Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blackwood, William

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BLACKWOOD, WILLIAM (1770–1834), publisher, founder of 'Blackwood's Magazine,' was born at Edinburgh in November 1776. The circumstances of his parents were very moderate, but he received a sound education. Intelligent and fond of reading, he was apprenticed at fourteen to a bookselling firm in Edinburgh, and while in their service was a diligent student of the historical and archæological literature of Scotland. At the early age of twenty he was thought worthy by an Edinburgh publishing firm of some eminence to be entrusted with the management of a branch of their business which they were establishing in Glasgow. There he remained a year, and then resumed for another year his connection with his first employers. Entering afterwards into partnership with an Edinburgh bookseller and auctioneer, he found this conjunction of vocations distasteful, and migrating to London he completed his bibliographical education in the antiquarian department of a bookseller noted for his catalogues of old publications. Having acquired through industry and frugality some capital, he returned to Edinburgh in 1804 and began business on his own account, dealing chiefly in old books. He soon became the head of that branch of the trade in Scotland, and his catalogue of old books, published in 1812, is said to have been the first in which classification was attempted, and to have long remained a standard authority. Meanwhile he had begun to exhibit some enterprise and judgment as a publisher. In or about 1810 he took a principal part in founding the elaborate and costly 'Edinburgh Encyclopædia,' edited by Mr. (afterwards Sir) David Brewster. In 1811 he published what remains the standard biography of John Knox by Dr. McCrie, and it was, it is said, at Blackwood's instance that the university of Edinburgh conferred on its author, though not a minister of the Scottish establishment, the degree of D.D. Having become the Edinburgh agent of the first John Murray of Albemarle Street, Blackwood published, in conjunction with him, the first series of Sir Walter Scott's 'Tales of my Landlord.' In this transaction he showed his reliance on his own literary judgment by suggesting an alteration in the finale of the 'Black Dwarf.' Scott indignantly rejected the suggestion, in making which, it must be added, Blackwood had been fortified by the opinion of Murray's chief literary adviser, William Gifford.

In 1816 Blackwood took what was considered the bold step of removing his business from the old town of Edinburgh to Prince's Street, at that time a fashionable thoroughfare of the new town. Soon afterwards he resolved to establish a monthly periodical which would combat the influence, in politics and literature, of the 'Edinburgh Review,' then still published in the city from which it derived its name. On 1 April 1817 he issued No. 1 of the 'Edinburgh Monthly Magazine.' But, probably through precipitancy in his selection of its two editors [see Cleghorn, William; Pringle, Thomas], the tone and tenor of the new periodical were calculated to strengthen instead of to counteract the influence of the 'Edinburgh Review.' The June number accordingly contained an intimation that in three months from that date it would be discontinued; but on 1 Oct. following was issued as No. 7 'Blackwood's ridinburgh Magazine.' Its publisher was, and until his death continued to be, its sole editor. John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart were the chief contributors to the magazine under its new name. Its first issue produced a considerable sensation from the appearance in it of the Chaldee Manuscript, which was chiefly their composition. In style and phraseology a somewhat audacious imitation of the Old Testament, this piece satirised the chief contributors to and the publisher of the 'Edinburgh Review,' and the leading Edinburgh whigs, while giving a glowing description of the parentage and prospects of 'Blackwood's Magazine. Probably its apparent profanity offended in presbyterian Scotland many who would have relished its personalities. With the caution which, as well as enten)rise, characterised him, Blackwood excluded the Chaldee Manuscript from the second edition, immediately called for, of the number in which it had appeared.

With Wilson and Lockhart among its principal contributors, and its sagacious publisher to edit it, 'Blackwood's Magazine' prospered and took a loading position among British penodicals. New contributors of mark or likelihood were always welcomed and liberally treated. Blackwood was the first to recognise the merits of John Gait as a novelist his 'Ayrshire legatees,' the earliest published of his prose fictions, was at once accepted, and speedily appeared in the magazine. While encouraging and rewarding his contributors, Blackwood kept in check the exuberance of some of them. The restraining influence which he exercised over Wilson himself, the most powerful and prolific of them all, is shown in those of Blackwood's letters to him published in Mrs. Gordon's 'Christopher North.' Among the latest and most telling of his editorial acquisitions was Samuel Warren's 'Diary of a Late Physician,' the first chapter of which, declined by the editors of the principal London magazines, was at once accepted by Blackwood.

As a published Blackwood was largely, but by no means exclusively, occupied with the reissue, in book form, of prominent contributions to his magazine. In 1818 he published 'Marriage,' the earliest of Miss Ferrier's fictions. He lived to see completed in 1830 the publication, begun by him twenty years before, of the 'Edinburgh Encyclopædia,' The publication of the voluminous and valuable 'New Statistical Account of Scotland' he undertook more from patriotic motives than with a view to profit. One of the latest and most spirited of his enterprises he did not live to see completed, Alison's 'History of Europe,' which he at once undertook to publish on a perusal of the first volume in manuscript, though he foresaw that it would be a voluminous work. In spite of his engrossing business avocations he found time to attend, as an active member of the town council of Edinburgh, to the interests of his native city, and, while as a staunch tory opposed to parliamentary reform, he is said to have been a zealous promoter of all civic improvements. He died at Edinburgh on 16 Sept. 1834, after an illness of some months, during which he was attended by D. M. Moir, poet and physician, the 'Delta' of his magazine. To the last John Wilson was a visitor to his sick room. In 'Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk' Lockhart has described him in his prime among the literary loungers in his Prince's Street shop as 'nimble, active-looking, with a complexion very sanguineous.' 'Nothing,' it is added, 'can be more sagacious than the expression of his whole physiognomy — the grey eyes and eyebrows full of locomotion.' He is said to have contributed three papers to his magazine, but their subjects and dates have not been specified.

[Obituary Notice (by Lockhart) in Blackwood's Magazine for October 1834; Christopher North, a Memoir of John Wilson, by his daughter Mrs. Gordon (edition of 1879); Chamber's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen; Histories of Publishing Houses: the House of Blackwood, in (London) Critic for July-August 1860.]

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