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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

WRITING STORIES - The Lawless Early Days of Print

I doubt you could have missed the pair, seated in the Swan tavern on Fleet Street in London, that 28 March,  1716.  Last to arrive was the infamous publisher, pornographer and plagiarist Edmund Curll, a scarecrow of a man, very tall and thin, splayfooted, and with gray goggle eyes that threatened to burst from his pale face like a cartoon character.

 Waiting for him like a spider on his web was one the greatest poets in history, the oft quoted and revered deformed genius Alexander Pope (above), with a Roman nose and a spine so twisted he stood barely four feet six inches tall from his stylish shoes to the top of the hump on his back. 
Curll thought he had been invited to settle their disagreements. Pope intended upon doing just that, by poisoning his guest's beer.  Later Pope joyfully wrote a mocking obituary of his victim, “A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, bookseller...To be published weekly”. Curll was not killed, but he did projectile vomit until he wished his was dead. It was like a scene from Animal House. Ah, good times among the 18th century London literati.
Publishing was in its youth, as young as the internet is today, and just as chaotic, dishonest, unregulated, and unencumbered with a functional business model. In 1688 there were only 68 printing presses in London, all controlled by members of the Stationer's Company or guild.  But in 1695 Parliament refused to renew the company's monopoly, setting off a decade of pure anarchy. Daniel Defoe of "Robinson Crusoe" fame, noted, “One man studies seven year(s), to bring a finished piece into the world, and a pirate printer....sells it for a quarter of the price ... these things call for an Act of Parliament".  So in 1710 Parliament obliged with The Statue of Anne - she was queen at the time - which created a 14 year copyright for authors. Still, six years later one author felt required to strike at a pirate printer – by making him vomit for 24 straight hours, and then attacking him again in print with his obituary in rhyme .
“Next o'er his books his eyes begin to roll,
In pleasing memory of all he stole;
How here he sipp'd, how there he plunder'd snug,
And suck'd all o'er like an industrious bug.”
Alexander Pope (above)  The Dunciad (1728)
Pope's justification for the poisoning of  Edmund Curl was as revenge for embarrassing the smart and lovely Lady Mary Montagu. The morally pompous poet, so famous for his version of Shakespeare and translations of Homer that he was nicknamed “the Bard”, was smitten with the lady. They even maintained a correspondence.  Pope privately published one of her poems. Copies were discretely passed about the English court. But soon, Curll was selling copies on the streets. Cultured nobility were not supposed to engage in publication – it smacked of stooping to actually earning a living. So Pope saw himself as a knight protecting Lady Montagu's honor when he poisoned  Curll and attacked him (among others) in his poem, “Dunciad”.  Curll responded by pirating the poem about his own attempted murder, even publishing an annotated version, also called a “key”. Mocked Curll, “How easily two wits agree, one writes the poem, one writes the key”.
Edmund Curll was not quite the “shameless Curll” Pope portrayed – not quite. He was infamous for keeping a revolving stable of struggling quill drivers “three in a bed” in the “low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses” jammed into Grub Street (above). Originally “grub” referred to the roots and insect larval uncovered when the street was originally scrapped out. Eventually it was adopted as a badge of honor by the poverty stricken occupants, like the eventual great biographer Samuel Johnson, or Ned Ward, who considered his profession as “ whoring....”.
These grubs were hack writers, named after the ubiquitous horse drawn Hackney cabs that plied London's streets, going where ever their paying passengers demanded. 
Which usually meant, obscenity, which as today, always sold well, as did insults and attacks on the pompous and well to do - like Pope (above). The occasional advance, paid to a hungry writer was called a “grub stake”, and the pitiful meals they could afford were “grub”.  Jonathan Swift, eventual creator of “Gulliver's Travels”, grandiosely referred to this literary sub-culture as "the Republica Grubstreet-aria. But like Johnson, Swift was clever enough and lucky enough to eventually escape the life as a mere grub.
In fact, Curll employed no more Grub Street warriors than any other Fleet Street baron. But he was particularly adept at supplying what the public wanted - licentious sex, and manufactured controversy. Curll paid grubs to engage in a “pamphlet war” - much like the Fox News war on Christmas - over the 1712 trial of Jane Wehham for witchcraft. (She was convicted).
Curll also printed cheap pirated books that sold for a mere shilling, thus undercutting the actual author's authorized editions. His growing empire made Edmund Curll one of the most successful barons on Fleet Street. Acknowledged one critic, “He had no scruples either in business or private life, but he published and sold many good books.”  All paid for by the dirty and stolen books he published illegally.
With Pope's urging, Curll was convicted of obscenity in 1716, and twice more in 1725. In 1726, Curll struck back by befriending the mistress of a Pope confident. She passed him several letters in which the arrogantly moral Pope admitting to lusting after the Blount Sisters, Terresa and Martha. “How gladly would I give all that I am worth,” Pope wrote in one purloined missive, “for one of their maidenheads.” Embarrassed, Pope helped engineer yet another Curll conviction in February of 1727. 
This time a frustrated and exasperated court fined Curll and ordered him pilloried for an hour. At the mercy of the mob, Curll was spared the usual assault of rotted food and manure when a pamphlet was read to the well armed crowd, claiming Curll was being punished for defending the departed Queen Anne. Thus misinformed, the mob carried him home on their shoulders. Pope was infuriated and determined to even the score.  Which is why he poisoned Curll.
One of Edmund Curll's most profitable ventures was what came to be called “Curlicisms”. When a well known figure died, Curll would advertise a forthcoming biography, and ask the public for any anecdotes about or letters from the deceased. Then, without validating the submissions Curll would hire a Grub street hack to string them together into an instant and usually inaccurate biography, creating what one potential subject described as “one of the new terrors of death.”
Curll had done this when the Duke of Buckingham died in 1721. But Buckingham was a peer, a member of the House of Lords, and that body summoned Curll for interrogation. Curll was unrepentant, since it was not a crime to publish writings of a peer without their permission. So the Lords made it illegal, and in this Pope saw a new opportunity to injure Curll.
In 1731 Curll announced a upcoming “Curlicism” of Alexander Pope, himself; “Nothing shall be wanting,” Curll assured his potential readers, “but his (universally desired) death.” Again Curll called for submissions and a mysterious figured identified only as “P.T.” offered letters written by Pope to the Lord of Oxford.  In 1734 Curll published the letters in a vicious biography of Pope. The next year Pope published his own “Literary Correspondence for Thirty Years”, including the same letters to Oxford.  But the details in Pope's version did not match those published by Curll, as Pope pointed out when he alleged Curll had violated the privilege of a member of the House of Lords and worse, slandered the Lord while doing it. The trap was sprung.
The only problem was, Curll again refused to repent. Called again before the Lords, Curll quipped, "Pope has a knack of versifying, but in prose I think myself a match for him.” And in fact as well. The Duke of Oxford still had the original letters in his files. So, asked Curll, where had P.T.'s inaccurate versions come from? Curll produced P.T.'s letters so the Lords could judge for themselves who was implicated by the handwriting. 
For a few days, the city of London, or that section that cared about such things, held its breath. And then an ad appeared in a small newspaper offering 20 guineas if P.T. would come forward to admit he had “acted by the direction of any other person.”  P.T., of course did not appear. And the ploy fooled no one – Pope had written the originals and the fakes and even the ad, and everybody knew it. The House found a political solution; since the published letters were fakes, the law had not been broken. Case closed, except Pope now had even more egg on his face.
Wrote Curll, “Crying came our bard into the world, but lying, it is to be feared, he will go out of it.”.
And so he did.  Pope died on 30 May, 1744, and Edmund Curll followed him in December of 1747.
Thus, Curll earned the last word. He described his relationship with Pope this way, “A fitter couple was never hatched, Some married are, indeed, but we are matched”.
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