William Blackwood, the noted editor, publisher and bookseller was born on the 20th of November, 1776.
William Blackwood was the founder of the firm of ‘William Blackwood & Sons Ltd’, which is somewhat unsurprising, but he is also recognised as the publisher of the conservative and satirical periodical, ‘Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine’. That famous publication started life as the ‘Edinburgh Monthly Magazine’, became ‘Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine’ and ultimately, ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’, although for most of its widely read life, it was known and loved as ‘Maga’. By 1817, Blackwood’s firm had consolidated its position as a major force in British literary publishing and that was when he introduced his monthly journal. It was produced as a Tory counter to the Whig (Liberal) influenced ‘Edinburgh Review’ and served its purpose admirably for many a year. Indeed, it was still going strong well into the 20th Century. Blackwood became a respected member of the Edinburgh establishment, being twice elected as a magistrate, and noteworthy as a man of principle.
William Blackwood’s qualities were summed up rather well by an (anonymous, because I don’t know who it was) obituarist; “No man ever conducted business in a more direct and manly manner than Mr. Blackwood. His opinion was on all occasions distinctly expressed… no human being ever accused him either of flattering or of shuffling; and those men of letters who were in frequent communication with him, soon conceived a respect and confidence for him, which, save in a very few instances, ripened into cordial regard and friendship. …Whether his principles were right or wrong, they were his, and he never compromised…”. Blackwood published many of the leading authors of his day, both in book form and in his Magazine. He had an interesting relationship with Sir Walter Scott, but his dealings with many emerging Scottish writers, some of the finest contemporary writers of the period, proved very fruitful. Amongst those famous authors who are associated with Blackwood’s were John Galt, Susan Ferrier, Thomas de Quincey, James Hogg, John Lockhart and John Wilson. As examples, Blackwood’s published John Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’ and James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner’.
The stormy relationship with Walter Scott began in 1816, when Scott, with his agent James Ballantyne in tow, went to Blackwood’s to see about getting the first series of his ‘Tales of My Landlord’ published. Blackwood had the temerity, in Scott’s opinion, to suggest a different conclusion to the novel ‘The Black Dwarf’, albeit he was influenced by advice from William Gifford, the first editor of ‘Murray's Quarterly Review’. Scott was astonished and is reported to have exclaimed to Ballantyne, “God damn his soul! Tell him and his coadjutor that I belong to the ‘Death-head Hussars of Literature’ who neither take nor give criticism”. Although Blackwood’s in Edinburgh and John Murray’s in London published the four volumes in the series, including ‘Old Mortality’, on the 2nd of December, 1816, Scott took his subsequent business to the less interfering Constable's. Looks like Scott was ‘the one who got away’.
William Blackwood was a sociable chappie and he had the idea, which in some ways revived an older Edinburgh tradition, of encouraging emerging writers to treat his publishing house as a kind of literary meeting place. He created a sort of literary society or club for ‘men of letters’ and when Blackwood’s moved to new premises at No. 45 George Street, in 1829, the ‘Old Saloon’ became a meeting place for many a famous author. The ‘Saloon’ was an oval room, in which portraits of famous literary figures stared down upon an oval table and eavesdropped approvingly on lively, literary conversations.
Blackwood's eponymous magazine was launched in 1817 as the ‘Edinburgh Monthly Magazine’ and made its first appearance on the 1st of April. On its seventh number, in October, 1817, it became ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’ after Blackwood fired its first editors, James Cleghorn and Thomas Pringle, because they had failed to live up to his expectations. Blackwood had originally envisaged his magazine being a “more nimble, more frequent, more familiar” Tory biased counterweight to the stodgy, Whig orientated ‘The Edinburgh Review’, which appeared only quarterly. He garnered new editors, and several able writers and contributors from amongst his literary mates, including John Gibson Lockhart, John Wilson (a.k.a. Christopher North) and James Hogg, and ‘Maga’ as his magazine soon came to be called, quickly gained notoriety.
William Blackwood was born in Edinburgh on the 20th of November, 1776. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a firm of booksellers in Edinburgh. After working in both Glasgow and London, Blackwood returned to Edinburgh, in 1804, where he opened a shop at No. 64 South Bridge Street, in front of the University's Old College, for the sale of “old, rare and curious books”. By 1810 he was acting as the Scottish agent for several London publishers, which led to him being drawn into the field of publishing on his own account. That occurred when he moved to Princes Street, in 1816, as one of the first commercial concerns to move to the recently built New Town. After a slow start, Blackwood made a reputation for himself as a successful publisher of travel works and biographies and he also developed stronger ties with the London trade by becoming the Scottish agent for John Murray.
William Blackwood died in Edinburgh as a consequence of a tumour in the groin, on the 16th of September, 1834. His famous magazine was continued until it finally ceased publication in 1980.