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  • How Radical was Joseph Johnson and Why Does Radicalism Matter?

The radical bookseller Joseph Johnson was willing to publish tracts that others thought too hot to handle.

—John Brewer1

If Johnson were radical, indeed if he had any political affiliation . . . it was accidental.

—Marilyn Gaull2

My title’s first question seems an affair of the archive, a call for the collection of historical data; the second, a diagnosis of our own critical preoccupations. Taken together, these queries issue a problem that lingers at the site at which the concerns of book history subtend those of literary criticism. In modern accounts of the Romantic era, Joseph Johnson rarely appears without a kind of Homeric epithet attached to his name: he is “radical publisher Joseph Johnson.” No more explanation for the epithet is needed than that he championed Mary Wollstonecraft or hosted Thomas Paine at the Tuesday dinners he held above his bookshop at 72 St. Paul’s Churchyard. In a few recent efforts to make distinctions among the various political pulses that coursed through London in the revolutionary age, however, Johnson has been denied the label “radical,” in some cases with an attempt at precision, in others with an attempted incision that severs him from the truly radical figures in the era’s book trade (with “truly radical” itself variously defined).3 In these accounts, rather than [End Page 173] radical, Johnson is middle-class, bourgeois, polite, and even, dare we say it, well-to-do (this last was certainly true by the time of his death).4 According to these competing critical narratives, radical publisher Joseph Johnson was dogged by the authorities for his daring publications, while polite publisher Joseph Johnson’s spell in King’s Bench Prison for seditious libel was a petty inconvenience for someone who could host his friends in comfortable private quarters while in jail. To say this another way, Johnson is radical for those who wish him to be, and not for those who do not: rarely is there a definition of terms.

But want of definition does not mean want of investment. Johnson’s status as a veritable Romantic-era folk hero has led to intense debates about his political allegiances. To offer a particularly high profile example, John Barrell in the London Review of Books sharply critiqued Helen Braithwaite’s portrait of Johnson as far less radical than is often assumed. Braithwaite’s Romanticism, Publishing, and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty is well researched and well written, and certainly more accomplished than many first books. By Barrell’s lights, however, Braithwaite crossed a treacherous line when she questioned the radical credentials of a Romantic-era hero. The first half of my title is in fact borrowed from a question that Braithwaite poses in her opening pages: “How radical a publisher was Joseph Johnson?”5 Braithwaite eventually arrives at a nuanced answer, one that attends to Johnson’s work in different fields and in different decades, but she ultimately makes the case that, assessed against bolder figures of the era—such as Richard “Citizen” Lee, who was about as radical as a publisher could be without dissolving into E. P. Thompson’s imagination—Johnson cannot really be thought of as a radical.6 Set along-side bold members of the book trade such as “Citizen” Lee, Daniel Isaac Eaton, and Thomas Spence, Braithwaite argues, Johnson appears much more moderate.7 Barrell was not pleased, naming Braithwaite’s account [End Page 174] “oddly strident and defensive,” and protesting, “She badly wants to believe that Johnson, though prosecuted, unfairly, for seditious libel, was not really very radical.”8 The sustained energy of Barrell’s reaction suggests that Braithwaite has not just erred, but offended.

These charged discrepancies in critical opinions of Johnson are the consequence of two underexamined methodological challenges that obtain in studies of Romantic-era print culture. First, despite its significance to the period’s critical history, the term “radical” has not received a scrutiny equal to the importance of its hermeneutic charge. Second, while various praxes are manifest in accounts of Romantic-era publishers, we have no coherent evidentiary protocols for assessing publishers-qua-publishers. To come to a fuller understanding of Johnson’s political allegiances, therefore, requires attention to the two interpretative difficulties bound together in his epithet “radical publisher”: first is the precise meaning of the adjective, and second is the broader problem the noun poses for book historical study. In this regard, the case of Joseph Johnson engages methodological problems that more broadly contour how we understand the relation between radical culture and the book trade during the Romantic era. In what follows I first reassess some familiar ideas about Johnson’s place in the fraught atmosphere of the 1790s, with special attention to his work with politically prominent authors such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Malthus. A more purposeful approach to evidentiary practice makes it clear that to assess Johnson’s political alignments we must register the complex contingencies of his commitment to the value of open debate, a commitment that grew ever more perilous as the 1790s unfolded. To do so, I argue, is to reveal that Johnson was as “radical” as a large-volume publisher could be in the Pitt era without ending up bankrupt, transported, or otherwise consigned to book history oblivion.

Joseph Johnson would not have referred to himself as a radical. “London bookseller” was his preferred self-identification, but perhaps if pressed to articulate his political coordinates, he would have named himself a “free enquirer,” that is, a general supporter of London’s dissenting community.9 [End Page 175] In current usage, radical certainly extends beyond its etymological sense of changing something from the root (from radix), but what more (or what less) does it denote or connote?10 Does it have to do with political principles, public action, principled inaction, or with an assumed or projected public posture? Is it a matter of affect, of income level, of urban geography? Raymond Williams has charted a slow transition in the term across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an adjective, radical developed from a general descriptor of fundamental qualities (related to its source word) to politics specifically in the eighteenth century, and by the nineteenth it appeared more and more often as a noun used in reference to political activists. Attempting to make some distinctions among the term’s political applications, Williams reports that radical has generally been deployed to indicate something more “vigorous” than liberal, and, when these later terms emerged, less doctrinaire than socialist or communist—in effect it has operated as a utility term that suggests “the need for vigorous and fundamental change” just this side of “revolutionary.”11 When it has been reflected upon in modern critical practice the term has proven particularly refractory. “The distinguishing features of radical publication,” writes Marcus Wood, playfully deflecting the onus of definition, “might finally be summarized as intellectual instability, economic promiscuity and formal variety; or then again intellectual variety, economic instability and formal promiscuity; or then again intellectual promiscuity, economic variety and formal instability.”12 This lexicographical shuffle leads Wood to sigh, “the sheer range of authors who might be categorized as radicals is almost limitless.”

Determining exactly what “radical” means for the Romantic era is further complicated by the problem of when it means it. The term was new to Byron in 1820. “Upon reform you have long known my opinion,” he wrote to John Cam Hobhouse from Italy, “but radical is a new word since my time—it was not in the political vocabulary of 1816—when I left England—and I don’t know what it means—is it uprooting?”13 While [End Page 176] “radical” as a political marker was only slowly coming into use during the Romantic era, modern critics have treated it with some license: it has been used in accounts of the English Revolution, and in descriptions of groups such as the Honest Whigs or the Society for Constitutional Information, but it is more common to find historians and literary critics using it in reference to the 1790s and onward, in the first instance for working-class activists such as shoemaker Thomas Hardy and members of the popular corresponding societies of London and industrial centers like Sheffield and Manchester, but also radiating out to include just about any artist or writer whose works register disenchantment with things as they are.14 Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class has been most influential here, and since its publication the term radical has proven indispensable to Romanticism’s disciplinary self-conception.15 This use of “radical” in studies of the Romantic era tracks an arc uneasily interwoven with the contemporary accusations of “Jacobinism” that, as Michael Scrivener has shown, were lobbed at just about anyone who grumbled at the status quo: since Thompson we have tended to deploy “radical” with a holophrastic ease at least equal to the elastic use of “Jacobin” by Romanticera reactionaries.16

If one challenge in the attempt to locate Johnson’s political priorities comes from deciding on the meaning and interpretive value of the term radical, another is posed by the uncertain status of the publisher in book historical inquiry. In Robert Darnton’s influential “communications circuit” model of the book trade, “publisher” traces an orbital line just next to “author,” but opposite “bookseller,” and acted upon by the gravitational pull of cultural, economic, and political forces (fig. 1).17 Most significant about Darnton’s placement of the publisher here is its propinquity to the author, for Darnton wished, as Michelle Levy notes, to “re-embe[d] authors within the larger fields of activity by which books were made and sold, distributed and read.”18 With this emphasis on the significance of the author, Darnton ended up paying less attention to the publisher, and updated versions of his model, such as Adams and Barker’s oft-cited “socio-economic [End Page 177] conjuncture,” have likewise left the publisher as an understudied book trade actor.19

Figure 1. Darnton’s model of the “communications circuit.”
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Figure 1.

Darnton’s model of the “communications circuit.”

A sharp interpretation of book history’s occasional uncertainty about just what to do with the figure of the publisher has been offered by Alistair McCleery. “We are still too influenced by the Annales school and its emphasis on the mass movement of history,” he argues, an approach that diminishes the agency of any one publisher as a meaningful cultural actor.20 When individual publishers have been the focus of inquiry, meanwhile, it is too often in the mode of the house history, superintended by what McCleery calls an “unctuous, uncritical attention to personality.”21 To these two treatments of the figure of the publisher we can add a third, one that comes from authors themselves: the enduring caricature of publishers as heartless and philistine rulers of a greedy capelocracy. This version was strikingly registered during Johnson’s time in a series of cartoons depicting the publisher as what Thomas Rowlandson unsubtly styled a “Brain-Sucker” [End Page 178] (fig. 2), while Coleridge complained of “Vampire booksellers” who “drain him to the heart” (likely in reference to Joseph Cottle).22

Figure 2. The Brain-Sucker, or the Miseries of Authorship, by Thomas Rowlandson, 9 May 1787. Reproduced courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
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Figure 2.

The Brain-Sucker, or the Miseries of Authorship, by Thomas Rowlandson, 9 May 1787. Reproduced courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

To begin to think of Joseph Johnson not as a non-agential cog in the longue durée machine of cultural history and not as a London book trade “personality” (whether glorious or devious), I would like to collate a pair of dates that hold special significance for British publishing: 1695 and 1792. The first saw the expiration of the Licensing Act, which meant the end of official pre-publication censorship.23 Attempts to control the press hardly faded away alongside the expiration of the statute, but they necessarily became [End Page 179] more dispersed, with intimidation and bribery serving as the new pre-publication censorship, and the law of seditious libel as the primary tool for controlling the press after publication.24 Entering the trade in the 1760s, Johnson experienced both the freedom to issue any work he wished and the fear of legal and quasi-legal punishment should one of his publications prove offensive. Publishers were certainly subject to legal force in the early decades of Johnson’s career, but it was in the aftermath of the French Revolution that Johnson was compelled to negotiate the dynamic of freedom and constraint that had defined his trade for a century, a professional reckoning that is registered in the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Thomas Paine. Crucial to this narrative is the year 1792, which saw the publication of part two of Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine found fame with the first part of his democratic broadside in the previous year, but it was with the release of part two in February 1792 that he provoked state action, first in the form of the “Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings and Publications” (meant to discourage the dissemination of Paine’s tract), and later in the warrant issued for his arrest on the charge of seditious libel. Bolting to France in September 1792, Paine managed to dodge trial, but the legal and cultural consequences of his work were nonetheless felt throughout the book trade. Booksellers and printers in both London and the provinces were arrested, while Paine’s effigy was burnt in massive bonfires throughout the country.25

The clampdown on Paine and the ideas he represented are manifest in this array of legal and cultural reaction, but the broader implication of his tract for British print culture is perhaps best illustrated in Hannah More’s Village Politics (1793). Shaped as a dialogue between Tom Hod, a mason who has been swayed by Paine’s ideas, and his friend Jack Anvil, a black-smith who hammers this influence out of him, More’s tract offers what D. F. McKenzie might call a sociology of Paine’s text,26 one that imagines the work slithering into and corrupting an otherwise contented working-class community: [End Page 180]


What’s the matter, Tom? Why dost look so dismal?


Dismal indeed! Well enough I may.


What’s the old mare dead? or work scarce?


No, no, work’s plenty enough, if a man had but the heart to go to it.


What book art reading? Why dost look so like a hang dog?


(looking on his book.) Cause enough. Why I find here that I’m very unhappy, and very miserable; which I should never have known if I had not had the good luck to meet with this book. O ’tis a precious book!


A good sign tho’; that you can’t find out you’re unhappy without looking into a book for it.27

If hardly subtle, More’s presentation of Paine’s influence limns a shorthand for both the effects that Rights of Man had on British workers, and the growing awareness of what might issue from the era’s volatile combination of cheap print, reticulated distribution, and rising literacy rates.28 There was a real belief that Paine and the democratic societies that distributed his tract were not simply meeting demand with supply but were forging a community of resistant Britons who would otherwise have lingered in atomized disenchantment. Paine was the synecdochal demon at the heart of this wicked forge, subject to arrest warrants, effigy burnings, and scores of satirical cartoons, but it was the publishers and printers in Britain who absorbed government attention. His flight to France only intensified the pressure on those responsible for the material registration and distribution of his ideas. This is not to say that the medium was the message, but in the case of Rights of Man in the early 1790s it might as well have been: to be a printer of Paine, or a seller, or distributor, was to perform the doctrines he espoused. And perhaps the medium was the message if we include distribution under the rubric of media, with every printer and bookseller a node in the network of democratic discourse. For those charged with the task of foreclosing this network, it did not much matter whether specific booksellers or printers thought of themselves as dissenters or patriots or Jacobins or loyal subjects. They were each Tom Paine.29

Joseph Johnson was the first publisher of Rights of Man. Almost as soon as [End Page 181] the printers got to work, however, he transferred the project to fellow London bookseller Jeremiah Jordan.30 It is generally assumed that the tract’s inflammatory content prompted Johnson timorously to pass Rights of Man to Jordan, but things become less certain when we pause to consider Johnson’s larger disposition toward his good friend Paine during this anxious time. Both before and after the appearance of Rights of Man Johnson was not especially wary of his public association with Paine: in August 1791, just a few months after giving the project to Jordan, Johnson offered to publish his own abridged version of Rights of Man; in April 1792 he paid £200 to save Paine from arrest for debt; and two months later he agreed to distribute 700 copies of another of Paine’s works.31 A note survives from Theophilus Lindsey indicating that Johnson was “advised not to sell” Paine’s tract, but we have no record of Johnson mentioning that he initially handed over publication of Rights of Man out of political fear, and his subsequent involvement with Paine troubles this claim.32 When we take Johnson’s later actions into account, the critical commonplace that has him giving Rights of Man to the “more radical” Jordan in 1791 would seem to imply that Johnson felt it would somehow be safer for him to publish and distribute Paine as the arrests of book trade actors increased in the 1790s.33 An alternative scenario is suggested by Michael Everton’s account of Paine’s publication of Common Sense a decade and a half earlier. Paine’s political agenda should not lead us to overlook the fact, Everton argues, that [End Page 182] he was a ferocious negotiator of his own publishing contracts.34 Paine cashiered his first publisher Robert Bell after a dispute over profits, and he was quick to adjust subsequent compacts to maximize his share of the revenue generated by Common Sense. It is certainly possible that Johnson wavered on Rights of Man out of political caution, but it is no less possible that he shifted his arrangement to accommodate Paine’s own sense of how best to produce and market his tract. All of this is to say that the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s involvement with Rights of Man specifically and Paine more broadly unsettle any attempt to fix Johnson’s own position during the turbulent years of the early 1790s.

Rather than putting too much pressure on any one of Johnson’s publication decisions, might we expand the scope of inquiry and bring Franco Moretti’s model of distant reading to bear on our attempt to understand his political status? In the opening pages of Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti explains that his turn to macroanalytics as a method for literary historical study draws upon the tools of bibliometry, and so to bring distant reading to Johnson’s work would return to book history some of its own resources. 35 But the thetic glitches that obtain in the uncertain transit from evidence to interpretation in Moretti’s work are only amplified in the case of a large-volume publisher like Johnson. Not only was he involved in the production of about 2700 books across almost five decades, but his level of engagement ranged from close cultivation of a single promising author (William Cowper, Mary Wollstonecraft) to nearly insignificant participation in massive congers publications.36 As Katie Trumpener has shown in another context, Morretti’s distant reading model prescinds from data not registered by the search criteria necessary to process thousands of texts.37 With this difficulty in mind, I would suggest that for Johnson we neither close read one publication as representative of his career, nor distance read thousands, but for want of a better term, that we “middle read” his work for a clearer sense of his behavior through a delimited data set that is greater than one and less than 2700.38 This approach would allow us to come closer [End Page 183] to what we might call, adapting D. C. Greetham’s phrase, a codexical forensics, and in this regard middle reading may help us to reassess some generalizations about Johnson that have by now ossified into axioms.39

As an example of what this approach might look like, I will consider Johnson’s radicalism (or otherwise) by turning to a subset within his larger production, one that critical history has treated in a mercurial way: scientific publications. In the first instance, there has been a general sense that Johnson was a publisher of what is often called “radical science,” with reference to writers such as Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, and Thomas Beddoes.40 Those who wish to argue that there was nothing particularly radical about Johnson’s career, however, normally default to his 1798 publication of Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, the single most influential scientific work to emerge from Johnson’s imprint.41 “If [Johnson] were a political radical himself,” one critic has asked, “then why would he have published” Malthus’s work?42 How do these divergent accounts of Johnson’s scientific publications accord with one another? Middle reading suggests that in both cases our assumptions do not survive the archive.

It is important to recognize that from his earliest days Johnson was deeply involved in the publication of scientific texts. Amidst the wide variety of scientific and medical authors with whom he worked, we can make out a few clusters of production. He established relationships with writers affiliated with the Warrington Academy, for instance, such as John Aikin, Joseph Priestley, and Edward Rigby, as well as members of the Lunar Society, [End Page 184] most notably Erasmus Darwin. Although these writers lived and worked in different parts of the country, their association with Johnson’s shop as not only a metropolitan but effectively a national hub fostered a sense of community, and in return Johnson was introduced to exciting new works by his many contacts in the scientific world.43 Given his decades–long publication and promotion of groundbreaking, and often politically prominent scientific and medical writers, we might ask what role his position at the vanguard of scientific exploration played in Johnson’s eventual prosecution and imprisonment. How many of the scientific works were, as his friend John Aikin said of Johnson’s wider publication catalogue after his arrest, “displeasing to Authority”?44

The answer would appear to be: zero. When Johnson was indicted in January 1798, it was for selling Gilbert Wakefield’s irenic howl, A Reply to Some Parts of the Bishop of Llandaff’s Address to the People of Great Britain.45 Found guilty in July, Johnson could afford bail, and so he remained free until November, when he was brought back for sentencing. The Attorney General now revealed his interest in Johnson’s activities beyond the sale of Wakefield’s tract, announcing that he wished to “verify by affidavit” all of Johnson’s publications since the July trial, and also to bring into evidence articles from the Analytical Review.46 It was now obvious that the government was watching and would hold Johnson responsible not only for the books he published (guaranteed by affidavit) but also for those treated in his periodical. After giving an account of himself at this November hearing, rather than receiving his sentence Johnson was held in prison for an additional three months, and it was during this juridical limbo that he finally brought the Analytical Review to a close. In February 1799 Johnson at last received his sentence: six more months in King’s Bench Prison (along with a fine of, £50, and sureties of £700 for good behavior). In the end, Johnson survived his trial and imprisonment, and he continued to publish and sell books with great industry, but he also received the government’s message. Although we have no direct evidence that he was rattled earlier in the 1790s, Johnson was clearly jarred by his prosecution and confinement at the decade’s end. Writing in January 1799 from prison (where he had been waiting since November for his sentence) he told Christopher Wyvill: [End Page 185]

It is impossible to guess when my sentence will be pass’d. . . . And as it would be highly imprudent in me to publish anything offensive before, and you wish to bring out your Pamphlet in February, there seems to be a necessity for your choosing another bookseller, if another can be found. The liberty of the press was given up by its pretended friends a few years ago . . . we must now wait events, nothing I fear can be done by pamphlets which will not be read, and nothing should be expected from booksellers who have been left without support.47

The caution that Johnson showed while awaiting trial was predictive; his publication list after his release from prison reveals a marked turn from political works.48 Maria Edgeworth reported in May 1800 that he was even afraid to publish a pamphlet of her father’s speeches: “He is grown very cautious—a burnt child dreads the fire.”49

What I wish to emphasize here is that amidst this intense pressure Johnson did not reduce but rather increased his publications in science. Far from shying away from his association with scientific and medical discourse, Johnson in his court affidavit presented himself as a publisher whose “connections have been with respectable and scientific Writers and [whose] publications [are] generally of a Moral, Philosophical, and Medical nature.”50 The data for this subset of Johnson’s larger output reveals his attempt to emphasize this aspect of his work: before his trial, from 1790 to 1797, his scientific publications averaged 14% of his total output, but in 1799 and 1800 this number more than doubled, with scientific and medical publications now making up 29%. And after his release from prison Johnson “made considerable additions to his medical list,” Braithwaite notes, “with important pioneering works on medical ethics by Thomas Percival and experimental chemistry by Thomas Beddoes.”51 In other words, Johnson added not only medical works but also publications from [End Page 186] what is usually figured as the politically fraught field of chemistry: in 1797, the year before his arrest, he published no works of chemistry, but in the year of his imprisonment he published five, and then four the following year, while he was still, as Edgeworth put it, dreading the fires of prosecution. If we are to describe Johnson’s scientific publications—even those in chemistry—as radical, we must use this descriptor in a different, or at least a more nuanced, way. Perhaps “radical” in this case names works at the forefront of scientific thought but not those perceived by Johnson or post-publication censors as politically dangerous or legally risky. Or perhaps it characterizes ideas that were rejected by establishment gatekeepers like Joseph Banks at the Royal Society. But it is important to note that in Johnson’s case these publications were treated as different not in degree but in kind from tracts that questioned the ministry’s militarism or urged political reform, and Johnson did seem to recognize that scientific publications would pass without attracting the ire of the Attorney General. The familiar claim that Johnson was a publisher of radical science can only be sustained if we use radical in this case to indicate something distinct from works that carried political and legal peril.

This leads to my second concern, Johnson’s publication in 1798 of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, which has anchored critical claims that Johnson was a more conservative publisher than we might have realized. Fully to understand Johnson’s publication of the Essay on the Principle of Population we must first leave behind anachronistic readings of Malthus himself. When Johnson accepted the Essay for publication, Malthus was not an icon of conservative thought but a young alumnus of the Warrington Academy, and Johnson was by then the chief London book trade contact for Warrington authors. After Warrington, Malthus was privately tutored by Gilbert Wakefield, and subsequently at Cambridge his tutor was French Revolution supporter William Frend (another of Johnson’s authors).52 Later, in London, Malthus was a guest at Johnson’s weekly dinners, where he often sat down with his future public disputant William Godwin. Johnson hosted Godwin and Malthus together at least as late as 1805, and he coordinated the mailing of written material between them. Malthus, in other words, was part of Johnson’s inner social and intellectual circle, and it would have been more conspicuous if this bright young mind had not published his first substantial work at 72 St. Paul’s.

Regarding the specific content of Malthus’s book, we should be wary of thinking of Johnson in terms of an intellectual or political puritanism. The [End Page 187] Essay would have been “anathema” to most of Johnson’s writers, suggests Tyson, and so it is “a credit to his intellectual flexibility that he published this dire view of population growth.”53 This is a helpful account, and we might extend Tyson’s argument to think about Johnson’s efforts to promote vigorous debate. “Johnson’s list of imprints,” Leslie Chard notes, “is alive with attacks and counter-attacks.”54 Across his career Johnson specialized in five fields—education, science, politics, literature, and religion—and we might think of print agons as his sixth specialty. In this regard, he was likely attracted to Malthus’s Essay precisely because, as the title page indicates, it engages the utopian discourse of writers such as Godwin and Condorcet. The semiotic of debate arranged on the title page represents well Johnson’s larger commitment to rhetorical and ideological contest (fig. 3). Johnson would not have eschewed a polemic work if he happened personally not to agree with it. He published defenses of Caribbean slavery along with abolitionist tracts; he published Thomas Brown along with Erasmus Darwin; Sarah Trimmer along with Mary Wollstonecraft; Joseph Priestley along with Richard Elliot; and Thomas Malthus along with William Godwin.55 In this regard, Johnson can appear radical or conservative, or any point in between, not only at different times in his career, but within a single year, or a single month, if our evidentiary mode is targeted culling. Rather than seeking ideological harmony in his catalogue, thinking about Johnson’s belief as practice allows us to see the importance he placed on the constructive value of disagreement. To continue to act on this belief as the 1790s unfolded placed him in the crosshairs of a British government nervously watching the violence across the channel and no less worried about uprisings at home. In short, it was Johnson’s very commitment to fostering open debate that would come to appear radical in the repressive climate of the later 1790s.56 [End Page 188]

Figure 3. Title page for the first edition of Malthus’s Essay. Courtesy of The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
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Figure 3.

Title page for the first edition of Malthus’s Essay. Courtesy of The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

The book history of the Romantic period, contoured by the revolution debate, has been a political history, and because of this, the period’s publishers are crucial not only as the cultural facilitators or gatekeepers that they are in any period. The publishers of this era operate at the nexus of our deeply held beliefs, or at least oft-repeated notions, about the causal relationship among ideas, print culture, and political and social change. For political historians and literary scholars in the 1960s and 1970s who wished to depart from both elitist old historicism and Annales abstraction, print culture’s relation to resistance needed to be grounded in specific examples of the agency through which the working and middle classes achieved [End Page 189] change. This emphasis shaped and was shaped by one of the narratological strategies of history-from-below that is still with us: while rejecting a Carlylian “great man” historiography, history-from-below tends nonetheless to populate its discourse with a cast of heroes and villains, with anyone in between relegated to the status of a background player.57 In this regard, Joseph Johnson has been asked to fit the model of a radical who played a hero’s role in a volatile history. But as a measured (and successful) London publisher, Johnson’s mode of heroism did not entail radical purity as much as strategic and enduring survival in a trade replete with bankruptcies and imprisonments. This moderate approach allowed him to keep publishing after many others had been rendered ineffective or silent. When “Citizen” Lee was living as an outlaw in Philadelphia, having escaped prison in London in 1795, for instance, Johnson was busy helping to launch the career of Maria Edgeworth, a young writer who had won the endorsement of Wollstonecraft before she died.

So then: how radical was Joseph Johnson and why does radicalism matter? If by radical we mean self-aggrandizing martyrdom or disengaged utopianism, then Johnson was not even close. But if by radical we mean a readiness to do what needed doing to keep progressive ideas about democracy and peace, women’s rights, religious toleration, and the welfare of prisoners in circulation during a repressive era, then Johnson was as deeply radical as any major publisher in British history. But to say that Johnson was noncomplicit with power is not to say that he cultivated controversy or was eager to make himself a beacon of defiance. Taking Johnson’s radicalism as a given, one critic has offered a contrast with Byron’s publisher: “[John] Murray was an astute businessman but he was also restrained in his dealings. He was not a publisher like Joseph Johnson or John Hunt who was prepared to go to prison for their publications.”58 But it is important to recognize that Johnson was not prepared to go to prison for any reason. He was shaken by the charges brought against him in 1798, fought hard during trial not to justify his vocational freedom but to claim his conventional respectability, and unlike Spence, Eaton, Wooler, Hone, Flower, and others, Johnson did not publish an account of his own trial or prison experience after his release.59 He preferred quietly to move on. This matters because [End Page 190] the model of heroism that has defined history-from-below inquiry cannot be transposed onto book history without issuing deformed narratives of laud and censure. It matters because the model of heroism that Johnson represents, especially in the aftermath of the French Revolution, is one of moderation and pragmatism, a heroism of the juste milieu.

The question ofjohnson’s radicalism or otherwise is everywhere tied, as I have tried to show, to the viscous contingencies of the Romantic-era book trade, but ultimately it comes up against the enduring challenge of the relationship between evidence and interpretation in book historical inquiry. This challenge is often thought of in terms of the movement between the book as a material object and the book as a conceptual term for the content within. What, if anything, does it tell us about Jane Eyre, for instance, once we understand the material circumstances surrounding the production, sale, and distribution of triple-decker novels in the mid nineteenth century? How does it affect our reading of the two-volume 1807 edition of Wordsworth’s Poems to know that it was printed on pricey hot-pressed paper? But in the specific case of publishers the evidentiary remit expands to include all of the interpretable data surrounding their entire catalogue: which paper grades were used, which printers were selected, and what kind of “letter” (ie. typeface) was set up for the work? What decisions were made about margin size, chapter organization, binding style, print runs, pricing, promotional efforts, and so on? “No book,” D. F. McKenzie reminds us, “was ever bound by its covers.”60 If we estimate Johnson’s output at roughly 2700 books, the interpretive possibilities become dizzying. But this does not mean that in the end we can say nothing of the political valences of his work. This is where attending to interpretable subsets of a publisher’s output—what I have called middle reading—becomes, I would propose, a useful way to find some space between riveting ourselves to a political caricature and becoming subsumed by the statistical sublime.

John Bugg
Fordham University
John Bugg

John Bugg is Professor of English at Fordham University. He is author of Five Long Winters: The Trials of British Romanticism (Stanford, 2014), and The Joseph Johnson Letterbook (Oxford, 2016).


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6. Johnson was at his politically boldest, Braithwaite suggests, in his work against the Test and Corporation Acts, proposing that this is “probably where his real significance and ‘radicalism’ lies” (Romanticism, Publishing, and Dissent, 167). Chard has gone further, arguing that terms such as radical and liberal are “a poor fit,” and instead concluding: “He was an ‘enlightened’ publisher. To say much more than that is probably to mischaracterize the man” (“Joseph Johnson in the 1790s,” 99).

9. On Johnson and the culture of Dissent, see Braithwaite, as well Andrea Engstrom, “Joseph Johnson’s Circle and the Analytical Review: A Study of English Radicals in the Late Eighteenth Century,” dissertation (University of Southern California, 1986). In the inaugural edition of Johnson’s Analytical Review, the diffusion of Dissent into a broader mode of free enquiry guides the opening address “To the Public” (most likely penned by Johnson’s collaborator Thomas Christie). See Analytical Review, vol. 1 (May–August 1788): i–vi. Jon Mee offers a nuanced account of how the Johnson circle’s rational dissent can be distinguished from, and perhaps sought to insulate itself against, the “artisan radicalism” of William Blake and others (see Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992], esp. 220–23).

10. “Radical,” OED Online (Oxford University Press, 2015).

13. Byron, Letter dated 22 April 1820, in “Between Two Worlds”: Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1977), 81.

14. On the use of the term radical in reference to the English Revolution, see Radicalism in British Literary Culture, 1650–1830, ed. Nigel Smith and Timothy Morton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1–26. H. T. Dickinson considers the continuity of a radical British culture across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in The Politics of the People in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1994).

19. Adams and Barker exchange Darnton’s six actors in the communications circuit for five events in the life of a text. See “A New Model for the Study of the Book,” in A Potencie of Life: Books in Society, ed. Nicholas Barker (London: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1993), 5–43. Darnton himself returned to the topic with ‘“What is the History of Books?’ Revisited,” in which he assesses the strengths and potential shortcomings of Adams’s and Barker’s model (Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 3 [2007]: 495–508).

20. McCleery, “The Return of the Publisher to Book History,” Book History 5 (2002): 161–85. House histories have normally been composed by members or relatives of the firms in question and often published in-house. For a brief meditation on the house history mode in regards to Blackwoods, see the introduction to David Finkelstein’s The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002), 16–20.

22. Coleridge’s characterization (with an assist from Robert Burns’s “Second Epistle To Robert Graham”) comes in his January 1796 letter to Josiah Wade. See John-David Lopez, “Coleridge’s Publisher and Patron: Cottle and Poole,” in The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Frederick Burwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 49–67.

29. “The act of distribution,” notes Michael T. Davis, was “considered more subversive than the act of writing—the publisher a more dangerous figure than the author. As the attorney-general stated at Eaton’s second trial in July 1793 for publishing Paine’s Letter, Addressed to the Addressers (1793), ‘the man who mixes the poison, and does not distribute it, is less guilty than he who lends his hand to the distribution of it’ ” (“I can bear punishment,” 91).

30. A few copies published by Johnson did circulate—the Critical Review listed Paine’s work with Johnson’s imprint ([March 1791]: 337).

31. Johnson’s offer to publish an abridged version is recorded in a letter from Thomas Cooper to John Horne Tooke (cited in The Trial of Horne Tooke for High Treason [London: 1795], 1:156). For Johnson’s role as a banker to Paine, see Paine to Johnson [?1790], Huntington, HM 6948. In 1792, when Johnson and fellow bookseller George Wilkie paid £200 to creditors to forestall Paine’s arrest for debt, the action did not go unnoticed. An Heroic Epistle to Thomas Paine warned that “The time may come when J—–-n’s aid may fail; / Nor clubs combin’d preserve thee from a jail.” Gerald P. Tyson provides an overview of Johnson’s relationship with Paine in Joseph Johnson, a Liberal Publisher (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979), 123–30; see as well David Erdman’s Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 152, and Lucyle Werkmeister’s The London Daily Press, 1772–1792 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963).

32. Citing Lindsey’s 23 February 1791 letter, Braithwaite further speculates that a lawyer from among Johnson’s acquaintances might have advised him (106, 110). See chapter 4 of Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent for Braithwaite’s helpful account of Johnson’s involvement with Paine at this time.

33. Paul Zall has made this surprising suggestion: “He did issue an abridged Rights of Man in 1791 and Barlow’s Advice in 1792, but by that time public opinion had become more receptive, publishing radical texts more respectable” (“The Cool World of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Joseph Johnson, or The Perils of Publishing,” Wordsworth Circle 3, no. 1 [1972]: 27).

34. Everton, “‘The Would-Be-Author and the Real Bookseller’: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Printing Ethics,” Early American Literature 40, no. 1 (2005): 79–110. Everton in fact notes a parallel between the argument for national independence in Common Sense and Paine’s claims for his own independence as an author.

36. For this estimate, see Chard, “Joseph Johnson in the 1790s,” 99n1.

38. This phrase (or variants) has begun to appear in discussions of the challenges inherent in macroquantitative methodologies. See, for instance, Trumpener’s “Paratext and Genre System,” 163, and Cameron Blevins’s “Coding a Middle Ground: ImageGrid,”, accessed 27 September 2016. Simon Eliot offers a nuanced consideration of quantitative approaches to book history in “Very Necessary But Not Quite Sufficient: A Personal View of Quantitative Analysis in Book History,” Book History 5 (2002): 283–93.

39. See Greetham’s assessment of the evidentiary practices used in textual scholarship in “Textual Forensics,” PMLA 111, no. 1 (1996): 32–51.

41. Johnson published the first edition of Malthus’s Essay in 1798, followed by three more (1803, 1806, and 1807). After Johnson’s death, the fifth (1817) and sixth (1826) editions were published by Murray.

42. Gaull, “Joseph Johnson: Literary Alchemist,” 268. Malthus was not the only writer published by Johnson who today would be labeled conservative. Johnson also worked with William Bedoe, George Canning, Samuel Clapham, Edward Dubois, George Ellis, John Hookham Frere, James Hurdis, Richard Polwhele, Robert Potter, and Joshua Watson.

44. Aikin, “Biographical Account of the Late Mr. Joseph Johnson,” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle for the Year 1809 (London: John Nichols & Son, 1809), 1167.

45. Selling a work was legally classified as “publication.”

46. The attorney general was John Scott (later Lord Eldon), who also presided over the 1794 treason trials. See Jane Worthington Smyser, “The Trial and Imprisonment of Joseph Johnson, Bookseller,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 77 (1974): 429.

48. Paternoster Row bookseller Thomas Hurst took over the Analytical Review at this point, though it stayed in business for just another six months (Braithwaite, Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent, 170).

49. Mana Edgeworth to Sopie Ruxton, 7 May 1800, Edgeworth Papers (item 250), National Library of Ireland. Johnson did in the end agree to publish Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s pamphlet, which appeared as The Substance of Three Speeches Delivered in the House of Commons of Ireland, February 6, March 4, and March 21, 1800, Upon the Subject of an Union with Great Britain (London: J. Johnson, 1800).

50. Affidavit dated 14 November 1798, National Archives, MS KB 1/30 Michaelmas 39 George III (item 29).

52. Malthus was a student at Warrington from 1781–83, where he was taught by Gilbert Wakefield, who then tutored him privately before his entrance into Cambridge in 1784. On William Frend’s role as Malthus’s tutor at Cambridge, see Frida Knight, University Rebel: The Life of William Frend, 1757–1841 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971), 303.

55. Chard has counted “at least twelve antagonists of Priestley who published with Johnson” (“Bookseller to Publisher,” 140).

56. See Braithwaite, Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent, 139–41. Susan Oliver economically summarizes the history of Pittite repression: the “British establishment [was] prepared to classify liberty of thought as dissent, and legally to rebrand dissent—political, theological or organizational counter-hegemony—under the criminal nomenclature ‘sedition’ ” (“Silencing Joseph Johnson and the Analytical Review,” The Wordsworth Circle 40, nos. 2–3 [2009]: 102). For a full account of the dynamics of Pitt-era repression, see Kenneth R. Johnston, Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), and my Five Long Winters: The Trials of British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

59. See, for instance, The Case of Thomas Spence: Bookseller . . . Who Was Committed to Clerkenwell Prison (London, 1792); The Trial of Daniel Isaac Eaton, For Publishing a Supposed Libel (London, 1794); The Proceedings of the House of Lords in the Case of Benjamin Flower, Printer of the Cambridge Intelligencer, For a Supposed Libel on the Bishop of Llandaff (Cambridge, 1800); A Verbatim Report of the Two Trials of Mr. T. J. Wooler (London, 1817); and The Three Trials of William Hone (London, 1818).

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