In the course of an extraordinarily productive career spanning six decades, Pat Rogers has written cogently, perceptively and memorably about all kinds of literature, as well as about the character and capacities of literary criticism. His powers of scrutiny and summary are often arresting and always dedicated to resisting imprecision. In his latest book, Rogers imparts a fresh, first-hand excitement to historical events with which he has long been not only familiar but intimate. He knows more than anyone about Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll, and has already published substantial critical and biographical studies of both men, alongside editions of Pope’s works. While an earlier book on Curll, co-written with Paul Baines, offered an overview of the rascally publisher’s interactions with the wider book trade, here Rogers’s focus is upon the protracted, often puerile fight between the hardened Grub Street professional and a thin-skinned, unforgiving writer.
Curll’s name was for many years a byword for effrontery. Enterprising and unscrupulous, he revelled in acquiring and publishing works without their authors’ permission. He got himself into hot water more than once for piracy and infringing copyright, as well as for ushering blasphemous and pornographic texts into print. In 1728, he was put in the pillory for seditious libel. But Curll was and remains best known for being a thorn in the side of Alexander Pope, the greatest poet and satirist of the early 18th century. In recent decades some effort has been made to improve Curll’s standing in literary history, and it is true that much of the disdain expressed towards him, both in the 18th century and thereafter, derived from a snobbish, anti-commercial attitude. It is also true that Pope himself was not above dishonesty, smuttiness or greed. The two men, as Rogers amply demonstrates, had a good deal of grubbiness and roguery in common. Each liked