Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Book Review: "Edmund Curll, Bookseller"

Paul Baines and Pat Rogers offer up a real bibliographic treat with Edmund Curll, Bookseller - the first monograph-length biography in eighty years of one of the most interesting bookmen of all time, and the first ever to utilize the full range of modern archival sources. Edmund Curll (1683-1747) was known in his day as an unscrupulous and piratical member of the London book trade (Ralph Straus' 1927 biography is titled simply The Unspeakable Curll). Curll's various trangressions against propriety included publishing letters without permission, arranging for the printing and sale of salacious and objectionable material, and engaging in marketing/business practices which can be charitably described as questionable. Curll is best known, perhaps, for his longstanding and bitter feud with Alexander Pope (the bookseller comes in for quite a lambaste in Pope's Dunciad, though over the course of the conflict it's hard to say which combatant emerges more bloodied). He's a fascinating character who deserves much more scholarly and popular attention today, which is why I was delighted to see that Oxford University Press was publishing this new biography; a bibliographical volume is apparently forthcoming, and I'll wait for that with much anticipation as well.

Baines and Rogers sought very explicitly to offer a scholarly treatment of Curll's life and work, and they have certainly accomplished that goal. This is a dense and detailed examination of the publications which emanated from Curll's pen, press and shops over the course of his career, as well as a dispassionate and reasoned account of his relations with his comrades in the book and printing trades, his authors and translators, and his many antagonists (beyond Pope, these included Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding, just to name the prominences). The authors' aim, as they put it, is to take a sober look at Curll's output with an eye toward the non-controversial items he published and sold (basic works on theology, for example, as well as an extensive list of books pertaining to English antiquities), in order to gain a more complete understanding of the man.

Baines and Rogers conclude that Curll's major innovations in the book trade came through his unorthodox use of promotion and publicity; they point out that while we today view the use of notoriety to sell things as perfectly normal, in the early to mid-eighteenth century it was a "disturbing novelty" (pg. 315). Curll's practices (publishing pamphlets critical of his own prior publications, for example, to drive of sales of both) made him more than a few enemies, but they also unquestionably sold many books. A master of cheek, understatement ("Curll could do more with an et cetera than anybody else in recorded history" - pg. 172), and wit, Edmund Curll built himself a much-deserved reputation in his time as a rascal; and rascals, as we all know, usually make for the most interesting historical subjects. Curll's certainly no exception.

Meticulously-researched and footnoted (albeit with a rather odd combination of footnotes and endnotes which seemed to switch back and forth somewhat idiosyncratically), Edmund Curll, Bookseller must give all bibliophiles and fans of Curll reason to celebrate; this book has been a long time coming.