- “Interloping with my Question-Project”: Debating Genre in John Dunton’s and Daniel Defoe’s Epistolary Periodicals
In the first decades of the eighteenth century, two of London’s most notorious and influential print pioneers engaged in a personal and professional dispute that left a lasting impact on what would become the public genre par excellence: the periodical. This essay explores the underappreciated connection between John Dunton and Daniel Defoe, and its consequences for developing concepts of authorship, publication, and authority, as it materialized in the epistolary periodical, a crucial turn-of-the-century genre. While the wide-scale use of reader letters in early periodicals has been acknowledged if not fully appreciated in contemporary scholarship, Dunton and Defoe devoted copious space to both printing and commenting on submitted correspondence. In Dunton’s question-and-answer paper, The Athenian Mercury (1691–7), and Defoe’s periodical essay, the Review (1704–13), and journalistic work, The Storm (1704), the authors debated the role of manuscript letters in the “public prints” in a way that highlighted the periodical as a vehicle for community information, opinion, and expertise. In the early, experimental periodical form, an epistolary metadiscourse emerged that filtered the status of print publication through the discussion of letters. This pervasive self-reflexivity would remain a defining feature of the periodical genre.1
Printed periodical news and opinion was still a “new thing,” in Defoe’s [End Page 121] words, when the two men began writing, and they emerged from the same community of dissenting printers and preachers.2 But while they were at one time collaborators, their relationship quickly soured. In Dunton’s memoirs, the prolific bookseller, author, and printer accused Defoe of plagiarism, or of what Dunton termed “Interloping with my Question-Project.”3 The “Question-Project,” also known as “Athenianism,” was Dunton’s phrase for his genre-defining periodical, The Athenian Mercury, which scholars now agree was Britain’s first question-and-answer paper.4 It consisted of purportedly reader-supplied questions and the answers of the “Athenian Society,” which claimed up to a dozen members but in fact included only Dunton and two associates. In a 1706 work, Dunton wrote that Defoe had “done me a sensible Wrong” by adopting the question-and-answer format in Defoe’s own news miscellany, the Review.5 While Dunton had no qualms about plagiarism of content, as The Athenian Mercury constantly reprinted existing texts as answers to questions, he considered the genre of the question-and-answer his literary “Property,” calling the “Design” the “Child of my Brain.”6 The quarrel with Defoe concerned Dunton’s self-perceived prominence as a generic inventor.
Dunton’s ire notwithstanding, the extent of Defoe’s plagiarism is highly debatable.7 While the Mercury consisted entirely of lists of readers’ queries, the Review followed its news sections with supplemental letters, not all of which drew responses from the author. I will return to the question of Defoe’s debt to Dunton. But what I want to emphasize here is how Dunton’s unfamiliar notion of intellectual property—which located originality not in the author’s writing but in the print worker’s novel use of genre—modeled a cyclical and communal version of authorship and readership, one that depended on the cooperation of readers as contributors. By foregrounding reader letters, Dunton and Defoe were able simultaneously to take a number of actions necessary in their unstable literary milieu: to foster and coordinate reader communities; to put forward a notion of collectivity that helped legitimate their anonymous, unfamiliar texts; and to interrogate the shifting relationship between manuscript and print as media of publication. Jody Greene and Mark Rose have each demonstrated the instability in concepts of originality and literary property evident in the period between the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 and the first “Copyright Act” of 1710, an instability that I argue Dunton and Defoe both assuaged and took advantage of through their extensive incorporation of reader letters.8 Early periodicals created literary circuits in which participants could oscillate between the positions of reader and writer; their insistent heterogeneity and multi-vocality offered readers a stake in the texts...