Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Peter Porcupine, publisher ...

or, What makes a rare book rare?

This volume by John Robison evidently endured some inconsistent and confused treatment at the hands of librarians before finding a "forever home" in Rare Books. There are a number of reasons for this book to enjoy the special security and handling which characterize a rare book department. It's an 18th-century American imprint, still in original American sheep binding.

As such it is not particularly attractive, but American bindings of this period, to say nothing of texts, are worthy of preservation and remain the subject of scholarship. It would not be unusual for such a book to have its binding, in addition to its text, made the subject of a catalog record, with notes on its lettering piece (spine label), its minimalist gilt decoration, board edge treatment, etc.

What of the book's content? Curatrix had certainly never heard of John Robison. But while this Scottish author might not be a household word, he was sufficiently famous in his day to warrant more than two pages in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. At the time he wrote Proofs of a Conspiracy, Robison was a member of  Edinburgh's vibrant philosophical and scientific community of the late eighteenth century.  He had previously worked on several important practical scientific initiatives, including the chronometer and steam engine, and was professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

John Robison (1739-1805)

This work however is unrelated to his scientific interests and instead targets a "conspiracy" of continental Freemasons and Illuminati determined to subvert the governments and religions of Europe. What the DSB terms "a fiercely anti-Jacobin tract" is today Robison's best known work. It reflects the widespread negative and fearful reaction by conservative thinkers in Great Britain to the bloody excess of the French Revolution. Robison's political views are in a league with those of Burke, but the scientist's conclusions are now seen as an overly imaginative account of the Revolution's origins.

The short-lived Order of the Illuminati, founded by German canon lawyer and philosopher Adam Weishaupt on May 1, 1776, would be a footnote to history were it not for Robison and for modern-day conspiracy theorists who have kept alive the New World Order, May Day celebrations, and other radical elements which continue to infuse new books (and motion pictures) whose improbable plots are too tortuous to follow here.

30 years ago a CUA librarian found this book hard to categorize, and in perplexity added "Know-Nothings" to the title page. However, that 19th-century anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement arose in the U.S. some forty years after Robison's publication and has no bearing on his work. 

Why then was the book published? Why was it so popular in the United States (with a fourth American edition published the same year)? Far better known than either the Illuminati or the fulminating physicist-author is the book's co-publisher: W. Cobbet, i.e. William Cobbett (1763-1835) the English political writer and satirist, who in 1798 was living in the United States, at no. 25 North Second Street in Philadelphia where he operated a bookshop selling pro-British and, more revealingly, anti-French titles. Still relatively conservative at this period, Cobbett had begun his political newspaper, Peter Porcupine's Gazette the year before. The Gazette and other of his writings tended to back the Federalists  (northern, urban, pro-British, led by Washington and Hamilton) against the Republicans (southern agrarians epitomized by the Francophile Jefferson). Cobbett was a vocal supporter of the Federalist position, was staunchly pro-British, and doubtless approved Robison's critique of the free-thinking French mobocracy.  

William Cobbett (a.k.a. Peter Porcupine)

In his own writings, witty, lively, but sometimes abusive, Cobbett exceeded legal norms and several times found himself facing libel actions or imprisoned. With age he only became more radical in his political views, and after returning to England espoused the cause of Catholic emancipation, reform of the rotten boroughs, and relief for the laboring poor, especially those in the farms and small villages of England, whose plight he recorded in the delightful Rural Rides, a book still in print almost 200 years later. As member of Parliament for Oldham, a seat held two centuries later by Winston Churchill, Cobbett continued to publish his Two-Penny Trash, or, Politics for Working People and is also famous for his Political Register and for  launching Parliamentary Debates, the precursor of the official modern record of Parliament known simply as "Hansard."

Clearly all the foregoing complexities were not fully understood by library staff some 30 years ago. In their defense, no Web existed to provide quick answers, nor enough staff to do painstaking research. This book would be misunderstood and ultimately slated for withdrawal. Only a sharp-eyed curator salvaged the volume before it left the library, but too late to prevent the defacement of the title page, which has now become part of the book's provenance.

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