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Significant Scots
William Blackwood

BLACKWOOD, WILLIAM, an eminent publisher, and originator of the magazine which bears his name, was born in Edinburgh, November 20, 1776, of parents who, though in humble circumstances, bore a respectable character, and were able to give this and their other children an excellent elementary education. At the age of fourteen, he commenced an apprenticeship with Messrs Bell and Bradfute, booksellers in his native city, with whom he continued six years. During this time, he stored his mind with a large fund of miscellaneous reading, which was of great service to him in after life. It is probable that he at the same time manifested no common talents for business, as, soon after the expiration of his apprenticeship, he was selected by Messrs J. Mundell and Company, then carrying on an extensive publishing business in the Scottish capital, to take the charge of a branch of their concern which they had resolved to establish in Glasgow. Mr Blackwood acted as the Glasgow agent of Mundell and Company for a year, during which time he improved greatly as a man of business. Thrown in a great measure upon his own resources, he here acquired habits of decision, such as are rarely formed at so early an age, and which were afterwards of the greatest importance to him. Having also occasion to write frequently to his constituents, he formed a style for commercial correspondence, the excellence of which was a subject of frequent remark in his later years.

At the end of the year, when the business he had conducted at Glasgow was given up, Mr Blackwood returned to Messrs Bell and Bradfute, with whom he continued about a year longer. He then (1800) entered into partnership with Mr Robert Ross, a bookseller of some standing, who also acted as an auctioneer of books. Not long after, finding the line of business pursued by Mr Ross uncongenial to his taste, he retired from the partnership, and, proceeding to London, placed himself, for improvement in the antiquarian department of his trade, under Mr Cuthill. Returning once more to Edinburgh in 1804, he set up on his own account in a shop in South Bridge Street, where for several years he confined his attention almost exclusively to the department just alluded to, in which he was allowed to have no rival of superior intelligence in Scotland. The catalogue of old books which he published in 1812, being the first of the kind in which the books were classified, and which referred to a stock of uncommon richness and variety, continues till the present day to be a standard authority for the prices of old books. At this period of his career, Mr Blackwood became agent for several of the first London publishing houses, and also began to publish extensively for himself. In 1816, having resolved to throw a larger share of his energies into the latter department of business, he sold off his stock of old books, and removed to a shop in the New Town, soon to become one of the most memorable localities connected with modern literary history.

For a considerable time, Mr Blackwood had been of opinion that something like the same regeneration which the Edinburgh Review had given to periodical criticism, might be communicated to that species of miscellaneous literature which chiefly assumed the monthly form of publication. At this time, the Scots Magazine of his native city, which had never pretended to any merit above that of a correct register, was scarcely in any respect more flat and insipid than the publications of the same kind in London. It was reserved for the original and energetic mind of the subject of this memoir, to raise this department of popular literature from the humble state in which it had hitherto existed, or to which, when we recollect the labours of Johnson and Goldsmith, we may rather say it had sunk, and to place it on the eminence for which it was evidently fitted. The first number of Blackwood’s Magazine appeared in April, 1817, and, though bearing more resemblance to preceding publications of the same kind than it afterwards assumed, the work was from the first acknowledged by the public to possess superior merit. The publishers of the elder magazines made an almost immediate, though indirect confession to this effect, by attempts to put new and more attractive faces upon their publications, and stimulate the lagging energies of those who conducted them. The two young men who were chiefly engaged upon the work of Mr Blackwood, having disagreed with him, were employed by Mr Constable to take the charge of the Scots Magazine, which he, like others in similar circumstances, was endeavouring to resuscitate from the slumbers of a century. Mr Blackwood was already more than independent of these gentlemen, in consequence of the aid which he was receiving from other quarters; but bitter feelings had nevertheless been engendered, and these found vent, through the fancy of some of his new contributors, in the celebrated article in the seventh number of his magazine, styled "Translation of a Chaldee Manuscript." In this jeu d’ esprit, the circumstances of the late feud, and the efforts of Mr Constable to repair the fortunes of his ancient magazine, were thrown into a form the most burlesque that ever imagination conceived, though certainly with very little of the ill nature which the article unfortunately excited in the most of those who figured in it. In consequence of the painful feelings to which it gave rise, Mr Blackwood cancelled it from all the copies within his reach; and it is now, consequently, very rarely to be met with.

Blackwood’s Magazine, as already hinted, had not been in progress for many months, before it obtained the support of new and unexpected talent. Mr John Wilson, already distinguished by his beautiful poetry, and Mr John G. Lockhart, whose more regular, though perhaps less brilliant genius has since found a fitting field in the management of the Quarterly Review, were at this time young men endeavouring to make their way at the Scottish bar. Having formed an attachment to Mr Blackwood, they threw into his literary repertory the overflowing bounties of two minds, such as rarely rise singly, and much more rarely together; and soon enchained the attention of the public to a series of articles not more remarkable for their ability, than for an almost unexampled recklessness of humour and severity of sarcasm. It is not to be denied that much offence was thus occasionally given to the feelings of individuals; but, in extenuation of any charge which can be rested on such grounds, it may be pointed out that, while Mr Blackwood had his own causes of complaint in the ungenerous hostility of several of his commercial brethren, the whimsical genius of his contributors had unquestionably found a general provocation in the overweening pretensions and ungracious deportment of several of their literary seniors, some of whom had, in their own youth, manifested equal causticity, with certainly no greater show of talent. To these excuses must be added the relative one of politics. Mr Blackwood from the first took a strong part with the existing Tory government, which in Edinburgh had been powerfully supported heretofore in every manner except by the pen, while the opposition had long possessed a literary organ of the highest authority. In treating, therefore, of some of the juvenile indiscretions of this extraordinary work, and those connected with it, we must, if willing to preserve impartiality, recollect the keenness with which politics and political men were then discussed.

In the management of the magazine, Mr Blackwood at all times bore in his own person the principal share. The selection of articles, the correspondence with contributors, and other duties connected with editorship, were performed by him during a period of seventeen years, with a degree of skill, on which it is not too much to say that no small portion of the success of the work depended. In its earlier years he contributed two or three articles himself; but to this, as a practice, he had a decided objection, as he could easily perceive that an editor, especially one like himself not trained to letters, is apt to be biassed respecting his own compositions. It may easily be conceived, however, that, in the management of the literary and mercantile concerns of such a work, there was sufficient employment for even a man of his extraordinary energies. And no small praise must it ever be to the subject of this brief memoir, that, during so long a period, he maintained in his work so much of the vivid spirit with which it set out; kept up so unfailing a succession of brilliant articles in general literature, altogether exclusive of the regular papers of Mr Wilson,—as if he were exhausting mind after mind among the literary men of his country, and still at no loss to discover new; and never, throughout his whole career, varied in a single page from the political key-note which he had struck at the commencement. To have done these things, and with so much apparent ease to himself, and so little ostentation,—for these were features in his masterly career—argues in our opinion a character of unwonted vigour, as well as no small share of intellectual power.

The magazine eventually reached a circulation not much short of ten thousand copies, and, while reprinted in North America, found its way from the publisher’s warehouse into every other part of the world where the English language was spoken. Notwithstanding the great claims it made upon his time, Mr Blackwood continued till his death to transact a large share of business as a general publisher. Not long before that event, he completed the Edinburgh Encyclopedia in eighteen volumes quarto, and, among his other more important publications, may be reckoned Kerr’s Collection of Voyages and Travels, in eighteen volumes octavo. The chief distinct works of Messrs Wilson, Lockhart, Hogg, Moir, Galt, and other eminent persons connected with his magazine, and some of the writings of Sir Walter Scott, were published by Mr Blackwood. He also continued till the close of his career to carry on an extensive trade in retail bookselling.

Mr Blackwood died, September 16, 1834, after a painful illness of four months. His disease, a tumour in the groin, had in that time exhausted his physical energies, but left his temper calm and unruffled, and his intellect entire and vigorous even to the last.

In the words of his obituarist, "No man ever conducted business in a more direct and manly manner than Mr Blackwood. His opinion was on all occasions distinctly expressed; his questions were ever explicit; his answers conclusive. His sincerity might sometimes be considered as rough, but no human being ever accused him either of flattering or of shuffling; and those men of letters who were in frequent communication with him, soon conceived a respect and confidence for him, which, save in a very few instances, ripened into cordial regard and friendship. The masculine steadiness, and imperturbable resolution of his character, were impressed on all his proceedings; and it will be allowed by those who watched him through his career, as the publisher of a literary and political miscellany, that these qualities were more than once very severely tested. He dealt by parties exactly as he did by individuals. Whether his principles were right or wrong, they were his, and he never compromised or complimented away one tittle of them. No changes, either of men or of measures, ever dimmed his eye, or checked his courage."

Mr Blackwood was twice a magistrate of his native city, and in that capacity distinguished himself by an intrepid zeal in the reform of burgh management, singularly in contrast with his avowed sentiments respecting constitutional reform.

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