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  • Literature by Design Since 1790
  • Jerome J. McGann (bio)

To Robert Frost's question about whether design governs in small things, we can answer confidently—at least with respect to small things like books—indeed it does. So far as the nineteenth-century is concerned, design comes as a series of graphical and bibliographical ventures by authors, artists, publishers, and their collaborating agents.

Let's briefly review the scene.1 Besides the unevadable William Blake, important innovations in graphical and bibliographical design came with the picture books and Toy Theatre prints for children that proliferated from the late eighteenth-century. The City Scenes; or a Peep into London (1809) published by Anne, Jane, and Isaac Taylor is famous. But there were a host of popular forms—for instance, William Hone's Every Day Book (1825-26) and illustrated periodicals like The Penny Magazine, miscellanies like La belle assemblée, or those fancy gift books and annuals with their distinctive steel engravings and decorative bindings that flooded England and America through four decades beginning around 1820. As for those Toy Theatre publications, we know almost nothing about the artisans involved, only the names of the publishers who fed the popular demand for such works well into the mid century: West, Fairborn, Skelt, Park, and many others.2

Equally important were the illustrated editions of classic authors: Cary's translation (1814) of Dante with Flaxman's stunning designs (1793), or Lane's translation of The Arabian Nights (1839-41) with Dalziel's engravings after the designs by William Harvey. Even the most topical of these graphically oriented works were often so imaginative that they achieved an aesthetic significance quite the equal of their social impact, like Hone and George Cruikshank's immortal satire The Political House that Jack Built (1819).

Through this publishing environment came the great illustrated editions of the period's authors—most notably the many editions of Byron and the monumental Abbotsford edition of Scott (1842-47). Samuel Rogers' Italy (1830) with engravings after the designs of Turner, Stothard, and others is a success that one of its publishers, Edward Moxon, would repeat, achieving perhaps an even greater celebrity with his famous 1857 edition of Tennyson's selected works with contemporary illustrations, including Rossetti's superb designs.3

But the examples are legion, as we know. Dickens is especially important partly because his involvement with his illustrators was so intimate, and [End Page 11] partly because, like Poe in America, he worked hard to gain control over the publishing venues that produced and distributed his writings. Thackeray, a gifted illustrator, made some of his own designs. Lewis Carroll himself illustrated Alice in Wonderland before John Tenniel was brought on for the published work. And before Carroll came the poet and artist Edward Lear, who illuminated his Nonsense books with line drawings as brilliant as the prose and poetry they accompany, producing works as integral in their way as Blake's before him and Stevie Smith a century later.4

Finally we may recall Arthur Hughes, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Laurence Housman, Aubrey Beardsley: these are some of the figures who dominated book illustration in the later nineteenth century. All of their work emerged in the context of the Arts and Crafts Movement that sprang from the collaborating imaginations of John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris.


Do not see all that as a history. Those are snapshots taken, not quite randomly, from a large and complex cultural scene. They serve, I hope, to indicate how many persons and types of agents were involved in creating and designing the literary works of the nineteenth century. Authors, artists, and engravers; printers and publishers and their subalterns, the paper makers, type foundries, and book binders; translators; libraries public and private; book distributors, like the circulating libraries, and of course those crucial second-order publications and their agents, the reviewers of the books that came to publication; and finally those end-of-the-line consumers, commercial or, as in Emily Dickinson's lifetime case, otherwise. All participate in what Roger Chartier has memorably called "The Order of Books."5

Within that Order "design" functions in two distinct ways. One...


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