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MINUTE PARTICULARS

“BLAKE, WILLIAM” IN THE NEW AMERICAN CYCLOPEDIA (1861)

An article about William Blake which was one of the most widely circulated American accounts of his life and works in the later pre-Gilchrist years and for at least a decade thereafter should be added to the extensive pre-Gilchrist bibliographies of G. E. Bentley, Jr.’s Critical Heritage and Blake Books. 1 1 G. E. Bentley, Jr., William Blake: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1975); Blake Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). The sketch appears in volume III of the New American Cyclopedia, published in 1861 but copyrighted in 1858; the discrepancy between the dates of publication and copyright is explained by the editorial preface to volume I (publ. 1860, copyright 1857), which notes that the actual publication of the first volume was undertaken only when the entire project was in “an advanced state of preparation for the press.”2 2 New American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, ed. George Ripley and Charles A. Dana (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1858-63); in the revised edition of 1872 and in later reprintings the name was changed to simply American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge.

The article, about 550 words long, seems to depend almost entirely upon Cunningham’s Lives for biographical and bibliographical information as well as for a judgment of Blake and his works; in fact, numerous parallels (for example, 1828 as the date of Blake’s death) make it plain that Cunningham is quoted silently, repeatedly, and often pretty carelessly. Several of Blake’s works are mentioned specifically, and, after Cunningham, the “inventions for the Book of Job” are judged “his best production.” Likewise, Blake’s visionary qualities are emphasized:

He wrote songs, composed music, and painted at the same time; but in the excitement of his labors, he began to conceive that he was under spiritual influences; and as external prosperity was wanting, he grew more and more abstracted and retired, until the visionary tendencies of his nature dominated his life. Among his friends he gave out that the works on which he was engaged were copied from great works revealed to him, and that his lessons in art were given him by celestial tongues. An original and beautiful method of engraving and tinting his plates he ascribed to the dead brother of his wife, Robert.
The error in the last sentence suggests a careless reading of Cunningham, as do the statements that Poetical Sketches contains a “drama” (Cunningham says “a dramatic poem”) and that Blake made “12 ‘Inventions’” for the “Canterbury Pilgrims.” Curiously, however, the article states correctly a few details not included in Cunningham’s Lives: 1789 is given as the date of the Songs, and the “Canterbury Pilgrims” (correctly named in contrast to Cunningham’s “Canterbury Pilgrimage”) is described as a “water-color painting” whereas Cunningham simply mentions that it was painted. Possibly the article-writer was familiar with Robert Balmanno’s copy of Innocence, which gives “1789” clearly on the title page; that this same copy, Innocence (U), had bound with it a print from Blake’s engraving of the “Canterbury Pilgrims” may also explain why the article-writer gives a correct version of Blake’s title, although the accurate observation that Blake’s larger version was a “water-color painting,” or at least not an oil, remains of mysterious origin.3 3 See my “An American Original: Mrs. Colman’s Illustrated Printings of Blake’s Poems, 1843-44,” Blake, 11, (Summer 1977), 4-18.

The New American Cyclopedia article probably was written by Charles Dana, the city editor of the New York Tribune. Dana and George Ripley, the newspaper’s literary critic, were the two editors of the New American Cyclopedia (whose list of contributors does not include anyone else known to have had an early interest in Blake), and in 1857 Dana had edited the Household Book of Poetry,4 4 Household Book of Poetry, ed. Charles A. Dana (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857). in which he included four of Blake’s Songs and “My Silks” from Poetical Sketches.

Although Dana’s contribution to Blake’s fame occurred late in the pre-Gilchrist years, his two publications mentioned here are especially important to Blake’s American reputation because they were widely read and respected. Dana judged the Household Book of Poetry to include “within the bounds of a single volume whatever is truly beautiful and admirable among the minor poems of the English language,”5 5 Ibid., p. v. and the American public seems to have enthusiastically supported his critical judgments, for the anthology (with the addition of yet another of Blake’s Songs in the 1858 and subsequent editions6 6 Noted by Suzanne R. Hoover in “William Blake in the Wilderness: A Closer Look at his Reputation 1827-63,” William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. Morton D. Paley and Michael Phillips (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 322. ) went through dozens of printings in the nineteenth century and four more in the twentieth. Dana’s biographer seems correct in describing the New American Cyclopedia as “the principal[e] American work of its time”7 7 James H. Wilson, Life of Charles A. Dana (New York: Harper, 1908), p. 159. ; in sixteen volumes the most extensive nineteenth-century American reference work (the only competition was the even earlier but slightly smaller Encyclopedia Americana), the New American Cyclopedia passed through more than a dozen printings in fifteen years and included extensive annual supplements issued from 1876 to 1887.

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