Allibone's Dictionary of Authors
Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1858. Vol. I. pp. 1005.
LEIGH HUNT, in one of his Essays, speaks of the wishful thrill with which, in looking over an index, he wondered if ever his name would appear under the letter H in the reversed order (Hunt, Leigh) peculiar to that useful and too much neglected field of literary achievement. In Mr. Allibone’s Dictionary he would see his wish more than satisfied; for if he turn up “ Hunt, Leigh,” he will find a reference to “ Hunt, James Henry Leigh,” and under that head a list of his works, more complete, perhaps, than he himself could easily have drawn up.
In glancing along the leaves of a collection like this, one’s heart is touched with something of the same vague pathos that dims the eye in a graveyard. What a necrology of notability ! How many a controversialist who made a great stir in his day, how many a once rising genius, how many a withering satirist, lies here shrunk all away to the tombstone immortality of a name and date ! Think of the aspirations, the dreams, the hopes, the toil, the confidence (of himself and wife) in an impartial and generous posterity; - and then read “ Smith J.(ohn ?) 1713-1784 (?). The Vision of Immortality, an Epic Poem in Twelve Books, 1740, 4to. See Lowndes.” The time of his own death less certain than that of his poem, which we may fix pretty safely in 1740,-and the only posterity that took any interest in him the indefatigable Lowndes ! Well, even a bibliographic indemnity for contemporary neglect, to have so much as your title-page read after it is a century old, and to enjoy a posthumous public of one, is better than nothing.
A volume like Mr. Allibone’s-so largely a hospital for incurable forgottenhoods -is better than any course of philosophy to the young author. Let him reckon how many of the ten thousand or so names here recorded he has ever heard of before, let him make this myriad the denominator of a fraction to which the dozen perennial fames shall be the numerator, and he will find that his dividend of a chance at escaping speedy extinction is not worth making himself unhappy about. Should some statistician make such a book the basis for constructing the tables of a fame-insurance company, the rates at which alone policies could be safely issued would put them beyond the reach of all except those who did not need them. After all, perhaps, the next best thing to being famous or infamous is to be utterly forgotten ; for that, at least, is to accomplish a decisive result by living. To hang on the perilous edge of immortality by the nails, liable at any moment to drop into the waters of Oblivion, is at best a questionable beatitude.
But if a dictionary of this kind give rise to some melancholy reflections, it is not without suggestions of a more soothing Character. We are reminded by it of the tender-heartedness of Chaucer, who, in the “ House of Fame,” after speaking of Orpheus and Arion, (Mr. Tyrwhitt calls him Orion,) and Cheiron and Glasgerion, has a kind word for the lesser minstrels that play on pipes made of straw,-
“ Such as have the little herd-groomes
That keepen beastes in the broomes.”
This is the true Valhalla of Mediocrity, the libro d' oro of the onymi-anonymi, of the never-named authors who exist only in name, - Parson Adams would be here, had he found a printer for his sermons, Mr. Primrose for his tracts on Monogamy,-and not merely such nominum umbra of the past, but that still stranger class of ancient-moderns, preterite-presents, dead (and something more) as authors, but still to be met with in the flesh as solid men and brethren,- privileged, alas, to outstay cockcrow when they drop in of an evening to give you their views on the aims and tendencies of periodical literature. Will it be nothing, if we should be untimely snatched away from our present sphere of usefulness, to those shadowy πλεíoνες who lived too soon to enjoy their monthly dip in the ATLANTIC, - will it be nothing, we say, that our orphaned Papyrorcetes, junior, will be able to read the name of his lamented parent on the nine-hundredth page of Allibone, - occupying, at least, an entire line, and therefore (as we gather from a hasty calculation) sure forever of 1/360,000th of the attention of whoever reads the book through ? This is a handy and inexpensive substitute for the imagines of the Roman nobles; for those were inconvenient to pack on a change of lodgings, liable to melt in warm weather,-even the elder Brutus himself might soften in August,-and not readily salable, unless to a novus homo who wished to buy a set of ancestors ready-made, as some of our enthusiastic genealogists are said to order a family-tree from the heraldic nursery-man skilled to graft a slip of Scroggins on a stock of De Vere or Montmorenci. Contemporary glory is comparatively dear; it is sold by the column,- for columns have got over their Horatian antipathies ; but the bibliographer will thank you for the name of any man that has ever printed a book, nay, his gratitude will glow in exact proportion to the obscurity of the author, and one may thus confer perpetuity at least (which is a kind of Tithonus-immortality) upon some respected progenitor, or assure it to himself, with little trouble and at the cost of a postagestamp.
The benignity of Providence is nowhere more strongly marked than in its compensations ; and what can be more beautiful than the arrangement by which the same harmless disinterestedness of matter and style that once made an author the favorite of trunk-makers and grocers should, by thus leading to the quiet absorption of his works, make them sure of commemoration by Brunet or Lowndes and of commanding famine-prices under the hammer ? Fame, like electricity, is thus positive and negative; and if a writer must be Somebody to make himself of permanent interest to the world at large, he must not less be Nobody - like Junius -to have his namelessness embalmed by Mons. Guérard. Take comfort, therefore, all ye who either make paper invaluable or worthless by the addition of your autograph ! for your dice (as the Abbé Galiani said of Nature’s) are always loaded, and you may make your book the heir of Memory in two ways,- by contriving to get the fire of genius into it, or to get it into the fire by the hands of the hangman. Milton’s “ Areopagitica ” is an example of one method, and the “ Pliilq,stratus ” of Blount (who pillaged the " Areopagitiea ”) of the other. And yet, again, how perverse is human nature! how more perverse is literary taste ! There is a large class of men madly desirous to read cuneiform and runic inscriptions simply because of their unreadableness, adding to our compulsory stock of knowledge about the royal Smiths and Joneses of to-day much conjectural and conflicting information concerning their royal prototypes of an antiquity unknown, and, as we fondly hoped, unknowable. Were there only a compensatory arrangement for this also in another class who should be driven by a like irresistible instinct to unreadable books, the heart of the political economist would be gladdened at seeing the substantial rewards of authorship so much more equally distributed by means of a demand adapted to the always abundant supply.
We should like Mr. Allibone’s book better, if it were more exclusively a dictionary of names, facts, editions, and dates, and allowed less space (or none at all) to opinions. The contemporaneous judgments of individual critics upon writers of original power are commonly of little value, and are absolutely worthless when an author’s fame has struck its roots down into the kindly soil of national or European appreciation, when his work has won that “ perfect witness of all-judging Jove” which cannot be begged or bought. When the criticism is anonymous, (as are many of those cited by Mr. Allibone,) it has not even the reflected interest, as a measure of the critic himself, which we find sometimes in the incapacity of a strong nature to appreciate a great one, as in Johnson’s opinion of Milton, for instance,-or of a delicate mind to comprehend an imaginative one, as in Addison’s of Bunyan. In the article “Carlyle,” for example, (by the way, John A. Carlyle is omitted,) we should have been better content, if Mr. Allibone (instead of letting us know what “ Blackwood’s Magazine ” thinks of a writer who, whatever his faults of style, has probably influenced the thought of his generation more than any other man) had given us the date of the first publication of “Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches,” and had mentioned that the original collection of the “Miscellanies” was made in America. (This last we have since found alluded to under “ De Quincey.”) Sometimes the editor himself intrudes remarks which are quite out of keeping with the character of such a work. We will give an instance which caught our eye in turning over the leaves. After giving the title of “ The Rare Trauailes” of Job Hortop, Mr. Allibone adds, “ We trust that in the home-relation of his ‘ Rare Trauaila among wilde and sauage people ’ the raconteur did not yield to the temptation of ‘pulling the long bow,' for the purpose of increasing the amazement of his wondering auditors.” Now if Mr. Allibone knew nothing about Hortop, he should have said nothing. If the edition of 1591 was inaccessible to him, he could have found out what kind of a story-teller our ancient mariner was in the third volume of Hakluyt. We resent this slur upon Job the more because he happens to be a favorite of ours, and saw no more wonders than travellers of that day had the happy gift of seeing. We remember he got sight of a very fine merman in the neighborhood of the Bermudas; but then stout Sir John Hawkins was as lucky.
The two criticisms we have made touch, one of them the plan of the work, and the other its manner. We have one more to make, which, perhaps, should properly have come under the former of these two heads;-it is that Mr. Allibone allows a disproportionate space to the smaller celebrities of the day in comparison with those of the past. In such an undertaking, the amount of interest which the general public may be supposed to take in comparatively local notabilities should, it seems to us, be measured on a scale whose degrees are generations.
Mr. Allibone's good-nature has misled him in some cases to the allowance of manifest disproportions. Twice as much room, for instance, is allowed to Mr. Dallas as to Emerson. Mr. Dallas has been Vice-President of the United States ; Emerson is one of the few masters of the English tongue, and both by teaching and practical example has done more to make the life of the scholar beautiful, and the career of the man of letters a reproof to all low aims and an inspiration to all high ones, than any other man in America.
What we have said has been predicated upon the general impression left on our minds after dipping into the book here and there almost at random. But on opening it again, we find so much that is interesting, even in those articles which are most expansive and gossiping, that we are almost inclined to draw our pen through what we have written in the way of objection, and merely express our gratitude to Mr. Allibone for what he has done. We have been led to speak of what we consider the defects, or rather the redundancies, of the “ Dictionary,” because we believe, that, if less bulky, it would be more certain of the wide distribution it so highly deserves. It is a shrewd saying of Vauvenargues, that it is “ un grand signe de médiocrité de louer toujours modérément,” and we have no desire to expose the “Atlantic” to a charge so fatal by showing ourselves cold to the uncommon merits of Mr. Allibone’s achievement. The book is rather entitled to be called an Encyclopaedia. than a Dictionary. As the work of a single man, it is one of the wonders of literary industry. The amount of labor implied in it is enormous, and its general accuracy, considering the immense number and variety of particulars, remarkable. A kindly and impartial spirit makes itself felt everywhere,-by no means an easy or inconsiderable merit. We have already had occasion several times to test its practical value by use, and can recommend it from actual experiment; Every man who ever owned an English book, or ever means to own one, will find something here to his purpose.
That a volume so comprehensive in its scope and so multitudinous in its details should be wholly without errors and omissions is impossible; and we trust that any of our readers who detect such will discharge a part of the obligation they are under to Mr. Allibone by communicating them to him for the benefit of a second edition.