Republic of Letters versus Republica Grubstreetaria, 1690–1711

  • Ann Cline Kelly


In the 1690s, when Swift began writing, he mistakenly looked to his cousin, John Dryden, and to his employer, Sir William Temple, for guidance on how to make his mark as an author. Sir William Temple had achieved his fame as a courtier, diplomat, belle lettrist in another age, before the cultural center of England shifted from the country estate and court to the City of London, when printed literature targeted to a general audience became the most influential force in English-speaking cultures.1 Swift was unaware that the model Temple offered him was anachronistic. Swift s other beacon was his cousin John Dryden. On Temples Moor Park estate in Surrey, Swift, removed from the London scene, might not have realized that although Dryden had once been Poet Laureate and the epitome of Augustan high culture, he had, in essence, become a professional writer working in more popular modes by the 1690s.2 With Dryden and Temple as exemplars, Swift attempted to do what the “self-crowned laureates” (Richard Helgerson’s term) of the Renaissance (Spenser, Jonson, and Milton) had done before him: boldly define himself as the voice of his generation.3 Because times had changed in the quarter century since Milton wrote Paradise Lost, Swift s early annunciations did not have the dramatic effect for which he might have hoped. In apprentice pieces, Swift started to understand the new world constructed by the popular press and, through trial and error, eventually learned how to make himself an important part of it.


Popular Culture Title Page Popular Literature Anonymous Author Print Culture 
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  1. 2.
    Hammond, Hackney, 8. See also Stephen Zwicker, “Representing the Revolution: Politics and High Culture in 1689,” in The Revolution of 1688—89: Changing Perspectives, ed. Lois Schwoerer (Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press, 1992), 165–83.Google Scholar
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    Alvin Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 249–58, discusses the ideological stakes in library reorganization, a phenomenon directly related to the determination of “the canon.” Indeed, our current canon wars have been called “The Battle of the Books.”Google Scholar
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    The myth that cheaply printed books, such as chapbooks, were underclass reading has been thoroughly debunked by scholarship, such as Margaret Spufford’s Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and it Readership in Seventeenth-Century England (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982). When the self-styled Republic of Letters ceased to have much influence on taste in the eighteenth century, works that were once considered “low” became mainstream. In an essay for The Tatler, Swift describes the phenomenon: In the past, he says, a “Grub-street Book was always bound in Sheep-skin, with suitable Print and Paper; the Price never above a Shilling; and taken off wholly by common Tradesmen, or Country Pedlars. But now they appear in all Sizes and Shapes, and in all Places: They are handed about from Lapfulls in every Coffee-house to Persons of Quality; are shewn in Westminster-Hall and the Court of Requests” (PW2: 174; italics omitted).Google Scholar
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    I am speculating here based on a note in Curll’s copy of the miscellany he published in 1710 that says he got the manuscript from “John Cliffe, Esq.; who had them of the Bp. Of Killala, in Ireland, whose Daughter he married & was my Lodger.” Ralph Straus, The Unspeakable Curll (London: Chapman and Hall, 1927), 33–34. I am supposing an Irish ecclesiastical connection.Google Scholar
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    Sir George Macauley Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne, 3 vols. (New York and London: Longman, Green and Co., 1931–4), 3: 254, quoted in Ehrenpreis, Swift, 2:500.Google Scholar

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© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

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