The Grub Street Myth
Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
The term derives from a real street, running northwards from the City Wall near the ancient barrier of Cripplegate, which stood on the site until it was demolished in 1760, and also gave its name to one of the municipal wards. The road lay in the large parish of St Giles, Cripplegate outside the freedom of the City. From Fore Street to Chiswell Street, it covered a distance of about two hundred yards. Today, most of the site is covered by the Barbican, a large centre for the performing arts.
Several trades found a home there, as well as taverns. It was not an especially squalid part of the town, but it was going downhill socially (John Strype described it in 1720 as “but indifferent, as to its houses and inhabitants”). On the whole, it was unlucky to have developed some louche associations which could be paralleled in other liminal areas on the edge of the historic city. John Dryden was among the first to seize on this circumstance in Mac Flecknoe (1682), when he linked “the suburbian Muse” characterised by bad and venal writing with the outlying districts of London. By the time that Samuel Johnson produced his Dictionary in 1755, the Grub Stret connection had been firmly mapped: “Originally the name of a street in Moorfield in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet." There was playful self-reference here, since the lexicographer had only recently made his own escape from these condemned genres. Still, the definition is accurate in outline.
Over time, this expression came to refer to the proverbial misfortunes of professional authors (and occasionally publishers), as they attempted to eke out a living in a hostile climate. Although the term Grub Street is still used to describe some branches of popular literature and journalism, the legendary associations that once clung to it have disappeared. The myth invoked most pervasively writers from the mid seventeenth century to the later eighteen hundreds, and its content derived largely from the work of poets, satirists, playwrights, and journalists in that period. It can be seen as dramatising an increasing split between the noble aspirations of authorship and the commercial pressures of writing in the marketplace.
However, in mythological terms the heyday of Grub Street came in the succeeding age, and its main lines are still visible up to the 1920s. Since then, numerous sentimental accretions that the narrative had acquired have been debunked by scholarship. More significantly, the portrayal of the entire caste of struggling hacks as pathetic losers has been viewed as archaic. Various academic trends have aided this process, among them the development of history from below, the resurgence of a Whig version of literary history to replace the previous blind faith in Tory critiques of authorship, and a demand for more inclusiveness in the coverage of the writing profession (so that women, proletarians, and unpublished figures on the margins of society get their turn in the limelight). All these factors have meant that no one convincingly occupies the role of the isolated Romantic outsider, who had been a key figure in the legend.
It is true that, after the end of official censorship in 1695, an increasing number of authors were able to make a livelihood by writing for an ever-expanding readership. Their social origins were not really plebeian: few of them had as humble a background as Daniel Defoe, who emerged from a literary environment close to that of the mythical Grub Street and would appear briefly in The Dunciad. They lost caste because of the miscellaneous nature of their productions, especially as viewed by the more successful and secure writers such as Pope, Swift, and Fielding. It is also the case that (as the myth asserted) their activities were often orchestrated by a small group of prominent publishers and booksellers, among them the audacious Edmund Curll (1683–1747), whose long battle with Pope helped to spread the idea of a grasping publisher managing the output of cheap, salacious, and unauthorised books.
Early evocations of Grub Street emphasized poverty and squalid surroundings, misplaced ambition, defective education, improvident and even dissolute ways of live—but also, in the influential work of the Scriblerian satirists, incompetence in their trade, as well as jealousy of their “betters” and rivalry with their peers. These are the sort of attributes we see allotted to the denizens of garrets in Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704 onwards), Pope’s Dunciad (1728 onwards), Fielding’s The Author’s Farce (1730) and Hogarth’s The Distrest Poet (1735). Most directly, Pope’s creation may be read as a full-blown epic of Grub Street, in which a new class of professional authors (including journalists, pamphleteers, compilers, and abridgers) stands accused of flooding the nation with a deluge of print. What the myth subsequently did was to take details from sources of this kind, and then over time soften their outline, so that the figures depicted would merit not the lofty scorn of satire, but the charitable gaze of sympathetic understanding. This process has its roots in some negative appraisals of Pope in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but it flourished most obviously in the work of authors such as Isaac D’Israeli and Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Along the way, the archetypal grubstreeter was depicted in the figure of Iscariot Hackney, narrator of An Author to be Lett (1729), a pamphlet claimed by Richard Savage. If he did write it, there is an irony in that he himself pursued la vie bohème without much money, constantly in search of patronage, and would be the main character in Johnson’s biography of his friend, An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744)—the classic study of a life lived on the edge of society. Further evocations of this world appear in James Ralph’s The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade (1758) and, at a greater distance, by Oliver Goldsmith in An Enquiry into the Present State of Learning in Europe (1750). Goldsmith’s Irish background brought him into contact with a group styled by Norma Clarke the “brothers of the quill,” who included Paul Hiffernan, John Pilkington and Samuel Derrick, all natives of Dublin. In 1757 Samuel Foote brought Fielding’s almost forty-year-old play up to date with a farce called The Author. Where the earlier hero, Luckless, had been a hapless loser, the substitute figure, Cape, is “somewhat dim…but he is depicted sympathetically” (Clarke). Like Pope, Fielding had made his predatory bookseller, based on Edmund Curll, a comic ogre; Foote’s parallel figure, Vamp, is a vicious portrait of the publisher Ralph Griffiths. Where the earlier inhabitant of Grub Street was an innocent abroad, his successor is an honourable man too highminded to stoop to the low practices demanded of contemporary authors.
As the legendary tale burgeoned, it needed to possess its own saints and victims. One individual deservedly ranked among the minor writers of the age was Samuel Boyse (1703?–1749), also Dublin-born. For a long time, Grub Street mythology is bound up with Boyse martyrology. Unwittingly, Sir John Hawkins was among those who ministered to this cult, writing a long digressive footnote to the biography of his friend Johnson. From this we learn that Boyse had great talents, with “a genius for poetry, for painting, and music.” However his “mean and sordid temper” held him back, much as had happened to Savage. Then comes a story that was repeated over many decades: “In 1740 he was reduced to the want of necessary apparel, and having pawned whatever he could exist without, was confined by his indigence to a bed which had no sheets: here, to procure food, his posture sitting up in bed, his only covering a blanket, in which a hole was made to admit of the employment of his arm.” Hawkins goes through the further vicissitudes of Boyse’s life, as he moves in and out of a spunging house, and then “raised subscriptions for non-existent poems, and sometimes employed his wife to give out that he was dying.” The poet ends up, symbolically, in a pauper’s grave. Hawkins shows no sympathy for his plight, and the sense we are left with is that Boyse was a crook and a manipulator. All this tallies with Johnson’s comments about the way in which the writer’s addiction to “low vices” led him to find himself “without the least substance for days together.” Somehow these biographic details were lifted from their context, and the misfortunes of Boyse were blamed not on his failings, but on cruel treatment by an inhumane system.
Adam Rouse has summarised the situation in these terms: “Boyse and his shroud with its hole is a shorthand for all the iniquities of Grub Street, a morality tale where the vanities of the hapless author and the injustices of the hack-writing world alternate, as Boyse rolls darkling towards the abyss.” More generally, Rouse links such cases to the failure—in economic terms and in reputation—associated with the concept, and notes a growing tendency “to place the impecunious and failed authors of Grub Street in something of a void, whereby their works become of increasing irrelevance to the infamous misery of their lives.” As a result, “the necessarily exaggerated fictions of Swift and Pope are taken as real.”
This process accelerated in the nineteenth century, reaching its apogee in an essay on Johnson by Macaulay (1831). Its wonderfully overblown rhetoric needs to be read at some length to be believed. Here is a sample:
All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. That word denoted a creature dressed like a scare-crow, familiar with compters and spunging-houses, and perfectly qualified to decide on the comparative merits of the Common Side in the King's Bench prison and of Mount Scoundrel in the Fleet. Even the poorest pitied him: and they well might pity him; for, if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute. To lodge in a garret up four pair of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footmen out of place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St. George's Fields, and from St. George's Fields to the alleys behind St. Martin's Church, to sleep on a bulk in June, and amidst the ashes of a glass-house in December, to die in an hospital and be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kit-cat or the Scriblerus club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been intrusted with embassies to the High Allies—who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albemarle Street or in Paternoster Row.
There is more in this vein:
All the vices of the gambler and of the beggar were blended with those of the author. The prizes in the wretched lottery of bookmaking were scarcely less ruinous than the blanks. If good fortune came, it came in such a manner that it was almost certain to be abused. After months of starvation and despair, a full third night or a well-received dedication filled the pocket of the lean, ragged, unwashed poet with guineas. He hastened to enjoy those luxuries with the images of which his mind had been haunted while he was sleeping amidst the cinders and eating potatoes at the Irish ordinary in Shoe Lane. A week of taverns soon qualified him for another year of night-cellars. Such was the life of Savage, of Boyce, and of a crowd of others. Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking champagne and tokay with Betty Careless; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge Island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste; they knew luxury; they knew beggary; but they never knew comfort. These men were irreclaimable. They looked on a regular and frugal life with the same aversion which an old gipsy or a Mohawk hunter feels for a stationary abode, and for the restraints and securities of civilized communities.
Rarely has myth so beguilingly trumped the more banal truth.
Less highly coloured versions of this story appear scared throughout Victorian literature. In 1853 William Makepeace Thackeray is comparatively restrained in his evocation of the perils of authors at the hands of those that disparaged them, especially Pope:
If authors were wretched and poor before, if some of them lived in haylofts, of which their landladies kept the ladders, at least nobody came to disturb them in their straw; if three of them had but one coat between them, the two remained invisible in the garret, the third, at any rate, appeared decently at the coffee-house and paid his twopence like a gentleman. It was Pope that dragged into light all this poverty and meanness, and held up those wretched shifts and rags to public ridicule. It was Pope that has made generations of the reading world (delighted with the mischief, as who would not be that reads it?) believe that author and wretch, author and rags, author and dirt, author and drink, gin, cow-heel, tripe, poverty, duns, bailiffs, squalling children and clamorous landladies, were always associated together. The condition of authorship began to fall from the days of the “Dunciad:” and I believe in my heart that much of that obloquy which has since pursued our calling was occasioned by Pope's libels and wicked wit. Everybody read those. Everybody was familiarised with the idea of the poor devil, the author.
In the 1870s, the topographer Walter Thornbury is representative of others who followed this line on Grub Street:
Here poor hacks of weak will and mistaken ambition sat up in bed, with blankets skewered round them, and, encouraged by gin, scribbled epics and lampoons, and fulsome dedications to purse-proud patrons. Here poor men of genius, misled by Pleasure's ignis fatuus, repented too late their misused hours, and, by the flickering rush-light, desperately endeavoured to retrieve the loss of opportunities by satires on ministers, or ribald attacks on men more successful than themselves.
It is against this background that we must set George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1892), a sympathetic account of the struggles of Edwin Reardon in the different literary climate of the fin de siècle. Echoes of this tale are heard repeatedly in the comic disasters endured by Ed Reardon, in a contemporary series by Christopher Douglas on BBC radio (2005–2021), as he attempts to scrape a living in the modern world of print and digital media—putting together coffee-table books, ghost-writing misery memoirs and celebrity autobiographies, compiling Jane Seymour’s Household Hints, and picking up occasional work in the theatre or television from his agent—much as Pope’s victims did from Edmund Curll. Most soul destroying for Ed is his weekly stint teaching a creative writing class for a small group of untalented wannabes at a local night school. That was one indignity that residents of eighteenth-century Grub Street were spared.
The myth forms the last chapter in Pat Rogers, Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (1972: 2014). It provides the background to Norma Clarke, Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (2016), and underlies the discussion in Adam Rounce, Fame and Failure 1720–1800: The Unfulfilled Literary Life (2013).