Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Two Poor Reviews Do Not a Reputation Break

I commented on the excellent new book by James Buchan, ‘Adam Smith and the pursuit of perfect liberty’ Profile Books London, on 29 April, 7 and 14 May, and its US edition, The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas, W. W. Norton, has now been reviewed as ‘The Muddied Waters of Adam Smith's Life’ by Justin Ptak of mises.org (6 June).

To ‘assist’ Justin Ptak with his review, he quotes a review of James Buchan’s book in the Daily Telegraph (London) by Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who teaches, at Magdalene College, University of Oxford, the period from 1740 to the present and who researches Romantic and Victorian literature, with additional interests in the visual arts, the history and practice of literary criticism, and the relations of literature and science. He is the author of Victorian Afterlives (2002)(his review is at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2006/05/21/bobuc16.xml&sSheet=/arts/2006/05/21/bomain.html”).

Ptak writes:
James Buchan ‘provides further evidence to support Murray Rothbard's thesis that Adam Smith was a somewhat brilliant man without direction and significant insight.’

Having read Buchan’s book, and Rothbard’s critique of Smith, I assumed that Ptak would demonstrate his assertion with how it supports Rothbard’s ‘thesis’. But not a word!

Ptak merely retells well-known tittle-tattle about Smith, much of it from people not very well amused by other people, like Smith, who did not bow to their superior views of themselves. He quotes Dr Johnston, who made himself the centre and subject of every conversation he dominated. His judgement about Smith being ‘as dull a dog as he had ever met’ may have been influenced by Smith review of Johnston’s Dictionary in 1755 (The Edinburgh Review), which he analysed as being ‘insufficiently grammatical’, and illustrated his critique with a 2-page discussion of the word ‘But’ and another long discussion of the word ‘humour’.

Incidentally, Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an expert in romantic Victorian novels, but not Adam Smith, whom Justin Ptak quotes, apparently did not know the circumstances betweenn them when he critiqued Smith’s attention to detail, and the lesson here is that it is important to read a book under review and write authoritatively on its subject, not just skim it for tittle-tattle!

In another anecdote of Smith that Boswell wrote, quoted by Ptak, he complained when Smith "came to London in 1773 that he could not recognise his old tutor when faced with this 'professed Infidel with a bag wig’ ". Yes, but, he was complaining about Smith’s defence of, and friendship with, David Hume, regarded by Boswell (a bit of a toff with the disposition of an old reactionary) as an ‘apostate’, even pursuing Hume to his deathbed in 1776 in pusuit of a recantation of his alleged atheist views (and was most annoyed that he did not get one – see Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals).

This illustrates another aspect of reviewing what you do not know much about: 18th-century Britain was rife with gossip, innuendoes and ‘put downs’ and to comment on people who lived through them you ought to be better informed.

Incidentally, reviewers should check their facts. Smith’s salary as a Scottish Commissioner of Customs was not ‘£900’; it was £600 (Iain Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 1995). In accepting the commissioner’s post and the salary, he wrote to the Duke of Buccleugh (sometimes spelt Buccleuch) returning the Duke’s Bond to pay £300 a year for life for Smith’s tutorship, when the Duke was a young man, during their visit to France in 1764-6. The Duke refused to accept its return because his Bond was for life and accepting its return would breach his reputation.

However, none of this detracts from James Buchan’s excellent book on Smith; some of his reviewers did not do the book justice – nor Adam Smith, for that matter.


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