A Scandalous Insult

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I was planning on telling you about the next essay in The Art of Daring but it has turned out to be a hot and windy day and I feel a bit limp. So, I’m just going to tell you about a funny bit in the prologue to the biography of Keats I just began reading the other day.

The biography is the one by Robert Gittings. In the prologue he tells a little story about the first biography of Keats intended to be published not long after his death in 1821, Memoirs and Remains of John Keats. Apparently friends of Keats were angry and scandalized that someone would so hastily and prematurely publish such a book.

Appointed spokesman of the friends tossed out a barbed insult at Taylor of the publishing firm Taylor and Hessey who were planning on printing the abomination. The insult? Are your ready for it? It’s really bad. Ok, Brown called Taylor “a mere bookseller.” I know, right? It doesn’t get any worse than that. The insult worked so well that the book was never published and no one who knew Keats firsthand ever wrote a full-length biography.

I know, it was a different time and a different publishing landscape. No doubt the epithet probably implied Taylor was a money grubbing opportunist or something like that. But to think that being called a bookseller and a mere bookseller at that, was once insulting is at least worth an amusing snort, don’t you think?

These days if “mere bookseller” were to be used as an insult I am afraid it would mean something more along the lines of “you are a stupid idiot because everyone knows print is dead and no one actually reads any more.” Of course we know differently, which would also make this worth a snort of amusement and perhaps a head shake of pity for the poor fool making the insult. And a sigh. I think a good sigh would also be in order.

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