How ‘Grub Street’ came to refer to hack work.

 

frontispiece to The Dunciad, Variorum. With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus (London, 1729)

frontispiece to The Dunciad, Variorum. With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus (London, 1729), by Alexander Pope

 

 

The name Grub Street denotes the world or class of literary hacks. As an adjective, also spelt Grubstreet, it means having the nature of literary hack work.

In A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) gave this explanation:

Grubstreet. Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.

(The name was changed to Milton Street in 1830.)

The earliest literary reference to Grub Street is found in Sir Gregory Nonsence His Newes from no Place, by the English poet John Taylor (1578-1653):

(1630 edition)
                                                 I might discry,
The Quintescence of Grub street, well distild
Through Cripplegate in a contagious Map.

The anonymous author of The Bookworm. An illustrated treasury of old-time literature (London, 1888) explained how Grub Street became the abode of small authors:

It was during the Commonwealth¹ that the Grub Street publications,―“the seditious and libellous pamphlets,”―caused a general consternation even in those days of wars and rumours of wars. The place abounded “with mean and old houses” which, let in “holdings,” afforded desirable retreats for those authors who, either from political or pecuniary reasons, desired to make themselves scarce for a time. It was the Alsatia of the period, and here men, who were no longer safe in other parts of London, found a safe retreat. Being the suburb of Aldersgate and Little Britain, it not unnaturally became the abode of authors, ballad-writers, and pamphlet-makers.

(¹ the Commonwealth: the republican period of government between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660)

The author remarks:

The “Grubeans,” as they were generically termed, had to withstand the combined and persistent attacks of Pope, of Swift, and other brilliant wits who were placed by political or private patronage above the necessities and shifts of literary toil.

In his mock-heroic poem The Dunciad, first published in 1728, the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) ridiculed the literary dunces of his time. The goddess Dullness presides over the efforts of hack writers and bad poets, and is promoted by vain patrons and ruthless publishers; Grub Street is mentioned on several occasions, for example in this passage from Book 3:

(1729 edition)
As Berecynthia, while her offspring vye
In homage, to the mother of the sky,
Surveys around her in the blest abode
A hundred sons, and ev’ry son a God:
Not with less glory mighty Dulness crown’d,
Shall take thro’ Grubstreet her triumphant round,
And Her Parnassus glancing o’er at once,
Behold a hundred sons, and each a dunce.

In 1726, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote Advice to the Grub-street Verse-writers:

(1737 edition)
Ye Poets ragged and forlorn,
Down from your Garrets haste,
Ye Rhimers, dead as soon as born,
Not yet consign’d to Paste;

I know a Trick to make you thrive;
O, ’tis a quaint Device :
Your still-born Poems shall revive,
And scorn to wrap up Spice.

Get all your Verses printed fair,
Then let them well be dry’d;
And, Curl² must have a special Care
To leave the Margin wide.

Lend these to Paper-sparing Pope;
And, when he sits to write,
No Letter with an Envelope
Could give him more Delight.

When Pope has fill’d the Margins round,
Why, then recal your Loan;
Sell them to Curl for Fifty Pound,
And swear they are your own.

(² Edmund Curll (circa 1675-1747), English bookseller and publisher)

The expression Grub Street news meant “lying intelligence”, as the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) put it in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785), and Jonathan Swift frequently alluded to it in his letters to his friend, Esther Johnson (1681-1728), whom he called Stella and whom he may have secretly married; this passage, for example, was written on 22nd January 1712:

(1768 edition)
Doctor Gastrel was to see me this morning; he is an eminent divine, one of the canons of Christ-church, and one I love very well: he said, he was glad to find I was not with James Broad. I asked what he meant; Why, says he, have you not seen the Grub-street paper, that says Dr. Swift was taken up as author of the Examiner on an action of twenty thousand pounds, and was now at James Broad’s? (who, I suppose, is some bailiff.) I knew nothing of this.

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