Jacob Tonson

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 1,327 words.)