Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Launched upon the world - the first advertisement

Pictured: James Boswell (1740 to 1795)

James Boswell's Life of Johnson was published in 1791. The first covering advertisement can be found at:

The advertisement begins with the bold words “I at last deliver to the world a Work which I have long promised, and of which, I am afraid, too high expectations have been raised.

James Boswell, as forthright as ever, reminds his readers of the work involved in this labour of love. He speaks of the "labour and anxious attention" undertaken with the work; and having "spared no pains" in his attention to detail. I can't argue with Boswell's assertions, although others at the time were critical of his recording of conversations. But there can be no doubt as to Boswell's huge commitment and talent in assembling this huge creative work.

Dr Johnson had died in 1784, and even as Boswell released his biography, the world had changed and was changing dramatically. The French Revolution had taken begun in 1788. Thomas Paine's Rights of Man had been published (theoretically banned in Britain but widely circulated): both these events sent shock waves through English society. The industrial revolution was gathering pace, with its increased social change and upheaval.

This was the "world" into which Boswell published his account of Dr Johnson, already a man from a past age, a towering figure, a man of words and thoughts and ideas. London was the centre of England culture, and England was slowly expanding its empire. It is interesting to note however that in 1801, the population of greater London was estimated at 1.1 million (the population of England was about 8 million). English literature towers head and shoulders over the western world, but England's population at the time of many of its greats (Johnson, Jane Austen, Lord Byron) was relatively small by 21st century standards.

At the same time, the penal settlement at Sydney Cove was a mere three years old, and English literature was a long way from the minds from the vast majority of convicts, soldiers and settlers there. Notheless, there were those who valued books, especially when they had travelled through storm and tempest, thousands of miles by ship. One example of this value is seen in a Sydney Gazette ad just a few yers later:
BORROWED from the Gazette Office, an Octavo Volume, FERGUSON'S ASTRONOMY.-It
'is now much wanted, and there fore requested to be Returned"

We do not know if copies of Boswell's Life of Johnson made it in these early days to Australian shores!

In the meantime, Life of Johnson was an instant success. We move next into the nitty gritty of Boswell's work.

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