Sunday, July 08, 2007

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (12)

Despite his distaste for the vulgar curiosities that seemed to pass for modern thinking, Swift found cause for hope in the early numbers of the Mercury. His mentor [Sir William] Temple was among those who offered questions for the learned members of the Athenian Society to ponder. Evidently, he encouraged swift to take the paper’s use of the Athenian moniker seriously, and to expect that the “Society” would offer sober and learned guidance to England’s burgeoning reading public. Swift’s first published poem, in fact, is his “Ode to the Athenian Society,” in which he extolled the “the great Unknown, and far-exalted Men” whose wisdom filled both sides of the Mercury’s sheet twice weekly. Later Swift learned that this “Society” was actually composed of just three Grub Street hacks. Its publisher and guiding spirit, a bookseller by the name of John Dunton, was a product of the dissenting academies who flourished in the book trade of London’s coffeehouse demimonde. He had even travelled to New England, where he met with Cotton Mather, visited a lecture given to Christianized Indians at Natick, and sold books at Harvard (some of which may have ended up in the library). Dunton championed precisely the new kind of book that, in Swift’s estimation, was cluttering the Royal Library. Indeed, he seems never to have had an experience in life that he didn’t deem fit to publish in book form. He memorialized his New England trip in an autobiography he called The Life and Errors of John Dunton, which he brought out, doggedly in some thirty editions. When his second wife’s promised generous dowry failed to materialize, he initiated a pamphlet campaign against his mother-in-law.

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