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
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
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.