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The Case of Alexander Pope, Esq., of Twickenham Versus Edmund Curll, Bookseller in Grub Street

by Pat Rogers

Pub Date: June 10th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-78914-416-1
Publisher: Reaktion Books

An account of 18th-century literary shenanigans.

Three centuries ago, there were no marketing and sales juggernauts at publishing houses, so authors and booksellers had to find other means to publicize their books. It was not always a virtuous process. Rogers, a noted authority on Alexander Pope, delivers a lively tale about one of the nastiest and most famous protracted feuds in literary history: between the Catholic poet Pope and Edmund Curll, a “rascally publisher” of obscene items who “spent his career dodging…the law.” Telling the story in the form of a trial, Rogers unearths reams of primary source materials or “exhibits” and extensive quotations to show how the clashes between them evolved. After a fulsome assessment of the time—politics, religion, battles of wit, Grub Street—the London they lived in, and sketches of the two antagonists, the trial begins. In 1714, Pope published his five canto The Rape of the Lock; Curll, with no right to it, nonetheless issued his own edition. The feud had officially begun. Beginning in 1716, each assaulted the other via a series of damaging pamphlets. Pope was busy with his edition of Shakespeare’s plays and his translation of the Odyssey while Curll spent some time in jail for lewd publications. The publication of Pope’s The Dunciad, Rogers writes, was “more than a work of literature. Its appearance constituted an event.” Curll was mentioned in it often, and he responded with his Popiad. The feud took its “strangest turn yet” with Pope’s published letters, which Curll pirated, resulting in the now-famous 1741 copyright case, Pope v. Curll, which Pope won. In an enlightening, overlong narrative, Rogers delivers the case, one lying “thickly documented in the archives.” Readers can deliver their own verdict: Who was the most maligned?

A highly detailed, literary tit for tat for fans of publishing and literary history.