The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 19, 2017

March 19, 1721

John Mullan in his Guardian review of a recent biography of Tobias Smollett (March 19, 1721 to September 17, 1771) ) explains one reason this writer has fallen out of favor among the literary:

Smollett is a caricaturist, his personalities kept alive by his satirical vehemence rather than any psychological acuity. His fiction is savage and cartoonish - too much so for any imaginable TV adaptor. Scabrous and disgusted (never has fiction been so full of bad smells and vile effluvia), it descends from the angry comedy of Ben Jonson and has its present-day progeny in Martin Amis's urban nightmares. Smollett's novels are journeys through human idiocies and indecencies....

We owe to Smollett that enduring description of certain small spaces: not enough room to swing a cat.  There are other reasons to remember him:

Even more than Samuel Johnson Smollett was, ... "the quintessential 18th-century man of letters". The younger son of a younger son, he had to make his own way in the world. First he became a doctor, and his medical training much influenced his writing: nowhere in literature are the pains and mortifications of a pre-analgesic world so alive. He then turned to literature in all its commercial varieties. As well as a novelist, he was a playwright, an editor, an often vituperative journalist, a successful historian and an acidulous reviewer.

The physician and author John Shebbeare, one of Smollett's many enemies, said, "he undertakes to fit up books by the yard on all subjects". His efforts were incredible. At one representative moment in 1754, ... Smollett was completing A Compendium of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages, translating a French economic journal, editing William Smellie's textbook on midwifery, ghost-writing the diplomat Alexander Drummond's Travels, completing his own translation of Don Quixote and writing entries for the massive Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time to the Present (of which he was also editor).

What these tasks reveal is that peculiar mixture of intellectual ambition and grinding manufacture that distinguishes much of the life of writing in the 18th century. Smollett was both hack and Enlightenment man. One of his big financial successes was his Complete History of England, also a work of considerable learning that was written at pace, and certainly without leisure for research. Meanwhile he was shaping the literary world by editing the Critical Review. Along with its rival, the Monthly, this established, for the first time, the role of reviews.
Most of his novels include vignettes of literary ambition and disillusionment. Melopyn in
Roderick Random [1748] tries to earn money from high-aspiring poetry, but progresses downwards through one Grub Street genre after another, until he ends up producing Tyburn tales - sensational accounts of crimes and killings. Peregrine Pickle [1751also tries to succeed as a writer and enables Smollett to include more portraits of his self-flattering fellow authors. In The Expedition of Humphry Clinker [1771] some of the characters even meet Smollett himself, holding court at his Chelsea home to "a parcel of authorlings".
Smollett's lashing of the world was a Juvenalian satirical inclination. In his third novel, Ferdinand, Count Fathom, [1753it led him to the (then) novelty of a conscienceless protagonist, who exploits and betrays all those he meets. Fathom, a Hobbesian analyst of others' self-delusions, was the author's revenge on human gullibility...

Tobias Smollet referred to a type of writer, one who is  "A mere index hunter, who held the eel of science by the tail." And that is a little too accurate for the comfort of some almanackists.

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