Following the footnotes

Erdman's "Commerce des lumie?res"

I wrote recently about a claim that appears in David V. Erdman’s book, Commerce des lumières: John Oswald and the British in Paris, 1790–1793. In that book, Erdman attributes the 1786 French translation of Travels to William Thomson (rather than to Jacques-Pierre Brissot). Because I was reading Erdman’s book on Google Books at that stage, I wasn’t able to fully interrogate the basis to his claim, but now that I have a physical copy to hand I have been able to consult his footnotes in more detail.

Erdman lists a number of the titles (including the 1782 English edition for Travels) that Thomson is thought to have edited. The accompanying footnote gives his sources as “Gentlemans [sic] Magazine, 87: I: 647–48, collated with entries in the Bibliothèque Nationale and DNB“. The first reference is to Thomson’s obituary, which appears in a supplement to volume 87, part 1, of the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1817. The obituary notes that Thomson’s “other publications, as far as they can be ascertained, were…’Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ 1782, 8vo” (p. 648).

While it is not possible to know whether the current entries in the catalogue of the BNF are the same ones that Erdman consulted, they are nevertheless instructive. The 1782 edition of Travels is attributed both to Thomson (as “polygraphe”) and Macintosh. The catalogue notes its source for its attribution thus: “Attribué à William Macintosh par Halkett et Laing dans leur première édition, et à William Thomson par l’édition suivante de Halkett et Laing et par le ‘Dictionary of national biography'”. Here, the catalogue reflects changes in thinking evident in the Dictionary of National Biography. Indeed, the entry for Thomson in the 1898 edition of the DNB (written by Thomas Wilson Bayne) states “Of the numerous works written or edited by Thomson the chief are: 1. ‘Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ 1782”. Bayne lists as one of his sources (surprise, surprise) “Gent. Mag. 1817, i. 279, 647”. So, as far as I can see, the attribution of Travels to Thomson (wherever it appears) can always be traced back to his 1817 obituary.

The BNF’s copies of the French edition of Travels list Macintosh (as Makintosh) as the sole author for some copies (see here and here), but list Brissot (as “Traducteur”) for another—see here. Erdman’s later claim that Brissot “arranged with Thomson for the publication of…the ‘Mackintosh’ Travels” (p. 73) is not supported by a footnote and I cannot immediately identify the basis to that suggestion. As ever, the refrain is a familiar one: I have more digging to do!

That Thomson had a role in the production of Travels is not in question; John Murray admitted such in 1790. What is less obvious from the surviving sources is what role Thomson had (if any) in the French translation of the book. I have not been able, thus far, to corroborate Erdman’s claim, despite the apparent certainty with which it is made.

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