) the incredible, radical, and incurable defects of Johnson; the progress made in the new Dictionary, and the manner in which it is carried on” (58: 91). Nothing materialized that year but the literary intelligence section of the August 1792 Gentleman’s announced that “the Rev. Herbert Croft is circulating proposals, which may be had at Skelton’s, engraver, in the Hay-market, for the publication of his Dictionary of the English Language, in four large volumes folio. Part is to be delivered to subscribers in May next” (1792: 62: 189). The subscription was to be twelve guineas, half to be paid in advance, with the other half on the delivery of the third volume (Rivers 128).

Things seemed auspicious, but once again, despite his confidence and his escalating word count, the project came to nothing. Croft announced in the June 1793 Gentleman’s (his letter once again appeared as the lead item for the month) that he had been compelled to abandon the idea of printing due to a lack of financial support. “Having hardly any subscriptions” for “this my second endeavour to serve my country” by providing it with “this national work,” he explained, “I certainly shall not risk the printing of four volumes in folio during the present state of the public mind.” “Wishing that those literary men, who merit encouragement more than I, may meet with a little more than I have found,” Croft took his leave of the public (1793: 63: 491). Or not quite his leave. His 1797 Letter from Germany to the Princess Royal of England (which was published both in Germany and by John Edwards in London), although ostensibly a discussion of the “wonderful connexion” between low German and English, could not resist digressions into what he now generally accepted as the demise of his dictionary project (9). Like his reference to “the present state of the public mind” four years earlier, his 1797 Letter, which described his bad luck in trying “to publish [it] just as these European troubles began,” recast his failure as an unwitting casualty of larger historical forces in a revolutionary age (3). The nation would have to wait until later in the next century for its Oxford English Dictionary, but Croft’s efforts on behalf of what David Rivers’ Literary Memoirs of Living Authors of Great Britain (1798) called his “splendid design” were themselves illuminating (128).[3] Croft’s unfinished project may never have amounted to Robert Darnton’s description of the Encyclopédie as “the supreme work of the Enlightenment,” but ironically, its limitations may make Croft’s efforts all the more instructive as an historical reflection of writers’ strategic responses to the pressures and opportunities that faced them as inhabitants of “the age of authours” (Business 4).

In drawing attention to the epic scale of his project, canvassing for patrons (including the Prime Minister), and advertising his unique qualifications to complete it, Croft’s letters mobilized a set of cultural narratives within which he wanted his undertaking to be understood. The public importance Croft wished for his project was evoked in the monumentalizing spirit of his plans for what amounted to a personal museum. In his 1787 letter, Croft envisioned his work-in-progress converted into a kind of exhibition, should he die before the project could be completed: “My principal hopes are from having put together my manuscripts (now nearly 200 quarto volumes) in such a manner that every step I make in the work counts; and, that the first person who shall go by my house after my death, and can read, may see directly how far I had advanced, if I should not live to finish it” (Gentleman’s 57: 651). If he did manage to complete the project, he would “deposit the manuscripts themselves (since they will contain, at perhaps every word, many more passages than I shall use), together with my collection of all the dictionaries, grammars, essays, and treatises, &c. respecting the English language, in some public library” (Gentleman’s 57: 651). In doing so he would continue to serve the cultural health of the nation, beyond even the limits of what his dictionary could offer, and long after his death. And he would so in a manner that would continue to direct the attention of the nation to the importance of his contributions as an individual. This insistence on the public significance of his project was balanced by an equally public (and equally strategic) sense of others’ contributing roles. The 1787 letter announced that “if any literary person would do me the favour of calling upon me, in his way through the University, before I publish an account of the progress I have made, or after, I shall be very happy to shew him my manuscripts, &c.” (Gentleman’s 57: 652). His 1798 letter thanked readers for their responses (some of which had been published in the intervening editions of the magazine), promising to “deposit their communications in some public library, whether he uses them or not; along with all his MSS. and his philological library” (Gentleman’s 58: 91).

Croft’s choice of the Gentleman’s Magazine as a vehicle for his promotional efforts was consistent with the more elevated status of his dictionary project, but he also exploited newspapers to puff the project, much as he had done with Kilkhampton Abbey, though this time in a suitably more dignified form. A series of letters in the February 1788 Morning Post, ostensibly written by an anonymous admirer, paid tribute to Croft as “a man of family and tolerably independent fortune” whose various publications “certainly place him as high as a writer, as he is known to stand, by those who remember him at school or the University, or are acquainted with him as a scholar and a gentleman” (qtd. Lysons 2: 79). Entitled “The Rev. Herbert Croft, employed on the Great English Dictionary,” the letter declared that “I have seen his MSS. &c. in the Oxford Museum, where the University has assigned Mr. Croft an apartment, and I have heard him explain them, and his plan, &c. with a readiness and enthusiasm which does him credit, and gives every hope of his undertaking.” Indeed, so impressed was this correspondent that having mentioned the equally high impression held by Bishop Lowth, Joseph Priestley, the Dean of Canterbury, the Dean of Christchurch, and Bishop Douglas, the correspondent hailed Croft as “our future Johnson, with regard to Dictionaries at least” (qtd. Lysons 2: 79).

IV. The Miseries of Johnson

If, as I have been suggesting, Croft’s promotional efforts often resulted in more intriguing literary texts than the works they were intended to promote, in large part because of the sorts of creativity which they required, this was especially true of his Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt. Croft’s Letter to Pitt, which was printed in early March, 1788 at the end of a trip to London, deployed many of the same strategies that he had developed in his earlier Account of an Intended Publication of the Statutes, from his alignment with a leading public figure to his insistence that, however willing personally, he was financially unable to pursue this project, which was so central to the nation’s civic health, without a corresponding degree of support from the nation itself. The Letter to Pitt began on a magnanimous note, thanking Pitt for his “good-will towards the University of Oxford, which I endeavour not to disgrace” (1), before going on to offer more particular thanks for “the ready, the liberal, and very flattering manner in which you have been pleased, Sir, to dignify” his dictionary project “by your countenance and patronage” (2). If he should fail, Croft promised, it “will not be owing to any want of encouragement or assistance on the part of Mr. Pitt” (5). So great was his gratitude for the Prime Minister’s support, which remained as obscure as it was apparently generous, that Croft had felt compelled to abandon his initial plan of writing a “common letter” of thanks in favour of a more public correspondence which would alert others to this munificence, and at the same time, allow him to expand on “the nature of my undertaking” (5). But in actual fact, Pitt’s patronage seemed to be neither adequate nor certain. The Letter’s citation of Pitt’s generous support as evidence of the importance of his project was balanced by repeated warnings that the success of “so national a book” depended on Croft’s ability to attract adequate funding (27). “We all know why poor Johnson failed,” he hinted darkly (5). Nor did even Pitt’s support turn out to be guaranteed. “The first hope of the country’s ever seeing such a Dictionary of its language, as such a country may surely demand to see, must necessarily be founded on that which poor Johnson wanted; the kind of countenance that I am taught to expect from you, provided I appear to deserve it” (27-28). In fact, judging by his 1793 letter in the Gentleman’s, which included a brief list of a handful of illustrious names (including the Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Attorney-General) to whom he had “the greatest obligations . . . as a man and a dictionary maker,” but from which Pitt was conspicuously absent, the Prime Minister had been little or no help (491).

The failure of “my great friend and master Johnson” figured in both of the letters to the Gentleman’s, but in the Letter to Pitt it was his central theme (3, 38). “God forbid that the smallest leaf of one real laurel, which grows over the grave of such a man as Johnson, should be shaken down by me,” Croft insisted. “May my portion upon earth be the miseries of Johnson (who calls his own life ‘radically wretched’) without any of his fame, if I ever put it in the power of a wise man or a good man to call me ungrateful towards him whom the good and the wise will ever respect!” (9). But gratitude to the man should not preclude honesty about the failure of his dictionary, which remained “defective beyond all belief” (9). It was filled with “the wildest blunders and the most risible absurdities which the sourest critic can point out, from the beginning of the Dictionary to the end” (18). It was “radically bad” (27), “from the beginning to the end, most completely, radically and incurably defective” (26). None of this ought to be seen as Johnson’s fault though. Converting his disclaimer against any personal malice into an implicit plea for generous support for his own project, Croft insisted that Johnson’s failure had been the consequence of the degrading conditions under which he had been forced to work. “Blinded so by inconvenience and distraction, by sickness and by sorrow,” Johnson allowed himself “to forget what he undertook” (37). However true it may have been that “in moments of soreness and discontent,” Johnson had “suffered some of the dirtiest passions to mingle with the dignity of a Dictionary: yet here again, we are not to blame the man, but his fate” (11-12).

The point, of course, was that no one could be expected to produce a dictionary which lived up to the “dignity” which such a book deserved (especially a national dictionary, as he had described it) if they were not themselves allowed to work in the sort of comfort and security that would guarantee their own personal and professional dignity. If Johnson’s dictionary had turned out to be “the book of Johnson’s misfortunes, not of Johnson’s wishes,” any hope for a superior dictionary necessarily depended on the adequate support for the individual who compiled it (8). Yoking a politics of professionalism to his own nationalistic lament for Johnson’s shortcomings enabled Croft to make good on his insistence that he was blaming the conditions under which Johnson worked rather than the shortcomings of Johnson himself even as he indulged in an opportunistic claim about the public importance of his own generous treatment. Croft’s argument turned on several related definitions of authority: the “authority of [Johnson’s] name,” on which “so many of us have been hitherto content, with so much confidence to lean,” but which obviously could not be relied on while Johnson was allowed to suffer the degradation of poverty (5-6); the technical question of the inadequacy of the “authorities” which Johnson used “to support the signification assigned to the words”; and the authority which resided in the ability of a dictionary “to fix a final standard of our language,” a task to which Johnson had half-heartedly aspired but which Croft rejected as misguided (17, 42). But all three of these versions of authority depended on the deeper question of the authority of the professional writer-compiler, whose ability to serve the nation depended on the generosity with which he was in turn supported by it.

Croft’s implicit argument for a particular form of cultural authority, which was reinforced by his repeated descriptions of the important “national work” that he had embarked on in his dictionary project, drew on what David Solkin has described as an ideology of commercial humanism, which gained its persuasive force by drawing on the period’s two main accounts of virtue, and therefore of moral authority: civic humanism and bourgeois liberalism.[4] If, as Isaac Kramnick has argued, bourgeois liberalism’s stress on personal industry ran directly against the grain of civic humanism’s emphasis on leisure as a necessary precondition for general knowledge and, therefore, for public virtue, these two perspectives could be fused in the service of a new ideology of professionalism by stressing the issue of motivation. People might write for pay, it was true, but also (and perhaps ultimately) out of a love of the work itself, and because they recognized its potential importance to others. The mistake would be to conceive of these commitments as though they were mutually exclusive. “The Writer who serves himself and the Public together, has as good a Right to the Product in Money of his Abilities, as the Landholder to his rent, or the Money-Jobber to his Interest,” James Ralph insisted in The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade, Stated (11).

Where Johnson had famously defined the lexicographer as “a harmless drudge,” the sort of author who (he announced in Preface) shared the fate of all of those “unhappy mortals” “who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good,” Croft insistently mobilized an elevated rhetoric which stressed the importance of his work for the nation as a whole (5: 24). Rather than trying to evade the ignominious charge of writing for pay, Johnson’s Plan of an English Dictionary had embraced it as a badge of honour. Whatever others’ opinions of this sort of work, Johnson admitted, he had himself been “drawn forward with the prospect of employment, which, though not splendid, would be useful; and which, though it could not make my life envied, would keep it innocent” (5: 4). Croft, on the other hand, insisted that he ought to be paid (or rather, patronized) generously enough that he could devote his attention solely to the disinterested and public task of completing a dictionary of English whose excellence would reflect the broader grandeur of the nation.

Johnson’s protestations were, of course, a rhetorical element of his own argument for the significance of his dictionary, but it is equally important to stress the rhetorical sophistication of Croft’s accounts as an articulation of commercial humanism, which merged public and private vocabularies of work and knowledge as the basis of an emergent code of literary professionalism.[5] As Darnton suggests, in his study of the interwoven philosophical, political, and commercial imperatives which shaped the production and dissemination of the Encyclopédie in France, “business was business, even if it involved Enlightenment” (Business 26). Nor is it a matter of simply collapsing one of these categories – the kinds of disinterested cultural work that Croft saw himself as doing and his financial self-interest – into the other in a reductive act of ideological demystification. The challenge is to adequately recognize their mutual influence on each other.

V. This Age of Dictionaries

The failure of Croft’s steadily growing number of new words to materialize into a book was magnified by the ambiguous status of Croft’s Letter to Pitt generally. It was to be read publicly as a private letter to a great (if fictional) patron whose own preeminence blurred the boundaries between public and private identities and roles. It was addressed to the Prime Minister, but in many ways, of course, its real audience was anyone who might have been impressed by the fact that Herbert Croft was communicating to the Prime Minister about a project which they themselves might want to support. The rhetorical complexity of this appeal to a blend of public and private systems of recognition was compounded by the fact that Croft’s letter attracted widespread notice (including a lengthy account in the first volume of the Analytical Review, which explained that it was doing so because the project had already “attracted general attention”) despite its announced status as an unpublished document (1788: 1: 512). “Printed in March, 1788, but neither finished nor published,” it declared on its title page. These textual instabilities were exacerbated by the strange ending of the letter itself. Having insisted on the all-encompassing breadth of a national dictionary, the letter ended, possibly mid-paragraph (it isn’t clear), with a brief addendum explaining that “As the Printer was not able to put together any more of what I wrote yesterday se’ennight than these forty-four pages, and the following seven pages of the Postscript; and as I found, in writing this letter to Mr. Pitt, how much is to be said, and must be said, concerning Johnson’s book and mine; it was thought better not to print the remainder of the Letter. Of these pages I have had a few copies pulled for my particular friends” (44).

What to make of this strange interruption, in a description of a project which depended, above all else, on its totalizing and authoritative status? Was this somehow the printer’s fault (his inability to “put together any more of what I wrote yesterday se’ennight than these forty-four pages”)? Or was there so much more that “is to be said, and must be said” that Croft himself had been unable to do it justice? Was it the escalating quantity of what needed to be said, which Croft had only discovered over the course of writing his Letter, or was it the sensitive nature of these questions concerning “Johnson’s book and mine”? But then, if “it was thought better not to print the remainder of the Letter,” why even mention these things that were better left unsaid, and in any case, what more could there be about Johnson’s book that he had not already blurted out? What was in these pages that Croft had thought it better to repress, but of which he had “had a few copies pulled for my particular friends,” and how many of them were there? (44). How many pages had he salvaged and how many copies had he made of them? Either way, why such an abrupt finish? Why not take the time to conclude the text properly (or to conclude at all) rather than finishing with an addendum which only highlighted the text’s fragmentary nature?

A second addendum before the Postscript referred “friends, who wish to see all that I have hitherto said concerning the MSS. of my Dictionary” to his two letters in the Gentleman’s, but what would be the point of referring readers to these two considerably shorter letters, each of which ended with a promise to lay more adequate proof before the public in the future? (44). And what, ultimately, was the status of the seven page-Postscript, which itself had a hurried and unfinished air? It repeated his usual wish to “to talk with all the wise men I can,” and to show them the “ample specimens of my MSS. and every different part of my work” that he had brought with him from Oxford, and then concluded with a long list of individuals who had shown an interest in the project. But writing from London, he confessed that he may have forgotten some of these people. “I hope they will have the goodness to call to mind, in how few hours I have drawn up these pages, for the purpose of making all the haste I could to express my gratitude” (n.p.). His Letter’s escalating length and strangely unfinished (and perhaps unfinishable) state had begun to resemble the dictionary itself.

His Letter, From Germany, to the Princess Royal of England, mobilized a familiar range of rhetorical strategies. Dedicated to another public figure (Croft apologized to the Princess for his forwardness, since they had never actually met, by offering a predictably cryptic allusion to the “greatest obligations” he owed to her brother, the Prince of Wales’ “feeling and princelike mind, both on his own account and on account of his wife and children”), Croft flaunted his connection to “my old University of Oxford” “where I had originally been educated,” and simultaneously emphasized his respect for “my great friend and mighty master Johnson” and insisted on “how insufficient Johnson’s [dictionary] is” (1,3,2). But his tone had darkened. If he was now content to describe himself, borrowing from Johnson, as “‘a harmless drudge’ of a dictionary maker,” he was equally willing to lay the blame, not just on “these European troubles” which had disrupted publication, but on the selfishness and irresponsibility of all of those who reneged on the support they ought to have extended him (95). Having praised the Earl of Moira (rather than either the Prime Minister or Prince of Wales), to whom he owed “every thing, both on my own account and on account of my dictionary,” Croft lashed out at “lord Thurlow (who, I know, is now, sorry for his long and cruel neglect of me)” as well as unnamed others “on whom I had every claim” (90). Had they “performed, at a proper time, any one of the promises, by which I have been robbed of my time, and my family of part of my private fortune,” “his dictionary “would have been long since printed” (90). Alluding to Johnson’s description of his own dictionary work, “amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow,” Croft posed the theatrical question, “Is there a curse upon all dictionary makers, in all periods? Are they doomed never to find, in the languages they adorn, words strong enough to express all the – – – – – – ?” (27). But then Johnson’s own Plan of an English Dictionary had acknowledged that dictionary work is the lowest “of all candidates for literary praise” (5: 3).

However grandiose his own claims, Croft’s efforts might best be located within the cultural landscape that he himself had envisioned in the Literary Fly, part of “the motley baggage and bastard brood of Literature.” His Letter to Pitt was part of the cultural traffic of the age, one small element of the literary version of what The Compleat Compting-House Companion: Or, Young Merchant and Tradesman’s Sure Guide described as “the stupendous circulation of paper-property, throughout the trafficable world” – written by an aspiring but largely unknown author down from Oxford in search of patronage in London (with all of the connotations that those two cities suggested), but also travelling between a rhetoric of lofty disinterest and entrepreneurial savvy, and across a range of discursive positions as he sought to manipulate a network of public and private languages of duty and reward (8). Even the genre of dictionaries, it is worth remembering, spanned this range. If this period was dignified by impressive examples such as Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1756) or related projects such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica: Or a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences &. (1768_1771) or the multi-volume Biographia Britannica (1747-66), whose subtitle aligned it with Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary (1734-38), it was also the occasion of endless less memorable versions such as A Dictionary of Love (1776) and A Dictionary of Love or The Language of Gallantry Explained (1787) (identical in all but their name); or The Sportsman’s Dictionary; Or, the Gentleman’s Companion: for Town and Country (1778).

The Critical’s review of Floyd Thomas’ Bibliotheca Biographica (1760) was appropriately respectful in its judgement that if “there is scarce any branch of knowledge, which in the present age has not been inculcated under the form of a dictionary . . . this has become necessary, from the immense extension to all kinds of history and science,” but others were more inclined to adopt Goldsmith’s description of the fashionable status of “dictionaries, commentaries, and compilations” (his list is itself instructive) in any age as a sure sign of the triumph of “a false standard of taste” (32). The Critical’s reference to “this age of dictionaries” placed the genre squarely within the sorts of bibliomaniac concerns that surrounded debates about the debased state of modern literature generally (1758: 6: 454). As Vicesimus Knox argued in his warning about the dangerous impact of “trifling publications” on the dignity of the republic of letters generally, “dictionaries, compilations, and works distributed in weekly numbers, being intended solely to serve the purposes of interest . . . detract from that respect which is due to real knowledge and original compositions” (Winter 3: 121). Johnson’s definition of Grub Street in own Dictionary had itself included dictionaries amongst the sorts of “mean production[s]” that were associated with Grub Street as a byword for literary mediocrity. However elevated Croft’s rhetoric may have been, his (had it ever appeared) would have been one more “among the vast number of dictionaries, of various kinds, which have lately issued from the press” (Monthly 1779: 61: 200).

VI. Desperate Sailors

Croft’s mixed critical and commercial record, and his appeal to both the literary marketplace and potential patrons (including the King and Prime Minister) as multiple sources of income for an aspiring author, make him an apt example of the ambivalent cultural location of the professional author in the late eighteenth century, appealing to different audiences and reward systems, and straddling, with varying degrees of success, multiple hierarchies of social distinction. Caught at the crossroads of a fading claim to aristocratic gentility and an alternative recourse to professional industriousness, Croft inhabited the contradictions of his age. After a brief stint in law, and with the advice of his patron, the Bishop of London, Croft had returned to Oxford in 1782 to prepare to take orders in the English Church. Supported by the modest income generated by two clerical positions (including chaplain to the garrison of Quebec), he then remained in Oxford applying himself to his dictionary. He was, however, living beyond his means. In 1795, three years after the death of his first wife, Croft married Elizabeth Lewis in the manorial splendour of Malvern Hall, in Warwickshire, home of Lewis’ brother-in-law, the fourth earl of Dysart (the August 1797 edition of the European Magazine published a series of Croft’s poems celebrating the wedding). But the day after the marriage, Croft was arrested for debt, thrust into the common gaol at Exeter, and forced to withdraw to the Continent. (His Letter From Germany failed to mentioned this part of the reason for his excursion.) In August 1797 his library was sold. That same year, still living abroad, Croft succeeded to the title of fifth baronet, but by then the title had become financially meaningless. The third baronet had cut off the entail, and the family estates and Croft Castle had passed into other hands.

Still worse for his literary reputation, Croft’s account of Chatterton, which had initially appeared as part of Love and Madness, was publicly denounced by Robert Southey, who charged in a letter in the November 1799 Monthly Magazine that Croft had obtained Chatterton’s letters from his mother and sister under false pretences, and that he had published them without consent and without adequately compensating Chatterton’s family for the large profit that he had made from their publication. Croft had first called upon Chatterton’s sister in his guise as a clergyman, Southey explained, and having “presented her half a guinea, . . . requested to see whatever letters of her brother she had preserved.” These having been produced, “he then begged permission to take them away for one hour, assigning as a reason, that it would be too painful to his feelings to read them in the presence of that sister, to whom they were addressed.” Having pulled the same routine on Chatterton’s mother (to whom he offered “the present of a guinea, and the language of consolatory friendship . . . so full of religion . . . that she said she almost looked upon him as a guardian angel”), Croft disappeared with the letters until, a fortnight later on 27 July, 1778, he wrote to reassure them that “all the little treasure shall be faithfully returned to you again,” once more offering tender religious consolation. Having been upbraided in an angry letter from Chatterton’s sister, Mrs. Newton, when she read the letters included in Love and Madness one year later, Croft sent her ten pounds and a promise that “the family of Thomas Chatterton shall never be forgotten by H—– C—–” (1799: 8: 771). Having sent three more letters with more vague promises of assistance and a request for an acknowledgement of the ten pounds, he then cut off communication. It couldn’t have helped matters that Croft’s publisher, Kearsley, had announced in his advertisements for Love and Madness that he had the original copy of Chatterton’s last letter (on loan from Croft) available in his shop for inspection (Brewer, Sentimental 175). The ruin of Croft’s reputation was now complete. Having included the whole series of letters, which Chatterton’s sister had saved, as a damning account of Croft’s scurrilous behaviour, Southey went on to explain that “Mr. C—– has been privately addressed upon the subject, without effect; his conduct is now made public, in the hope that general liberality may be excited by general indignation.” Southey’s article concluded with the news that Chatterton’s mother had “died in poverty” after a three-year struggle with cancer, during which she “experienced the kindness of the Miss Mores” (8: 772).

Croft’s “splendid design” may ultimately have come to nothing, but his various strategies (some of them less reputable than others) were in many ways typical of the challenges that confronted so many of his literary peers as they sought to navigate their way through what John Brewer has described as the “expanding maze or labyrinth” of eighteenth-century publishing which “offered the potential author many entrances and numerous routes to eventual publication, each full of hazards, pitfalls, and dead ends” (Pleasures 140). However daunting this “maze or labyrinth” may have been, Croft was not short of fellow travellers, many of them equally intent on having their unique talents recognized and properly rewarded. “Were Authors to consider Times as other Manufacturers do, they would act as Reasonably – But then they would not be authors,” Ralph joked in The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade, Stated, likening them to “the desperate Sailor, who, because he had seen others do so before him, jump’d from the Main-yard into the Sea, crying, ‘By G—, I can’t swim — But no Matter! –– Some Body or other will save me––’” (71). Contemplating the same problem in slightly more dignified terms in the Rambler, Johnson suggested that “the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity,” quickly adding “that no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors” (2).