Samuel Johnson’s tribute to the London editor and publisher Edward Cave (1691-1754) originally appeared in the The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754. What makes the essay on Cave particularly valuable is that, unlike many of his other biographical subjects, the London publisher was known personally by Johnson. Cave employed him in 1734 as a young journalist. According to Jackson Bate: “Though [Cave] appeared to have no interest but the magazine, a similar constancy, though to a lower degree, appeared in his loyalty to people. Johnson was always grateful to Cave, and after his death wrote a fine biographical sketch of him.” Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are still generally available, but his other life studies are much harder to come by.
The portrait that Johnson gives us is of a stolid and persevering soul. Cave was intelligent, but something of an idiot savant and not always quick-witted. Thus he was easily put upon by others, whether pranksters at school or the shrewish wives of the men he worked for. He continued to be dogged by bad luck during his stint with the British post office. Nevertheless, it was in his duties there that he gained valuable experience in freelance journalism.
Cave came into his own when he launched The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731. The journal would outlive its creator. As Johnson notes, other publishers were quick to mimic Cave’s success, but few could match it. Perhaps the many years of repeated setbacks inured him to the frustrations that would have discouraged other men. Though Johnson’s writings are usually marked by a certain gravity, one imagines it must have been with a good natured chuckle that he recounted Cave’s guilelessness as a new publisher:
Cave now began to aspire to popularity; and being a greater lover of poetry than any other art, he sometimes offered subjects for poems, and proposed prizes for the best performers. The first prize was £50 for which, being but newly acquainted with wealth, and thinking the influence of £50 extremely great, he expected the first authors of the kingdom to appear as competitors; and offered the allotment of the prize to the universities. But when the time came, no name was seen among the writers that had ever been seen before; the universities and several private men rejected the province of assigning the prize. At all this Mr. Cave wondered for a while; but his natural judgment, and a wider acquaintance with the world, soon cured him of his astonishment, as of many other prejudices and errors.
The essay conveys its subject’s personality with an amazing economy of description. As was no doubt the case with Johnson when he first met the publisher, we are not immediately overwhelmed by Cave’s qualities, yet by the end of the memoir it is clear how he could win and retain the affections of others.