Jacob Tonson 1655?-1736
English publisher, editor, and poet.
Considered the “father of modern publishing,” Tonson published and promoted the works of some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition. His enormously popular Miscellanies (1684 to 1709), which contained works by classical authors as well as important new and established authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brought literature of a high quality to a large audience. Tonson published almost every work written by his friend and close associate John Dryden; acquired the copyrights of John Milton's work and made his poetry available to a wide reading public; and popularized Shakespeare's plays. Tonson was a powerful figure in literary and political circles, and some scholars see him as having established the key principles of publishing—most notably concerning the relationship between author and publisher—that are used even to the present day.
Tonson was born in London around 1655. His father was a successful barber-surgeon and his mother came from a family of well known publisher-booksellers. Tonson was a young boy when the city of London experienced two major calamities—the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. Despite the chaos of those years, he received a sound classical education. In 1668 Tonson's father died, after which Tonson and his four siblings were raised by their mother. When he was fifteen Tonson became a bookseller's apprentice to Thomas Basset. Because many books had been destroyed in the 1666 fire, it was a fortuitous time to become involved in the book trade, as there was a high demand to replace titles that had been lost. During this time Tonson embarked on a program of self-education, immersing himself in literature and discovering the poetry of Milton and other great English writers. He also became acquainted with a number of important figures in the publishing world. In 1677 Tonson completed his apprenticeship and set up his own business. He first brought out works jointly with other publishers, including his brother, Richard, with whom he shared copyrights of two plays by Aphra Behn. In 1679 Tonson began his career as the publisher of his friend Dryden, and his association with the poet laid the foundation for an enormously successful career.
In the 1680s Tonson's reputation grew with the publication of Dryden's works and his first two volumes of Miscellany Poems (1684 and 1685), and by 1690 he was powerful enough to acquire the copyright of Milton's Paradise Lost, which proved to be one of his most lucrative investments. In the early 1690s his brother Richard died, and Tonson moved his business into his brother's old premises and took on his nephew, Jacob Tonson II, as a junior partner to his firm. From 1695 to 1697 Tonson and Dryden feuded over finances and the particulars of Dryden's publications, but they remained close associates until the poet's death in 1700. By this time Tonson had become secretary of the infamous Kit-Cat Club, a political and literary club that included leading Whig politicians, artists, and writers. Tonson was an intimate friend of many of the members, including the writers William Congreve, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele.
As his business flourished, Tonson was able to acquire a vast number of copyrights. He also imported sophisticated press equipment from Holland, enabling him to publish beautiful but inexpensive editions as well as luxurious volumes. He undertook a number of ambitious projects, including an edition of Shakespeare, works of classical authors, plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and new writing by some of the finest authors of the day. Tonson became the exclusive publisher of Shakespeare's works, and it was fitting when he moved to new premises in 1710 that he changed his shop sign to “Shakespeare's Head.” In 1718 Tonson quarreled with his nephew and threatened to disinherit him, but the two resolved their differences, and when Tonson retired in 1720 his nephew took over the business. After his retirement Tonson continued his association with leading literary figures, advising writers and reading and correcting proofs. In 1735 Tonson's nephew died and passed the business on to his sons, Richard and Jacob. Tonson died a year later, in 1736.
According to some estimates Tonson published more than 700 titles during his career. He brought out titles by the foremost poets and playwrights of the age, including Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Congreve, Addison, and Behn. Beginning with the publication of Dryden's Troilus and Cressida in 1679, Tonson published almost everything Dryden wrote, including the enormously popular Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and Dryden's English translation of The Works of Virgil, (1697). Tonson's first great successes as a publisher were his Miscellanies, in six parts, of which the earliest were edited and largely written by Dryden. These anthologies, sometimes known as “Dryden's Miscellanies” and sometimes as “Tonson's Miscellanies,” appeared between 1684 and 1709 and contained translations from Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and Virgil as well as original work by contemporary writers. The sixth Miscellany contained a poem by an unknown named Alexander Pope; Tonson was thus instrumental in launching the great Augustan poet's career. In 1683 Tonson acquired half the copyright of Milton's Paradise Lost, and in 1688 he published the fourth edition of the poem in a luxurious illustrated edition. The volume was of interest only to scholars, but in 1695, having bought the complete rights to the work, he published an expanded edition of Milton's writings and subsequently published cheaper, more accessible versions of Milton's great epic for the general reading public. Tonson published a version of Ovid's Metamorphoses in 1717, an example of his ability to coordinate the work of others; Addison, Pope, John Gay, and Congreve were among the many translators employed for the volume. Another notable publication undertaken by Tonson was the 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works edited by Nicholas Rowe. Tonson also published separate texts of a number of Shakespeare's plays, and he was instrumental in popularizing the playwright's works; indeed, many scholars claim that if it had not been for Tonson, Shakespeare would not have achieved the status he enjoys today.
Although he did not advertise his own work, Tonson included some of his own poems in the volumes he published. They include “On the Death of Mr. Oldham,” which appeared in the second volume of the Miscellanies; “To the Lovely Witty Astraea,” which appeared as a preface to Behn's poems; and “To Mr. Creech,” a dedicatory poem to a volume of works by Lucretius.
Tonson was a powerful and conspicuous figure in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary society. He made the careers of a number of authors, “discovering” Pope and promoting the works of such luminaries as Dryden, Behn, and Congreve. As a founding member of the Kit-Cat Club, he interacted with the most powerful Whig figures of his day. His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery together with paintings of other Kit-Cat Club members, an unusual honor for a publisher-bookseller of the eighteenth century. He had a reputation as being blunt and forthright, flattering nobody and speaking his mind. Some of the greatest writers of the day were intimidated by his forceful personality, even as they mocked his pudgy, unattractive body. Dryden, for example, made fun of his “two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair,” and Pope mentions his ungainly legs in the Dunciad (1728). Because of his enormous influence and his production and promotion of some of the most important works of Western literature, Tonson has been called “the greatest of English publishers” and “the father of modern publishing.” His efforts in promoting the works of Shakespeare and Milton alone have had lasting effects on the Western canon and literary history. Despite his importance in the history of English literature, however, few biographical or critical studies have appeared on the man and his career. This is likely because Tonson did not produce any original work of importance; his anonymously published poetry is clearly the work of an amateur. But his importance as a mentor and promoter of literary persons cannot be overstated, and the methods he used to advance the careers of his authors continue to be used by publishers into the twenty-first century.
Troilus and Cressida, by John Dryden [publisher] (poetry) 1679
Ovid's Epistles [publisher] (letters) 1680
Absalom and Achitophel, by John Dryden [publisher] (poetry) 1681
The Duke of Guise, by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee [publisher] (play) 1683
Plutarchs Lives. 5 vols. [publisher] (prose) 1683-86
Miscellany Poems [publisher] (poetry) 1684
Poems Upon Several Occasions, by Aphra Behn [publisher] (poetry) 1684
Sylvae: Or, The Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies [publisher] (poetry) 1685
Paradise Lost, by John Milton [publisher] (poetry) 1688
Examen Poeticum: being the third part of Miscellany poems [publisher] (poetry) 1693
The annual miscellany: for the year 1694. Being the fourth part of Miscellany poems [publisher] (poetry) 1694
The Poetical Works of John Milton. Containing Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, and his Poems on several occasions. Together with explanatory notes on each book of the Paradise Lost. 5 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1695
The Works of Virgil, translated by John Dryden. 12 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1697
The Comedies, Tragedies, and Operas Written by John Dryden. 2 vols. [publisher]...
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SOURCE: Boys, Richard C. “Some Problems of Dryden's Miscellany.” ELH 7, no. 2 (June 1940): 130-43.
[In the following essay, Boys discusses the mystery surrounding the publication of the various editions of Dryden and Tonson's Miscellany and Tonson's part in the matter.]
In 1684 the rising young bookseller, Jacob Tonson, added another feather to his cap by publishing Miscellany Poems, which came to be known as Dryden's or Tonson's Miscellany and enjoyed popular approval until 1727. In all there were six parts to the anthology in the forty-three years of its existence. Constantly re-issued it proved to be the most successful of the early eighteenth-century collections, with the possible exception of Poems on Affairs of State.1 One manifestation of the vogue of Dryden's Miscellany is the large number of imitators it had. It is not too much to say that it set the fashion for one kind of collection, which may arbitrarily be called the general miscellany,2 a type revived by the Augustans and destined to become important in the eighteenth century. Dr. Earl Wasserman has pointed out3 how even the title of the Dryden was imitated in such works as Miscellany Poems and Translations by Oxford Hands (1685) and Miscellany, Being a Collection of Poems (1685). That these books were probably drawing their titles from Dryden's collection...
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SOURCE: Clapp, Sarah Lewis Carol. “Foreword.” In Jacob Tonson in Ten Letters by and About Him, pp. 4-8. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1948.
[In the following excerpt, Clapp discusses the style and content of Tonson's letters, which she says provide insights into the man's character.]
“To entertain you I will show you … a phenomenon worth seeing and hearing, Old Jacob Tonson, who is the perfect image and likeness of Bayle's Dictionary;1 so full of matter, secret history, and wit and spirit, at almost four-score.” Thus wrote Pope in 1731 to Lord Oxford. Imitating Pope, this pamphlet makes and hopes in some measure to fulfil the same promise, using a small group of letters by and about Jacob Tonson senior, all of them written during the last eight years of his life, and variously reflecting his character and his career as an eminent London bookseller.
The four letters about the elder Jacob reveal his agedness, his increasing deafness, his bad personal hygiene, his idiosyncrasies. Theirs is a portrait comical in its realism until one comes to perceive beneath its surface the old man, alone save for servants and whilom visitors, further isolated by extreme hardness of hearing, reduced finally to the improvement of his abode, as the best amusement he was capable of. True, his eyesight held out “to almost a miracle,” and he now had leisure to look into some of...
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SOURCE: Hyde, Mary. “Shakespeare's Head.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (Spring 1965): 139-43.
[In the following essay, Hyde considers whether a signboard with a large image of Shakespeare, which was exhibited in the United States in 1964, once belonged to Tonson.]
Any unusual portrait of Shakespeare holds interest and this is true of the picture used here as a frontispiece. It came to this country from England in the spring of 1962 and aroused considerable curiosity when shown at Shakespeare's Four Hundredth Anniversary Exhibition at the Morgan Library in April, 1964. It is unusual, first of all, because it is extremely large, an uncomfortable size for enjoyment within a room. The figure, which consists of head and shoulders, is one and a half times life size, making it hard to live with. It would dwarf a mantelpiece, and indeed hung anywhere in a house it would give the beholder the unpleasant sensation of being greatly out of proportion. The painting has in fact no qualities of domestic refinement, being bold, rough, and dark, striking rather than pleasing, and best seen from a distance.
It was clearly made for use outside, which its unusual form corroborates. The most obvious supposition is that it was a signboard. Painted on a single oval panel of mahogany, thirty-seven by thirty-one and a half inches, it has, along the outer rim, a simulated frame, a half inch in width,...
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SOURCE: Geduld, Harry M. “Miscellany Poems,” “Tonson and Paradise Lost,” and “Shakespeare and Tonson.” In Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson, pp. 87-109; 113-32; 135-48. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.
[In the following essay, Geduld discusses Tonson's compilations of verse, his publication of Milton's epic poem, and his popular editions of Shakespeare's works.]
A phenomenon such as Tonson's Miscellany is rare in the history of English literature. There are few instances in which a single collection of verse is representative of major developments in non-dramatic poetry over a period of thirty years. And it is doubtful that there exists another collection which reflects as faithfully as Tonson's the changing taste of an entire generation. R. D. Havens has maintained that the study of these Miscellanies is the one practicable way in which the vagaries of eighteenth-century taste may be determined inductively.1 Tonson's collection provides abundant material for the scholar, sociologist, moralist, and historian, a battleground for the critics, and virgin soil for the bibliographer. In any or all of these fields, Tonson's Miscellany presents a variety of problems that are worthy of general consideration.
In its literary connotation, the miscellany...
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SOURCE: Lynch, Kathleen M. “Dryden and Tonson,” “Jacob's Ladder to Fame,” and “Eminent Publisher.” In Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher, pp. 17-36; 67-94; 116-37. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.
[In the following essays, Lynch examines Tonson's complex relationship with John Dryden; explores some of his ambitious publishing projects; and discusses his influence and the distinguished authors whose careers flourished after their association with him]
DRYDEN AND TONSON
For twenty years, until Dryden's death, Jacob Tonson was to remain the poet's publisher. Those who have made much of their quarrels might instead have reflected on the mutual respect and loyalty which preserved for so long a period the friendship of two such positive men. They held radically different views on issues of major importance to them both, yet their relationship, if at times acrimonious, was strong enough to endure divergences of aims and opinions on which many less solid alliances have foundered.
The publication of Troilus and Cressida opened the way for a method of collaboration between Dryden and Tonson which, although useful to Dryden, was especially so to the young publisher. It was Dryden who introduced Tonson to various “eminent hands” and to others who aspired to eminence, for whom, as for Dryden, Tonson was to publish during the ensuing years....
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SOURCE: Hesse, Alfred W. ‘Pope's Role in Tonson's “Loss of Rowe.”’ Notes and Queries n.s. 24, no. 3 (June 1977): 234-35.
[In the following essay, Hesse explains a reference in Pope's “A Farewell to London” as having to do with Tonson losing one of his authors to a rival publisher.]
Lintot, farewell! thy Bard must go; Farewell, unhappy Tonson! Heaven gives thee for thy Loss of Rowe, Lean Philips, and fat Johnson.
The “Loss of Rowe” in these lines from Pope's “A Farewell to LONDON. In the Year 1715.” is inadequately explained in the Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (vi, 131)—“i.e. when King George I made him one of the land surveyors of the port of London”, attributed to a note from Additions to the Works of Alexander Pope, Esq., i, 1776. But this statement is nonsense, since the poem was written in May or June 1715 and it was not until 17 September 1716, more than a year later, that Rowe received the Customs appointment (Calendar of Treasury Books, XXX, Pt. II, 436).
A plausible explanation is deduced from the study of book advertisements of Lintot and Tonson by Margaret Boddy (N. & Q., June 1966, 213-4). She concludes that “clearly Pope is here referring to Lintott's recent triumph over Tonson. The allusion gives evidence that [Pope] was well enough acquainted with Lintott's...
(The entire section is 878 words.)
SOURCE: Gillespie, Stuart. “The Early Years of the Dryden-Tonson Partnership: The Background to Their Composite Translations and Miscellanies of the 1680s.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 12, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 10-19.
[In the following essay, Gillespie offers a reinterpretation of the evidence concerning the translation projects undertaken by Dryden and Tonson in the 1680s.]
One of the most influential literary partnerships of the seventeenth century commenced when, in 1679, Jacob Tonson first printed the work of John Dryden. In the following seven years, four unusual productions emerged from their alliance to set a number of decisive directions for both men's later careers. The compilations Ovid's Epistles (1680), Plutarch's Lives (1683-86), Miscellany Poems (1684), and Sylvae: or, the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies (1685) contained the first fruits of Dryden's work as translator of the classics; they established Tonson as a leading publisher of contemporary translation and settled for the future his “several hands” formula. Had it not been for the success of these ventures it is unlikely that Dryden would have felt able to return to his brand of classical translation from 1693 onwards, or that the Dryden-Tonson miscellanies, those monuments of seventeenth-century taste, could have continued to appear over the following decades....
(The entire section is 5895 words.)
SOURCE: Bennett, Stuart. “Jacob Tonson: An Early Editor of Paradise Lost?” The Library 10, no. 3 (September 1988): 247-52.
[In the following essay, Bennett considers the textual evidence for the case that Tonson was involved in the publication of the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost.]
Most of the evidence for Jacob Tonson's editorial involvement with the publication of the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost can be derived from two sources: variations, not previously remarked, between the text of the 1688 folio and the previous three editions of Paradise Lost, and the controversy some forty years later over Richard Bentley's 1732 version of the same poem. Bentley's edition claimed ‘to be the Truest and Correctest that has yet appear'd’,1 and since both Jacob Tonson the elder and his nephew of the same name claimed perpetual copyright in Milton's texts, it was inevitable that Jacob Tonson, Junior should have had a major share in the publication of this new edition. This edition, however, so provoked the elder Tonson's wrath that he wrote a long letter from his retirement in Herefordshire, voicing his concern to his nephew ‘in this vultures falling uppon a Poet yt is ye admiration of England’,2 and during the course of 1732 he published two further letters on the subject in the Grub-Street Journal.3...
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SOURCE: Hammond. Paul. “The Printing of the Dryden-Tonson Miscellany Poems (1684) and Sylvae (1685).” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 84, no. 4 (Dec. 1990): 405-12.
[In the following essay, Hammond reconstructs the process by which Dryden and Tonson's Miscellany Poems and Sylvae reached their final form.]
The first two in the series of verse miscellanies published by Tonson with some editorial supervision by Dryden are important volumes in the publishing and cultural history of the Restoration. Miscellany Poems (1684) and Sylvae (1685)1 were particularly influential in fostering a taste for verse translation from the classics. But a bibliographical examination of these two volumes suggests that the scope of the miscellanies was not determined until a surprisingly late stage in their compilation. The purpose of this article is to reconstruct the process by which these two miscellanies reached their final form.
Miscellany Poems is an octavo, collating as [A]4 B-X8 Y4 A-C8 D8 (D4 + ‘D5’ + 2) E8 F4 χi. The contents page draws the reader's attention to several distinct groups of poems. It begins with Dryden's three satires, Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Medall (though he is not named as their...
(The entire section is 3290 words.)
SOURCE: Walker, Keith. “Jacob Tonson, Bookseller.” The American Scholar 61, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 424-30.
[In the following essay, Walker discusses Tonson's career as a publisher and notes his influence during his own time and on the publishing world to this day.]
“Before the eighteenth century it was indecorous to make a living out of poetry; afterwards it became almost impossible,” Pat Rogers begins a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement (April 26, 1991), with some sacrifice of accuracy to elegance. The responsibility for writers being able, for however short a time, to make money out of poetry rests largely with the bookseller Jacob Tonson.
Details about a man's life in the seventeenth century, unless they have survived by some happy accident, are rare and sketchy at best. In this essay I want to flesh out the life and career of Jacob Tonson (1655-1736), the founder of literary publishing in English, and the arranger, possibly the inventor, of the accepted canon of English literature until very recently, and to suggest something of his importance in the history of publishing.
Tonson was not memorialized by the antiquarian and gossip John Aubrey to whom we owe so many vivid details of life in the seventeenth century. He came too late to the Restoration scene to have been mentioned by Pepys in his Diary. He was, though, known to the...
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SOURCE: Barnard, John. “The Large- and Small-Paper Copies of Dryden's The Works of Virgil (1697): Jacob Tonson's Investment and Profits and the Example of Paradise Lost (1688).” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 92, no. 3 (September 1998): 259-71.
[In the following essay, Barnard discusses Tonson's publication of Dryden's The Works of Virgil and considers the profits he made from this and other similar projects.]
The existence of large and small copies of the first folio edition of Dryden's The Works of Virgil published by Jacob Tonson in 1697 is well established. Hugh Macdonald reported seeing copies of what he called the “Ordinary” small-paper copies measuring 14 by 8[frac78] inches, while some of the large-paper copies measure 17[frac12] by 10[frac78] inches, others 16[frac34] by 10[frac78].1 However, there is no mention at all of the small-paper copies in the contract for the subscription translation that Dryden and Tonson signed on 15 June 1694. This is surprising: the contract is drawn up very carefully and insists throughout on the exclusive nature of the subscribers' copies. (This subscription venture differs from the modern practice whereby subscribers are given a preferential rate: Dryden's subscribers, whether first or second, paid well above the market value to obtain an exclusive limited edition.) There were to be two kinds of...
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Geduld, Harry M. Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969, 245 p.
Detailed study of Tonson's life and career; includes chapters on his personal life, his career during and after the Restoration, his relationship with John Dryden, his publication of Shakespeare's and Milton's works, and his involvement with the Kit-Cat Club.
Lynch, Kathleen M. Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971, 241 p.
Biographical review of Tonson's many-faceted career.
Papali, G. F. Jacob Tonson, Publisher, His Life and Work (1656-1736). New Zealand: Tonson Publishing House, 1968, 231 p.
Biographical-critical study of Tonson; includes a comprehensive listing of the works he published.
Additional coverage of Tonson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 170; and Literature Resource Center.
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