“But,” continued he, “as you seem anxious to know something of literary society I will take an opportunity to introduce you to some coterie, where the talents of the day are assembled. I cannot promise you, however, that they will be of the first order. Somehow or other, our great geniuses are not gregarious, they do not go in flocks, but fly singly in general society. They prefer mingling, like common men, with the multitude; and are apt to carry nothing of the author about them but the reputation. It is only the inferior orders that herd together, acquire strength and importance by their confederacies, and bear all the distinctive characteristics of their species.”
A few days after this conversation with Mr. Buckthorne, he called upon me, and took me with him to a regular literary dinner. It was given by a great bookseller, or rather a company of booksellers, whose firm surpassed in length even that of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.
I was surprised to find between twenty and thirty guests assembled, most of whom I had never seen before. Buckthorne explained this to me by informing me that this was a “business dinner,” or kind of field day, which the house gave about twice a year to its authors. It is true, they did occasionally give snug dinners to three or four literary men at a time, but then these were generally select authors; favorites of the public; such as had arrived at their sixth and seventh editions. “There are,” said he, “certain geographical boundaries in the land of literature, and you may judge tolerably well of an author’s popularity, by the wine his bookseller gives him. An author crosses the port line about the third edition and gets into claret, but when he has reached the sixth and seventh, he may revel in champagne and burgundy.”
“And pray,” said I, “how far may these gentlemen have reached that I see around me; are any of these claret drinkers?”
“Not exactly, not exactly. You find at these great dinners the common steady run of authors, one, two, edition men—or if any others are invited they are aware that it is a kind of republican meeting—You understand me—a meeting of the republic of letters, and that they must expect nothing but plain substantial fare.”
These hints enabled me to comprehend more fully the arrangement of the table. The two ends were occupied by two partners of the house. And the host seemed to have adopted Addison’s ideas as to the literary precedence of his guests. A popular poet had the post of honor, opposite to whom was a hot-pressed traveller in quarto, with plates. A grave-looking antiquarian, who had produced several solid works, which were much quoted and little read, was treated with great respect, and seated next to a neat, dressy gentleman in black, who had written a thin, genteel, hot-pressed octavo on political economy that was getting into fashion. Several three-volume duodecimo men of fair currency were placed about the centre of the table; while the lower end was taken up with small poets, translators, and authors, who had not as yet risen into much notice.