A preface rather induces a man to speak of himself, which is deemed the worst subject upon which he can speak. In history we become acquainted with things, but in a preface with the author; and, for a man to treat of himself, may be the most difficult talk of the two: for in history, facts are produced ready to the hand of the historian, which give birth to thought, and it is easy to cloath that thought in words. But in a preface, an author is obliged to forge from the brain, where he is sometimes known to forge without fire. In one, he only reduces a substance into form; but in the other, he must create that substance.
As I am not an author by profession, it is no wonder if I am unacquainted with the modes of authorship; but I apprehend, the usual method of conducting the pen, is to polish up a founding title-page, dignified with scraps of Latin, and then, to hammer up a work to fit it, as nearly as genius, or want of genius, will allow.
We next turn over a new leaf, and open upon a pompous dedication, which answers many laudable purposes: if a coat of arms, correctly engraven, should step first into view, we consider it a singular advantage gained over a reader, like the first blow in a combat. The dedication itself becomes a pair of stilts, which advance an author something higher.
As a horse-shoe, nailed upon the threshold of a cottage, prevents the influence of the witch; so a first-rate name, at the head of a dedication, is a total bar against the critic; but this great name, like a great officer, sometimes unfortunately stands at the head of wretched troops.
When an author is too heavy to swim of himself, it serves as a pair of bladders, to prevent his sinking.
It is farther productive of a solid advantage, that of a present from the patron, more valuable than that from the bookseller, which prevents his sinking under the pressure of famine.
But, being wholly unknown to the great names of literary consequence, I shall not attempt a dedication, therefore must lose the benefit of the stilt, the bladder, and the horse-shoe.
Were I to enter upon a dedication, I should certainly address myself, "To the Inhabitants of Birmingham." For to them I not only owe much, but all; and I think, among that congregated mass, there is not one person to whom I wish ill. I have the pleasure of calling many of those inhabitants Friends, and some of them share my warm affections equally with myself. Birmingham, like a compassionate nurse, not only draws our persons, but our esteem, from the place of our nativity, and fixes it upon herself: I might add, I was hungry, and she fed me; thirsty, and she gave me drink; a stranger, and she took me in. I approached her with reluctance, because I did not know her; I shall leave her with reluctance, because I do.
Whether it is perfectly confident in an author, to solicit the indulgence of the public, though it may stand first in his wishes, admits a doubt; for, if his productions will not bear the light, it may be said, why does he publish? but, if they will, there is no need to ask a favor; the world receives one from him. Will not a piece everlastingly be tried by its merit? Shall we esteem it the higher, because it was written at the age of thirteen? because it was the effort of a week? delivered extempore? hatched while the author stood upon one leg? or cobbled, while he cobbled a shoe? or will it be a recommendation, that it issues forth in gilt binding? The judicious world will not be deceived by the tinselled purse, but will examine whether the contents are sterling.
Will it augment the value of this history, or cover its blunders, to say, that I have never seen Oxford? That the thick fogs of penury, prevented the sun of science from beaming upon the mind? That necessity obliged me to lay down the battledore, before I was master of the letters? And that, instead of handling systems of knowledge, my hands, at the early period of seven, became callous with labour?
But, though a whole group of pretences will have no effect with the impartial eye, yet one reason pleads strongly in my favor--no such thing ever appeared as An History of Birmingham. It is remarkable, that one of the most singular places in the universe is without an historian: that she never manufactured an history of herself, who has manufactured almost every thing else; that so many ages should elapse, and not one among her numerous sons of industry, snatch the manners of the day from oblivion, group them in design, with the touches of his pen, and exhibit the picture to posterity. If such a production had ever seen the light, mine most certainly would never have been written; a temporary bridge therefore may satisfy the impatient traveller, till a more skilful architect shall accommodate him with a complete production of elegance, of use, and of duration.--Although works of genius ought to come out of the mint doubly refined, yet history admits of a much greater latitude to the author. The best upon the subject, though defective, may meet with regard.
It has long been a complaint, that local history is much wanted. This will appear obvious, if we examine the places we know, with the histories that treat of them. Many an author has become a cripple, by historically travelling through all England, who might have made a tolerable figure, had he staid at home. The subject is too copious for one performance, or even the life of one man. The design of history is knowledge: but, if simply to tell a tale, be all the duty of an historian, he has no irksome task before him; for there is nothing more easy than to relate a fact; but, perhaps, nothing more difficult than to relate it well.
The situation of an author is rather precarious--if the smiles of the world chance to meet his labours, he is apt to forget himself; if otherwise, he is soon forgot. The efforts of the critic may be necessary to clip the wings of a presuming author, lest his rising vanity becomes insupportable: but I pity the man, who writes a book which none will peruse a second time; critical exertions are not necessary to pull him down, he will fall of himself. The sin of writing carries its own punishment, the tumultuous passions of anxiety and expectation, like the jarring elements in October, disturb his repose, and, like them, are followed by stirility: his cold productions, injured by no hand but that of time, are found sleeping on the shelf unmolested. It is easy to describe his fears before publication, but who can tell his feelings after judgment is passed upon his works? His only consolation is accusing the critic of injustice, and thinking the world in the wrong. But if repentence should not follow the culprit, hardened in scribbling, it follows, his bookseller, oppressed with dead works. However, if all the evils in Pandora's box are emptied on a blasted author, this one comfort remains behind--The keeper of a circulating library, or the steward of a reading society can tell him, "His book is more durable than the others."
Having, many years ago, entertained an idea of this undertaking, I made some trifling preparations; but, in 1775, a circumstance of a private nature occurring, which engaged my attention for several years, I relinquished the design, destroyed the materials, and meant to give up the thought for ever. But the intention revived in 1780, and the work followed.
I may be accused of quitting the regular trammels of history, and sporting in the fields of remark: but, although our habitation justly stands first in our esteem, in return for rest, content, and protection; does it follow that we should never stray from it? If I happen to veer a moment from the polar point of Birmingham, I shall certainly vibrate again to the center. Every author has a manner peculiar to himself, nor can he well forsake it. I should be exceedingly hurt to omit a necessary part of intelligence, but more, to offend a reader.
If GRANDEUR should censure me for sometimes recording the men of mean life, let me ask, Which is preferable, he who thunders at the anvil, or in the senate? The man who earnestly wishes the significant letters, ESQ. spliced to the end of his name, will despise the question; but the philosopher will answer, "They are equal."
Lucrative views have no part in this production: I cannot solicit a kind people to grant what they have already granted; but if another finds that pleasure in reading, which I have done in writing, I am paid.
As no history is extant, to inform me of this famous nursery of the arts, perfection in mine must not be expected. Though I have endeavoured to pursue the road to truth; yet, having no light to guide, or hand to direct me, it is no wonder if I mistake it: but we do not condemn, so much as pity the man for losing his way, who first travels an unbeaten road.
Birmingham, for want of the recording hand, may be said to live but one generation; the transactions of the last age, die in this; memory is the sole historian, which being defective, I embalm the present generation, for the inspection of the future.
It is unnecessary to attempt a general character, for if the attentive reader is himself of Birmingham, he is equally apprized of that character; and, if a stranger, he will find a variety of touches scattered through the piece, which, taken in a collective view, form a picture of that generous people, who merit his esteem, and possess mine.
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