Jacob Tonson Critical Essays


(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 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.