A University of Otago academic has received a prestigious award for his work on 18th century writer James Boswell.
Senior English lecturer Dr Paul Tankard was awarded, in absentia in New York, the sixth triennial William L. Mitchell Prize for Bibliography or Documentary Work on Early British Periodicals or Newspapers this week for his book Facts and Inventions: Selections from the Journalism of James Boswell.
The book provides a lengthy, insightful introduction to Boswell’s career, strategies, manner, and achievement as a frequent writer for the British press and also to the 14 newspapers and magazines of London and Edinburgh to which he contributed.
Although Boswell is well known for his Life of Johnson, several other books and his private journals, Dr Tankard’s work reveals him as a “busy professional writer with an almost constant presence in the British press”, to which he contributed more than 600 pieces.
Dr Tankard edited, with assistance from colleague Lisa Marr, 130 pieces of Boswell’s journalism dating from 1758 to 1794, grouped by theme. The great majority have been unpublished since the 18th century.
“The material for the book was hiding in plain sight; it has all been previously published, but not for over 200 years, and in old newspapers which are very hard to find, much less look through. It’s never been gathered before and considered in a body,’’ he says.
Annotating and contextualising such material was a challenge, especially as it was all written by Boswell to be teasing and topical.
“It is mostly not about things in the history books and takes us very close to history as it happens. As well as giving — for most readers, including scholars — a new view of Boswell, I see the book as a contribution to the history of journalism.
“Newspaper culture was just taking off in the 18th century, and now that it is so rapidly changing with new media, its origins are well worth considering. Some of what Boswell is doing is strangely up-to-date — there’s some genuine fake news there!”
Dr Tankard’s book was unanimously selected for the US award from several worthy nominations.
The judges described the work as a “stunning achievement”, “stupendous in its detail”, and a book which ``richly contextualizes the often-obscure historical references and allusions found in Boswell’’.
The Mitchell Prize for Research on Early British Serials was endowed to honor William L. Mitchell, a former rare-books librarian at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.
The prize, of $1000 and a year’s membership to the society, serves as an encouragement to those engaged in bibliographical scholarship on 18th century periodicals published in English or in any language but within the British Isles and its colonies and former colonies.
* Dr Tankard’s publications include more than two dozen essays in books and research journals, a great many on Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, as well as Samuel Johnson’s Designs: A Facsimile of the Manuscript, with a New Transcription and an Introductory Essay, the 2008 annual keepsake of the Johnsonians of New York.
Important recent articles include “Nineteen More Johnsonian Designs: A Supplement to ‘That Great Literary Projector’” in The Age of Johnson (2015), building on his lengthy 2002 article on Johnson’s “Catalogue of Projected Works” in that journal.He is the editor of 15 volumes of The Johnson Society of Australia Papers.
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