Everyone knows that the invention of printing marked one of the great
technological advances in civilization. But I didn’t realize
how recently this became a matter of consensus until I read a book
originally published in 1987, Samuel Johnson
and the Impact of Print, by the distinguished scholar Alvin Kernan of Princeton University.
It seems obvious now that print has transformed our civilization.
Since Johann Gutenberg first set the Bible in movable type around 1455,
we have come to take it for granted that whatever can be written can
be reproduced in print. This is an enormous convenience, sparing us
the necessity of having monks and scribes copy manuscripts by hand.
Print made universal literacy a possibility. You no longer have to
be rich in order to own the classics of literature.
Yet for a long time people feared print, not because they didn’t
realize its revolutionary potential, but precisely because they did.
The mass production of the Bible — and printing was an early
form of mass production — helped promote the Reformation. From
the viewpoint of the Church, print made it easy to spread heresy. And
from the viewpoint of other conservative forces, print made it easy
to spread political dissension. Heresy and democracy were the twin
progeny of print, the scourge of traditional authority.
Before the print revolution was complete, there were other objections.
Print was regarded as vulgar. In Renaissance England, for example,
gentlemen thought it was beneath their dignity to have their writings
printed. The “proper” way to circulate your writings, they
felt, was to pass your manuscripts around privately; if you tried to
have them printed and sold, you were descending to the level of a tradesman,
seeking — horrors! — money and popularity.
Thus Francis Meres wrote in 1598 that “Shakespeare” had
been circulating “his sugared sonnets among his private friends” — a
clue, I think, that “Shakespeare” was not the poet’s
real name, but the pen name of a nobleman who wanted his works printed,
but who would have been ashamed if the public knew he wanted them printed.
(A contemporary named the Earl of Oxford among those gentlemen of the
royal court who refused to publish their works under their own names.)
As Professor Kernan points out, anonymous and pseudonymous works were
common in those days because of what another scholar, J.W. Saunders,
has called “the stigma of print.” It wasn’t until
the eighteenth century that this stigma became pretty much a thing
of the past.
Many Elizabethan writers made rather comical apologies and excuses
for having their works printed. They wrote prefaces explaining that
they had no real choice: their friends insisted that they go into print,
or their work had fallen into the hands of a publisher, or whatever.
The reasons they gave are so feeble that it’s fairly clear that
they were feigning reluctance in order to maintain their standing as
gentlemen. We can hardly imagine a time when writers were ashamed of
publishing, because we assume that publishing is the natural purpose
Kernan sees the great writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709–84)
as a pivotal figure. In most respects deeply conservative, Dr. Johnson
nevertheless took pride in being a professional writer who owed nothing
to patronage. His defiantly dignified letter to Lord Chesterfield,
rejecting his offer of patronage of his great dictionary, is widely
regarded as literature’s declaration of independence of the aristocracy
on which it had formerly relied for support. Even King George III (whom
Johnson championed against the American colonists) didn’t presume
to tell Johnson what to write, but respected his dignity as an author.
But this authorial independence came at a price. Writers had to answer
to the market, if not to their social superiors. “For we who
live to please must please to live,” as Johnson elegantly put
it. The writer became part of a process of capitalist mass production,
which in turn bred new discontentments and resentments. Instead of
complaining about patrons, modern writers began complaining about the
crass and fickle reading public, affecting defiance of “the bourgeoisie” and
its censorship (though censorship would eventually crumble under market
But I’ve only scratched the surface of Kernan’s book.
Suffice it to say that I never expected to see Dr. Johnson as a radical
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on June 22, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
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