WALPOLE (HORACE) Autograph letter signed ("HorWalpole"), to the historian, numismatist, poet & literary imposter John Pinkerton, [1784]

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Lot 269

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Autograph letter signed ("HorWalpole"), to the historian, numismatist, poet & literary imposter John Pinkerton: having told him that he has put his play in the hands of George Colman & thanked him for all the king things he has to say, he begins with an account of books published so far: "I have published nothing of any Size but the pieces you mention, & one or two small tracts. now out of print & forgotten. The rest have been prefaces to some of my Strawberry: Editions, & to a few other publications, & some fugitive pieces, which I reprinted several years ago in a small volume, & which shall be at your service, with the Catalogue of Noble Authors"; he then ponders the unscrupulous uses to which booksellers will put his literary remains & whether any strategies are available to the living author to prevent this happening, which leads him to consider his own ambitions & the very nature of fame & reputation itself: "With regard to the Bookseller who has taken the pains of collecting my Writings for an Edition (amongst which I do not doubt but he will generously bestow on me many that I did not write, according to the liberal practice of such compilers) & who also intends to write my Life, to which (as I never did any thing worthy of the notice of the Public, he must likewise be a volunteer Contributor) it woud be vain for me to endeavour to prevent such a Design. Whoever has been so unadvised as to throw himself on the Public, must pay such a tax in a pamphlet or magazine when he dies; but happily the Insects that prey on carrion, are still more short-lived than the carcasses were from which they draw their nutriment. Those momentary abortions live but a day, & are thrust aside by like Embrios. Literary characters, when not illustrious, are known only to a few literary Men; and, amidst the World of books, few Readers can come to my share. Printing that secures Existence (in libraries) to indifferent Authors of any bulk, is like those cases of Egyptian Mummies which in catacombs preserve bodies of one knows not whom, & which are scribbled over with characters that nobody attempts to read, till nobody understands the language in which they were written. I believe therefore it will be most wise to swim for a moment on the passing current, secure that it will soon hurry me into the Ocean where all things are forgotten. To appoint a biographer is to bespeak a Panegyric; and I doubt whether they who collect their works for the Public, &, like me, are conscious of no intrinsic worth, do but beg Mankind to accept of talents (whatever they were) in lieu of Virtues... so far from being prejudiced in favour of my own writings, I am persuaded, that had I thought early as I think now, I shoud never have appeared as an Author. Age, frequent illness and pain, have given me as many hours of reflection in the intervals of the two latter, as the two latter have disabled from reflection; & besides their showing me the inutility of all our little views, they have suggested an observation that I love to encourage in myself from the rationality of it. I have learnt & practised the humiliating task of comparing myself with Great Authors; & That Comparison has annihilated all the flattery that Selflove could suggest. I know how trifling my own Writings are, and how far below the Standard that constitutes Excellence – as for the shades that distinguish the degrees of mediocrity, they are not worth discrimination"; he then turns to his correspondent's work: "I beg your pardon for talking so much of myself; but an answer was due to the unmerited attention which you have paid to my Writings. I turn with more pleasure to speak on yours. Forgive me if I shall blame you, whether you either abandon your intention, or are too impatient to execute it. Your Preface proves that you are capable of treating the Subject ably – but allow me to repeat that it is a Work that ought not to be performed impetuously. A meer Recapitulation of authenticated Facts would be dry. A more enlarged Plan woud demand much acquaintance with the Characters of the Actors, & with the probable sources of measures. The present Time is accustomed to details & anecdotes; and the Age immediately preceding one's own is less known to any Man than the history of any other period. You are young enough, Sr, to collect information on many particulars that will occur in your progress, from living Actors; at least from their Cotemporaries; and great as your ardour may be, you will find yourself delayed by the want of materials, and by farther necessary Inquiries. As you have a variety of talents, why shoud not you exercise them on works that will admit of more rapidity; and at the same time, in leisure moments, commence, digest, and enrich your plan by collecting new matter for it?/ In one word, I have too much zeal for your credit, not to dissuade you from precipitation in a work of the kind you meditate. That I speak sincerely you are sure, as accident, not design, made you acquainted with my admiration of your tract on Medals. If I wish to delay your History, it must be from wishing that it may appear with more advantages; & I must speak disinterestedly, as my age will not allow me to hope to see it if not finished soon. I shoud not forgive myself if I turned you from prosecution of your Work – but as I am certain that my Writings can have given you no opinion of my having sound and deep judgment, pray follow your own", 4 pages, the seal remounted at the top right-hand corner (by Dawson Turner or one of his daughters), light even overall browning but in fine & attractive condition, 4to, [27 October 1784]


  • 'I BEG YOUR PARDON FOR TALKING SO MUCH OF MYSELF': THE HITHERTO LOST ORIGINAL OF A MAGNIFICENT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL LETTER BY HORACE WALPOLE, in which he meditates on the nature of fame, his own reputation as an author and on stratagems whereby writers can influence the way they are regarded by posterity, with a discussion of his correspondent's proposed history of the reign of George II; all subjects close to his heart, as his chequered posthumous reputation and posthumously published memoir of the reign of George II testify.

    This letter has a distinguished provenance. It was acquired by the collector Dawson Turner with the rest of Pinkerton's papers after his death in 1826, the four volumes of Pinkerton MSS being sold by Puttick & Simpson (later acquired by Phillips and thus Bonhams) in the great sale of Dawson Turners manuscripts on 9 June 1859, lot 385; since when it has been lost to view. It was first published in The Private Correspondence of Horace Walpole, 1820, iv, p. 391; and more fully by Dawson Turner in the Literary Correspondence of John Pinkerton, 1830; and it is from these two texts that it is published in W.S. Lewis's great Yale edition. The manner in which the seal, which originally closed the letter for delivery, has been remounted on the letter itself is characteristic of Dawson Turner's presentation of manuscripts in his collection.
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