Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An Interesting Preface from 1763

I ran across this interesting preface last week and thought it worth sharing here, given the focus on matters bibliographical. The text appears on pages v–xvi of the satirical novel Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of Tsonnonthouan, a King of the Indian Nation called Roundheads. Extracted from Original Papers and Archives. London: Printed for the Editor, and Sold by J. Knox, at the Three Poets, in the Strand, 1763. My transcription is from the 1974 Garland reprint. The book was published prior to the release of volumes 7–9 of Tristram Shandy, and has been attributed to Charles Johnstone or, more frequently, to Archibald Campbell:

From A Catalogue of Books, Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh, 1793), p. 193.

From A Catalogue of the Curious and Extensive Library of the late James Bindley, Esq., F.S.A. (1818), p. 74.


[v] The Bookseller having insisted on his prerogative of writing the Title-Page, I wish he had also written the Preface; it would have saved me a task I am by no means fond of. In justice he ought to have done it, for his Title-Page hath rendered a Preface necessary. But he must be excused, on this account; a Preface is always supposed to have some relation to the work it ushers into the world; now a bookseller having commonly as great an aversion as reading the trash he sells to his customers, as a physician has at taking the trash he prescribes to his patients, it is not to be expected a man should write about that which he knows nothing of. This, I can safely say, is the case with my bookseller; I can aver he has not as yet read a sentence of the following work, and in all probability never will. But it [vi] is quite otherwise with the title, as it is by the merits of that alone he thinks he sells the book; and indeed he is in the right to think so, for he seldom knows any thing more of the matter. I have heard a bookseller say he had purchased a pamphlet for half a guinea, tho' he knew not what the pamphlet contained, but he was sure he had made a good bargain, for the title page alone was worth double the money. Indeed it is no wonder that booksellers are the best judges and authors of title-pages in the world, the whole force of their genius, and bent of their study, being directed to nothing else, except, sometimes, a few strictures on the paper, print, and binding; and when a man applies himself entirely to one science, he must necessarily excell in it. For this reason I submitted every thing respecting the title-page to the bookseller; indeed he made enquiries about nothing else, excepting the price. When I first carried him the following sheets in manuscript, he asked me what title I proposed? I made answer, The Life and Adventures of Tsonnonthouan, a Roundheaded Indian. He objected to this as too simple; we must call it Memoirs, said he, for that word implies something of secrecy, and the [vii] publick is always glad of being let into a secret. This being assented to, he next hinted that the hero ought to be dignified with some pompous appellation; I proposed that of Chief of the Roundheads, though not strictly and historically true. The sagacious bookseller was not altogether pleased with this; he said, it referred to something outlandish, and besides, we had but a slender idea of such an office in this country. I was very sensible of the solidity of this objection, so left the matter entirely to himself. Upon which he immediately dubbed Tsonnonthouan King; a name, which notwithstanding some late incidents, has still some regard paid to it, amongst us. It was in vain for me to object that such an office was entirely unknown among the Indians, and that Tsonnonthouan himself had no manner of pretensions to it; he stopt my mouth, by telling me, that an English reader would have a much great curiosity about the adventures of a crowned head, than a private person; and that he would now naturally expect a great deal of court-scandal, and secret history. I submitted, thinking it needless to tell him that the work itself would utterly disappoint all such expectations, for, as I ob- [viii] served before, a bookseller never looks father than the title-page.

We had next a small difference about what is called the running title, which, tho' in the body of the book, the bookseller reckoned was within his province, and under his jurisdiction. I must confess, from long habit, I have contracted a sort of fondness for the very name of Tsonnonthouan; I therefore moved that my favourite word should be on the top of every page. But the wise bookseller was entirely of a contrary opinion. Notwithstanding, said he, we have now a very saleable title, yet, for for all that, we cannot ensure the sale; now, if we have a running title, we can never alter the title-page; whereas, if we have not, and we find it does not sell under this title, it is only printing another half sheet, and giving it what other title we please, so that at last it must certainly go off: we may even call it, added he, A Continuation of the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. I submitted to superior judgment in this as well as the former article; but I think it my duty, at the same time, to acquaint the publick with the snare that is [l]aid for them, and that if they do not take off this impression under its present [ix] title, which, however, I would advise them by all means to do, they may some time hence find themselves lulled asleep with the first and second volumes of the grave and solemn Tsonnonthouan, when they expect to be tickled to death with the seventh and eighth volumes of the witty and facetious Tristram Shandy.

The important article of the title, both standing and running, being thus settled, we had afterwards a third and more violent dispute about the price. He asked me what price I intended to set upon it? I answered, half-a-crown a volume sewed. That can never be, said he, there are only eight or nine sheets in each volume; whereas, by all the rules of bookselling, there ought to be, at least, ten or eleven sheets; in short, I cannot, in conscience, sell it for more than two shillings a volume. I told him, that was too little, considering this book was every way an original, and had cost me a great deal of pains and trouble, having been almost my whole life-time in planning it, and having spent many years in executing this small part of it. All stuff! mere stuff! said the bookseller, do you think we regard a work's being an original? or that your having been at great pains, or spent much time, in in- [x] venting and composing it, will compensate for its wanting the proper number of sheets required in the trade? In answer to this, I observed, that there was much more sold matter, and real reading in each volume, than in most half-crown, or even three shilling books that were now published. I grant it, returned he, but that is the very thing I find fault with; however, you are not so much to blame as your printer, who must either be a fool, or know nothing of his business; in short, there is as much letter-press here, so a bookseller, it seems, calls matter, as, if it had been properly managed, would have made four of Tristram Shandy's volumes: had I the printing of it, what with contracting the page, and putting distances between the lines, I should have sold it among the trade, with more credit for eight shillings, than I now can for four. Besides, continued he, by this foolish manner of printing your Tsonnonthouan, you have lost a fine opportunity of being witty, as well as of encreasing your profits. I own, I never read the book, but I have been told, by very good judges, that a great deal of Tristram Shandy's wit consists in the distance between his lines, in the shortness of his chapters and para- [xi] graphs, in the great number of his breaks and dashes, in his blank leaves, and even in misreckoning his pages; and, had you used these methods, they would have likewise swelled your book to its proper size; but, as the matter now stands, I tell you again, my conscience, as a bookseller, will not suffer me to take more than four shillings for each volume. Finding that the tenderness of the bookseller's conscience was here like to be prejudicial to my interest, I was obliged to use my authority as an editor, and tell him, he might sell it for six pence, if he pleased, but that he should account to me, at the rate of five shillings for every copy he disposed of; at the same time, in order to sweeten this peremptory intimation, I promised him, that if it ever came to a second edition, I should remove all the scruples of his conscience, and encrease the size and wit of the performance; which latter I feared was most necessary, by putting what distances between the lines he pleased, by splitting the chapters and paragraphs as he thought proper; and, lastly, by inserting as many breaks and dashes, and leaving as many blank pages as he should advise. Upon hearing this, he consented, [xii] though with infinite reluctances, to sell at a crown.

In justice to my bookseller, I could not help premising these things. If there is any merit in the title page, it is entirely his; he being the author of every thing there, except the Greek motto. But, if there are any demerits in the book itself, or in its price, the blame must entirely fall upon me; for, of the first, he is entirely ignorant; and the latter, the reader may see, was much against his inclination, and, indeed, hath done violence to his conscience. However, it may be seen from hence, that, according to a bookseller, the merit of a book consists altogether in its title; and its value solely depends on the quantity of paper that is blotted. I wish this opinion may not prevail among other others of men, as well as booksellers.

The once celebrated name of Tristram Shandy having been accidentally mentioned, an observation occurs, which I cannot help making. What a memento mori ought the fate of this author be to all those who may hereafter possess the approbation of the publick, and how unstable a thing is any literary fame, which has not stood the test of a century? And yet [xiii] after all, the profound quiet and sleep which this writer at present enjoyeth, is as hard to be accounted for as that violent tempest and hurricane, drawing almost every thing within its vortex, which he raised in the republick of letters at his first appearance. Speaking impartially, his two last volumes are perhaps as injuriously neglected, as his first were injudiciously exalted. A true wit and original fancy, joined with a pure and elegant stile, he has unfortunately debased with a perpetual affectation, an irksome ostentation, and often an important straining at wit; which must be disgustful to every reader of taste, and must have been so to himself, if ever he gave his rapsodies a perusal at a cool moment. The publick is said to be ever impartial, and perhaps, even in this case, they have been so on the whole. Yet one would rather rise up gradually to a solid and lasting reputation, like the spreading oak, than sprout up suddenly, and send forth the fairest flowers and blossoms, like a perennial plant, and, when the season is over, wither as suddenly, and be trodden under foot.

Whenever an author speaks seriously of himself, he always does it with a bad grace. It is therefore with reluctance I [xiv] add, that if I have not been able to reach all the excellencies of this truly ingenious author, whom, by the by, I never proposed to imitate, this work, having been planned, and indeed begun, long before his was heard of; yet I have at least avoided his above-mentioned capital fault. There is not, I will venture to say, in the following sheets, the smallest affectation or ostentation of wit; if there is any wit, the reader is left to find it out; this is always an author's best policy, for a reader is much better pleased with the wit he discovers himself, than with that which is pointed out to him; he gives himself credit for it, and he is grateful on that account to the author, often imputing wit to him where he never intended it, and which he never thought of.

But if I have shunned one rock Mr. S. has split upon, I have not been able to avoid another, not owing to design indeed, as seems to have been his case, but owing to my own particular situation and disposition; I mean the presumption of publishing an imperfect work to the world, and perhaps, the still great presumption of hoping the publick may expect a continuation of it. I do not intend it as a praise, when I say, that the following sheets, tho' the [xv] consequence of a design conceived in early youth, have been as many years in executing under my hands, as they would probably have been weeks under those of a bookseller's labourer; in short, I found, before I could compleat my design, at the rate I went on, more years would elapse than I could expect to live. Whether it shall ever be compleated, is left to time and chance; but if in the mean time any Grubstreet continuator should undertake it, he will find hints in the first chapter, to which he is heartily welcome, and if he does, I sincerely wish him all the success he may deserve.

However, one thing, I think, I may venture to add; if this work is to be deemed altogether a fiction and romance, yet, as appears from the very first chapter, a regular plan is laid down, which cannot be departed from, and consequently it must as last come to an end, and was never intended to be an everlasting work like that of Tristram Shandy, and no design was entertained of writing as long as the author could preserve his credit with the publick, or secure its attention. But as to the real scope or moral of this performance, I beg to be excused from saying any thing, imitating herein the exam- [xvi] ple of the Indians, who, though full well acquainted with the nature of Tsonnonthouan's flight from the tree, and ascension to the country of souls; yet said nothing to him about it, and left him to find out the secret himself. Yet so far I will take upon me to say, that whatever prejudiced and interested persons may think of it, it is such as a philosopher, a man of virtue, and one who is a friend to, as well as lover of his species, may boldly, and without a blush, avow.

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