Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


This essay, written for the Globe and Mail in 1974, is a review of the Fifteenth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica which had just appeared. Like other general encyclopedias, Britannica claimed to be ‘international’ in scope. I wanted to see how well Canada was represented in such reference works.

The Fifteenth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 43 million words in thirty volumes, is the first new edition of the famous reference work in forty-five years. More money —$32 million —has been spent on it than perhaps on any publishing venture in history. The president of Encyclopaedia Britannica has modestly described the new edition as “the greatest single publishing event in the history of mankind.”

There’s probably no one living competent to assess an entire encyclopaedia, and yet it’s obvious that such attempts, however modest, need to be made. As Harvey Einbinder put it ten years ago in his book length critique of the Fourteenth Edition, The Myth of Britannica, “Each week magazines and newspapers devote many pages to the latest novel, biography or bit of political journalism embalmed in hard covers but very little is published about the reference works that are a major investment of the book buying public. The merchandising of these works is a silent business beyond the reach of criticism, and their success often depends on the skill and ingenuity of salesmen rather than the quality of their contents.”

The First Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771 (and named Britannica because it was intended for all English-speaking peoples in the world). The three volumes which made up the First Edition were devoted solely to the arts and sciences; biography and history weren’t added until the ten-volume Second Edition of 1777-1784. The entry on Canada in the First Edition consisted entirely of the following:

CANADA, or New France, an extensive tract of North America, bounded by New Britain and the British colonies on Hudson’s Bay, on the north; by the river of St. Lawrence, the Iroquois, or five Indian nations, the Huron and Illinois Lakes, on the east and south; and by unknown lands, on the west. Its chief town is Quebec.

With its Third Edition, Britannica adopted the practice of inviting leading authorities to contribute to it. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, one finds articles by William Hazlitt on fine art, by Thomas De Quincey on Pope and Shakespeare, by Sir Walter Scott on chivalry, by Robert Malthus on population. What appeared in Encyclopaedia Britannica was frequently the definitive work on the subject. Thomas Young’s 1818 article on Egypt, for example, with its speculations on the Rosetta Stone, is credited with having inaugurated the serious study of Egyptology; the Edinburgh Review described it at the time as “the greatest effort of scholarship and ingenuity of which modern literature can boast.” James Frazer was invited to write articles on totemism and taboo for the Ninth Edition (1889); his research became the basis of The Golden Bough.

The Eleventh Edition (1910-11) is the most famous of all. There is no better place to go to for a sense of what the world at the turn of the century looked like to some of the best minds of the time. Some of the Eleventh Edition’s observations are, of course, now an embarrassment; some of its critical judgements seem terribly naive; and some of its omissions are in themselves revealing. Negroes, we’re told by a distinguished anthropologist, are by nature lazy, intellectually inferior, and preoccupied with sex; nonetheless, he adds, the Negro often exhibits “in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test.” Musicologist Donald Tovey insists that “if all the music of the 17th century were destroyed, not a single concert-goer would miss it.” According to Edmund Gosse, “The influence of Donne upon the literature of England... was... almost wholly malign”; an unbiased reader turning to his poetry, said Gosse would be “repulsed by the intolerably harsh and crabbed versification, by the recondite choice of theme and expression, and by the oddity of the thought.” Herman Melville is dismissed in one brief paragraph.

Despite this, the Eleventh Edition is to encyclopaedias what the King James Version is to translations of the Bible, or the Longer Oxford is to dictionaries. The set I own is one of my most valued possessions, not because it’s worth a lot or because it’s rare (it isn’t) but for what it symbolizes. It was still possible, when the Eleventh Edition was assembled in the early years of this century, to adequately encompass all of human knowledge in twenty-nine books. The conservative English journal Connoisseur wrote at the time that mastery of the Eleventh Edition would make a man “learned above most of his compeers.” And many — Aldous Huxley, for example — read it cover to cover.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, continued > 

home | about grubstreet books | return to this book’s table of contents
e-mail: the author | the publisher | our webmaster    web site: ben wolfe design

support grubstreet’s on-line books — make a contribution

grubstreet books
grubstreet books
grubstreet books