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History revisited: Discarded encyclopedia set inspires a second look at Romantic poets

A University of Victoria professor salvages a 1910-1911 Encyclopedia Britannica set from a recycling bin, and starts thinking about what we know today that was unknown when the entries were written

Spotted in a recycling bin a few floors beneath my office at UVic: an overflowing pile of old books.

After tripping down four floors, I discovered the bin contained a bunch of volumes of the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica (EB11) — the most famous Britannica of all time.

A hurried inventory revealed it was (hurrah!) a complete set.

I knew enough that I had to have them. It was, admittedly, something like an impulse buy, except that it was an impulse scrounge. I began to fantasize … there’s nothing quite like the smell of mouldy paper in the morning.

I also knew enough to make haste (that is, not be seen), since dumpster diving on campus is not quite in the same professorial category as parsing manuscripts or even sucking back Americanos.

Feeling just a little bit like a tomb raider, I quickly packed the volumes into a couple of handy cardboard boxes (from another bin). Hurried trips to my vehicle completed the transfer, with inflated thoughts that I had saved history from the shredder’s cruel fate.

And then I scurried back to my office, with the recovered treasure buried away in the safest place on earth: the cargo space of a bright red plug-in hybrid SUV.

Some hours later, after a hard day straightening paperclips, I transported the set to another fortified safe haven, otherwise known as the garage. Our cat (immediately noting that something was up) was strangely interested — the lingering scent of book-chewing mice from a bygone era?

I knew a little about this edition, but some fact-seeking laid out the dimensions of what went into this hugely celebrated publication from over 110 years ago: eight years of preparation; 64 editors; 29 volumes in two formats; 850 plates and maps; 1,507 “collaborating” contributors; 7,000 illustrations; 32,000 pages; 40,000 entries; 44 million words; over 30,000 sets sold pre-publication.

Volume 29, the index, is a wonder unto itself: more than 500,000 (!) “easily accessible” entry headings with a marvellous “Classified List of Articles,” which claims “to be the first attempt in any general work of reference at a systematic subject catalogue or analysis of the material contained in it” — it is the closest thing to Google ever published, and no pop-up ads.

At the time, production cost for EB11 was about £230,000, which, today, approaches something close to $40 million US or £35 million — about what Taylor Swift earns for a concert or two.

EB11 was, without doubt, the Wikipedia of its age. In fact, some of Wikipedia’s sprawling knowledge is openly based upon EB11. And generative AI programs like ChatGPT harvest (or are “trained” by) some of the vastness of EB11, especially given that EB11 exists online and in the public domain.

So yes, what an achievement. But how would the publishers of EB11 get a return on their huge investment?

Well, to begin with, by boldly marketing cultural credibility like no one had marketed it before.

Credibility claims were trumpeted through its association with the University of Cambridge, and through endorsements from both the King of England and the president of the United States.

Stodgy British selling practices were pushed aside in favour of terrifically aggressive American marketing, masterminded by a certain Horace Everett Hooper.

As EB11 declares, it is full-on “Anglo-Saxon,” which today seems funny, a little pathetic, and about as non-woke as it gets.

The openly declared aim of EB11 was to colonize every corner of the English-speaking world with what that world needed to know. This, of course, also meant selling it to Union Jack wavers and class-climbers in Victoria at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Take, as examples, three Saturday ads three weeks apart in the Victoria Daily Times, one of the great-grandparents of the present Times Colonist.

On March 25, 1911, the ad for Britannica takes up half a page, announcing the “entirely new” forthcoming 11th edition from the University of Cambridge — “a fresh survey of the world” printed in a “revolutionary” format.

On April 15, another half-page ad appears. Somewhat oddly, but clearly appealing to British upper-middle-class pretentions, most of this one is taken up with a rousing dinner speech made in 1910 in London by “the late President of British Academy,” complete with an imagined soundtrack.

His schtick is to work toward a toast to the Britannica. Yes, the fellow is toasting a collection of books, but he is jolly well undeterred. “The whole thing,” he declares, “is miraculous. (Laughter and cheers.)”

Tacked onto the dead man’s speech is the direct sell: The new Britannica offers a “Fresh and Original Survey of Human Thought, Learning and Achievement … a complete and Authoritative Exposition of Knowledge … A Revolution in Publishing.” In short, it is the “most comprehensive exhibition of exact knowledge” ever seen.

But wait. There’s more.

On Saturday, May 6, there is no holding back: The ad takes up a full page. As a “vivid representation of the world’s activities,” EB11 “demands the attention of all intelligent persons.”

Who among us — then and now — wants to be among the underclass of non-intelligent persons?

And still more: During May 1911 alone, the rival paper, the Daily Colonist, the other great-grandparent of the Times Colonist, published nine big ads.

Clearly Victoria is the perfect target for class-climbing associated with cultural literacy.

This aggressive sell, in fact, appears all over the English-speaking world in dozens of venues and countless variations, and it continues for a number of years.

Despite claims to hold forth indispensable knowledge and lasting insights, EB11 unsurprisingly has inaccuracies and shortcomings — if you publish 40 million words, there’s bound to be something.

It also contains what today we would deem bigotry and prejudice, which is both the product of its age and the vaunted, imperial superiority of that Anglo-American world view.

Interestingly, nothing in the 1910-1911 Britannica seems to clearly predict the full horror of the world war about to break out in July 1914, with a new and precarious world order to immediately emerge, and with considerable unfinished business, some of which we are still dealing with.

So, for me, what purposes might this now liberated set hold?

Stumbling through random entries in EB11 that I knew nothing about, I discovered that an old school “biscuit” was “a form of unvesiculated bread,” and that the Bisaltae, “a Thracian people” of ancient Greece, were notable in their “treatment of the diseases of sheep.” Amazing.

I also began looking up some stuff I knew a little about, among whom were dead, white, European males (known in cultural studies as DWEMs), particularly poets writing between roughly 1790 and 1830 — the “Romantic” era (William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats, and their lot).

What did those long-ago EB11 experts have to say about them — or at least the ones they included?

Well, most entries seemed decent and certainly well written, but at the same time often lacking. History, naturally, has this effect on reputation, tastes, and trends, and is reformed by what we know today that was then unknown.

My immediate idea was to contact today’s experts on those poets and ask them to comment on the old entries, to answer the question about what is lasting and lacking in those original Edwardian essays from Britannica XI.

To my surprise, more than 30 leading international scholars jumped at the chance. The result is a website that places the old expert beside new expert, the now beside the then.

The site is just out — Then & Now: Romantic-Era Poets in Encyclopædia Britannica — and it offers a modest lesson in literary history; more importantly, it offers the lesson of what you can sometimes do with stuff you find in the garbage.

G. Kim Blank is a professor of English at UVic, and the creator and editor of Then & Now: Romantic-Era Poets in Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (eb11.uvic.ca), hosted by UVic’s Humanities Computing and Media Centre. He’s also the author of the recent novel The Watchers’ Club.

Here is an excerpt of a EB11 entry and a portion of an essay by Susan J. Wolfson on the same subject:

THEN

WORDSWORTH, DOROTHY (1771-1855) by Edmund Gosse, from EB11

WORDSWORTH, DOROTHY (1771-1855), English writer and diarist, was the third child and only daughter of John Wordsworth of Cockermouth and his wife, Anne Cookson-Crackanthorpe.

The poet William Wordsworth was her brother and a year her senior. On the death of her father in 1783, Dorothy found a home at Penrith, in the house of her maternal grandfather, and afterwards for a time with a maiden lady at Halifax.

In 1787, on the death of the elder William Cookson, she was adopted by her uncle, and lived in his Norfolk parish of Forncett. She and her brother William, who dedicated to his sister the Evening Walk of 1792, were early drawn to one another, and in 1794 they visited the Lakes together.

They determined that it would be best to combine their small capitals, and that Dorothy should keep house for the poet. From this time forth her life ran on lines closely parallel to those of her great brother, whose companion she continued to be till his death. It is thought that they made the acquaintance of Coleridge in 1797.

From the autumn of 1795 to July 1797 William and Dorothy Wordsworth took up their abode at Racedown, in Dorsetshire. At the latter date they moved to a large manor-house, Alfoxden, in the N. slope of the Quantock hills, in W. Somerset, S. T. Coleridge about the same time settling near by in the town of Nether Stowey. On the 20th of January 1798 Dorothy Wordsworth began her invaluable Journal, used by successive biographers of her brother, but first printed in its quasi-entirety by Professor W. Knight in 1897. (…)

& NOW

WORDSWORTH, Dorothy (1771-1855) by Susan J. Wolfson

Edmund Gosse wrote 150 entries for the 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Dorothy Wordsworth is the last (alphabetically, and perhaps in composition) and the only Romantic-era writer. Was this an orphan slot, which Gosse gallantly filled, or an actual interest?

There is no Wordsworth, Dorothy in the 9th edition (1875-1889). Gosse’s entry in the 11th, at 1,030 words, is no little squib, though it is mostly biographical. The historical Dorothy Wordsworth matters chiefly to him, as she did for most nineteenth-century literary historians and editors, as a lens on her closest brother, the poet William Wordsworth (elder by 20 months), as well as sometimes their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Gosse values Dorothy Wordsworth as proximate sibling, her journals, tour-recollections, and correspondence an archive for better understanding the life, situations, and compositional process of her brother.

At the same time, Gosse’s article intimates an independent value to her writing, according high praise to her art in picturesque description.

This is the extent of his measure, with no mention of her arts as a poet, or her acute perceptions on other levels of description, especially the social and economic textures of life, but also her own autobiography as a woman coming of age in the 1790s and living her life (except for those tours) entirely in northern England.

These elements will be filled in — and filled out — much later in the twentieth century, and to his credit Gosse manages to spring her writing from merely relational value to her great brother: It is not merely by the biographical value of her notes that Dorothy Wordsworth lives. She claims an independent place in the history of English prose.

(…)

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