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Significant Scots
Alexander Chalmers


CHALMERS, ALEXANDER, M.A., F.S.A.—The life of this laborious literary workman is more remarkable for untiring industry, and its immense amount of produce, than for greatness or originality of genius. He was born at Aberdeen, on the 29th of March, 1759, and was the youngest son of James Chalmers, printer in Aberdeen, an accomplished scholar, who established the first newspaper that existed in that town. Alexander, after completing a classical education, continued his studies for the medical profession; and, on finally being appointed to practice as surgeon in the West Indies, he left Aberdeen in 1777, to join the ship which was to carry him to his destination. But on reaching Portsmouth, instead of stepping on board, he suddenly flew off to London. He had either lost heart at the thought of a residence in the West Indies, at that time one of the worst of exiles, or had suddenly become enamoured with the charms of a literary life in the metropolis. At all events, thither he went, and although his line of existence was stretched out nearly sixty years beyond this period, his native city saw him no more.

On entering London, Mr. Chalmers commenced as a contributor to the periodical press, and became editor of the "Public Ledger and London Packet." It was a stirring and prolific period for journalists, in consequence of the American war, and so ably did he exert himself; that he soon became noted as a vigorous political writer. Besides his own, he exercised his talents in other established journals of the day, the chief of which was the "St. James’s Chronicle," where he wrote many essays, most of them under the signature of Senex. He was also a valuable assistant for some years to his fellow-townsman, Mr. James Perry, editor and proprietor of the "Morning Chronicle," who had come to London at the same time as himself, and to whose newspaper Chalmers contributed racy paragraphs, epigrams, and satirical poems. He was likewise a contributor to the "Analytical Review," published by Mr. Johnson, and to the "Critical Review." As the last-named magazine was published by Mr. George Robinson of Paternoster Row, a close connection was established between Mr. Chalmers and that eminent publisher, which continued till the death of the latter, and was of important service to both parties. Chalmers, who lived almost wholly with his friend, assisted him in the examination of manuscripts offered for publication, and also revised, and occasionally altered and improved, those that were passed through the press. With most, indeed, of the principal publishers and printers in London during fifty years Chalmers maintained a friendly intercourse, and of many of them he has left interesting biographies in the Obituary of the "Gentleman’s Magazine," a favourite periodical to which he frequently contributed. These literary exertions, however, numerous though they were, and extended over a long course of years, were as nothing compared with his permanent labours as editor of many of the most important works of British authorship; and it is by these, of which we can only give a very brief notice, that his merits are chiefly to be estimated.

In 1793 he published a continuation of the "History of England in Letters," two volumes. This work was so well appreciated, that four editions successively appeared, the last being in 1821.

In 1797 he compiled a "Glossary to Shakspere"—a task peculiarly agreeable to a Scotsman, who finds in the copious admixture of unpolluted Saxon existing in his own native dialect, a key to much that is now obsolete in the English of the Elizabethan period.

In 1798 he published a "Sketch of the Isle of Wight;" and in the same year an edition of "The Rev. James Barclay’s Complete and Universal English Dictionary."

In 1803 he published a complete edition of the "British Essayists," beginning with the "Tatler," and ending with the "Observer," in forty-five volumes. The papers of this long series he carefully compared with the originals, and enriched the work with biographical and historical prefaces, and a general index.

During the same year, he produced a new edition of Shakspere, in nine volumes, with a life of the author, and abridgment of the notes of Stevens, accompanied with illustrations from the pencil of Fuseli.

In 1805 he wrote lives of Robert Burns, and Dr. Beattie, author of the "Minstrel," which were prefixed to their respective works.

In 1806 he edited Fielding’s works, in ten volumes octavo; Dr. Johnson’s works, in twelve volumes octavo; Warton’s essays, the "Tatler," "Spectator," and "Guardian," in fourteen volumes octavo; and assisted the Rev. W. L. Bowles in his edition of the works of Alexander Pope.

In 1807 he edited "Gibbon’s Decline and Fall," in twelve volumes octavo, to which he prefixed a Life of the Author.

In 1808, and part of the following year, he selected and edited, in forty-five volumes, the popular work known as "Walker’s Classics."

In 1809 he edited Bolingbroke’s works, in eight volumes octavo. During this year, and the intervals of several that followed, he contributed many of the lives contained in that splendid work, the "British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits."

In 1810 he revised an enlarged edition of "The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper," and prefixed to it several biographical notices omitted in the first collection. During the same year, he published "A History of the Colleges, Halls, and Public Buildings attached to the University of Oxford." This work he intended to continue, but did not complete it.

In 1811 he revised Bishop Hard’s edition of Addison’s works, in six volumes octavo, and an edition of Pope’s works, in eight volumes octavo. During the same year he published, with many alterations, "The Projector," in three volumes octavo, a collection of original articles which he had contributed to the "Gentleman’s Magazine," from the year 1802 to 1809.

In 1812 he prefixed a "Life of Alexander Cruden" to a new edition of "Cruden’s Concordance."

During the last-mentioned year, also, Chalmers commenced the largest and most voluminous of all his literary labours, and the work upon which his reputation chiefly rests. This was "The General Biographical Dictionary, containing an Historical and Critical Account of the Lives and Writings of the most Eminent Men in every Nation, particularly the British and Irish; from the Earliest Accounts to the Present Times." The original work, published in 1798, had consisted of fifteen volumes. Large though it was, Chalmers found it incomplete, and resolved to expand it into a full and perfect work. He therefore commenced this gigantic labour in May, 1812, and continued to publish a volume every alternate month for four years and ten months, until thirty-two volumes were successively laid before the public. The amount of toil undergone during this period may be surmised from the fact, that of the nine thousand and odd articles which the Dictionary contains, 3934 were entirely his own production, 2176 were re-written by him, and the rest revised and corrected.

After these toils, it might have been supposed that the veteran editor and author would have left the field to younger men. He had now reached the age of fifty-seven, and had crowded that period with an amount of literary exertion such as might well indicate the full occupation of every day, and every hour of the day. But no sooner was the last volume of the Biographical Dictionary ended, than he was again at work, as if he had entered freshly into action; and from 1816 to 1823 a series of publications was issued from the press that had passed under his editorial pen, chiefly consisting of biographies. But at last the "pitcher was broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern." During the latter years of his life, he had been employed by the booksellers to revise and enlarge his "Biographical Dictionary," and upon this he had continued to employ himself until about a third of the work was finished, when the breaking up of his constitution obliged him to lay aside his well-worn pen. His last years were years of suffering, arising chiefly from diseases incident to such a sedentary life, until he sank under an attack of bronchial inflammation. His death occurred in Throgmorton Street, London, on the 10th of December, 1834, in his seventy-sixth year. His wife had died eighteen years previous, and his remains were interred in the same vault with hers, in the church of St. Bartholomew, near the Royal Exchange.

In the foregoing summary we have omitted the mention of not a few of Chalmers’ less essential literary performances, conceiving the list to be already long enough to give an idea of his character and well-spent life. We can only add, that his character was such as to endear him to the literary society with whom he largely mingled, and by whom his acquaintance was eagerly sought. He was what Dr. Johnson would have termed "a good clubbable man," and was a member of many learned societies during half a century, as well as the affectionate biographer of many of his companions who had been wont to assemble there. He was charitable almost to a fault—a rare excess with those in whom a continued life of toil is too often accompanied with an undue love of money, and unwillingness to part with it. He was also in his private life an illustration of that Christian faith and those Christian virtues which his literary exertions had never failed to recommend.


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