Isaac Newton in the Eighteenth Century.

Jenny Davidson
Aug 20, 2018 · 7 min read

Laura Miller: Five questions with Jenny Davidson.

Laura Miller is Associate Professor of English and Philosophy at the University of West Georgia and author of Reading Popular Newtonianism: Print, the Principia, and the Dissemination of Newtonian Science (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2018).

JMD: You have a great sentence early on in the introduction about some of the problems with using the evidence of printed books themselves in order to understand more about how readers consumed them: “The works of popular Newtonianism produced during this period reflect an imagined readership to which the books were marketed, a commercially grounded assumption that did not fully align with the actual reception of these texts” (2). You note a few pages later that “the printing of a book is not the same as the diffuse dissemination of an idea, which is why we need to look at the reception of books as well as their publication” (8). Did your graduate training prepare you to do this kind of work, and if not, how and where did you learn?

LM: As an undergraduate at Duke, I was encouraged to look for what texts said and what they left unsaid, so my readings focused on who wasn’t speaking, what information was concealed from readers, and why those silences mattered. Later, while working on my PhD at UC Santa Barbara, I started thinking about spaces in criticism in a similar way. People are reluctant to pursue reception study at all because traces of reading can be tricky to interpret, with their own accompanying gaps, but it is better to acknowledge a gap than to avoid a subject entirely. Having support to visit archives and examine physical copies of books helped me learn to do reception work because I was able to apply what I learned from my reading in the field while I had vast resources at the ready. Using databases like EEBO and ECCO and working on the English Broadside Ballad Archive enhanced my knowledge of book history and bibliography from additional perspectives. When you work closely with a subject over an extended period of time, you make richer connections. In my case, I wrote a dissertation on one subject, so I revisited each chapter often, and changes to one section affected the rest of the project. It made for a difficult writing experience but ultimately produced a cohesive project.

JMD: How did you use the New York Society Library borrowing records to supplement your analysis of some of the volumes of popular Newtonianism?

LM: The NYSL was ideal for this project because it had a robust membership of 500 in a growing community, and because it had many scientific texts in circulation, including works by Newton and works of popular Newtonianism. The NYSL records from 1789–1792 were the first set of records the library digitized in transcriptions and facsimiles. I viewed and navigated linked transcriptions on their site and counted the individual borrowing records as transcribed, checking them against the images. Being able to call up a book and see how popular it was and how many times it was loaned to different shareholders meant that I could find well-known scientific works easily without having to go through the name of each member. The site (now called City Readers) changed between the beginning and the end of my project, and now there are records available up to 1805 — though there are some years missing from the 1790s. Erin Schreiner, the NYSL’s former rare books librarian, was incredibly helpful, sending additional images as requested, and the library has remained supportive of RPN and other research projects related to their collections. I’m looking forward to working with these rare library records further, in conjunction with Columbia’s library records from a similar period, in a future project.

JMD: I was struck by your observation at the beginning of the NYSL chapter that “a single volume of a multivolume work, such as the works of Buffon, may be far more popular than another volume, which allows us to understand better how Buffon’s corpus was received among readers” (140). I was writing about Buffon some years ago and found the multi-volume aspect of his work very challenging, especially as I also had to decide whether to work primarily with 18th-century English translations or with French originals that were published in a number of different editions. What advice would you give to scholars hoping to write about very long multi-volume works?

LM: The many editions of Buffon are indeed challenging, and I felt a lot of that tension when I was working with the different Algarotti editions in Chapter Four, so I definitely sympathize. With multi-volume works, my first step is to dive right in and learn what’s inside, because the content often differs from our expectations. I sat in the Encyclopaedia Britannica archives in Chicago for days with that second edition, going through each entry in its ten volumes and looking for scientific content or specifically Newtonian content. The biographical entry on Newton had information about the Principia; the entry on astronomy had information on Newton’s biography, but the two entries differed. These idiosyncrasies from volume to volume shape reception in small but important ways. Having the individual volume-borrowing records helped tremendously. The ten-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its three-volume first edition might look similar if written down as “Encyc. Br.” in a ledger, but if we know people are reading volume nine, then that changes things. After you know which edition you’re working with, then knowing that 100 people took home one volume of a book but only 18 took home a different volume affects how we talk about a work’s reception in that community.

JMD: What surprised you most in the materials you encountered as you worked on the book?

LM: One thing I never got used to was the feeling I had when requesting a Very Important Book at libraries. I needed to look at many copies of the Principia when I was working on this project, and the 1687 Principia tends to be displayed prominently in rare books libraries. So when I was working at the Wren, all of these visitors to Trinity College would walk over to the case at the other end of the library where they normally had the Principia and I’d feel a little twinge when they saw the empty spot where it should be. At the Huntington, I wandered through the scientific books exhibit on my lunch break and saw visitors frown in front of an empty case and thought — oh no, I did that to them, didn’t I? And I had.

JMD: Young scholars in our field are often working on a book-length project and are hungry for advice both about how to formulate the book and how to navigate the path towards publication. What did you find most useful, in terms of approach, as you sought a publisher for this project?

LM: To continue the Newtonian theme, time and distance help. My dissertation was about Newton, print, and celebrity. A year or two after filing, I sat down, reread it, and made a list of the things I actually did and proved, as opposed to the promises I had made in my introduction. I then had to make a decision about focus, and considered that, while there were books about eighteenth-century celebrities, we didn’t have much out there about Newton and print. Thereafter, I went all-in on Newton and print. It became easier to cut what didn’t belong and add in new material. Now I feel like I have included Newton in essential conversations about eighteenth-century print and culture through writing this book. At the time I was looking for a publisher, UVA Press was picking up momentum as an exciting publisher for both eighteenth-century science and first books — they are even more stellar as of this writing — so it was a great match for the project. A friend had published with them recently and introduced me to Angie Hogan, she was enthusiastic about the book, and everything started to click from there.

JMD: I loved the bit on p. 18 where you show Newton annotating Ovid’s list of dogs by enumerating the names of the different kind of dog in English (“1 blackfoot / 2 spio. / 3 climb-cliff / 4 fawn-bains / 5 whirlwind”). There must have been other charming bits that didn’t make their way into the final book manuscript — could you share one or two of them here?

LM: I love all of those details, too — they’re often what I remember from reading other scholars’ books. One odd item I couldn’t fit in was the allegorical stained-glass window in the Wren Library — in which Newton is presented to George III while Francis Bacon takes notes. It was in my dissertation but I focused more on printed books in RPN, so stained glass didn’t have a place in the narrative. Yet it inspires so many questions: George III was still alive when the window was created in the 1770s, so why is he in heaven meeting the ghosts of Trinity College alumni? How long have the King and Francis Bacon’s ghost been spending time together while Newton was lurking elsewhere in the afterlife? What do Bacon’s notes say? Will Newton also have to take notes, or does his university regalia mean he’ll be lecturing? The Victorians covered up the window because they found this type of allegory distasteful, so it must be well worth our time today. ( For those who are interested in pursuing images of Newton further, see Milo Keynes’s The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800 (Boydell, 2005).

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