(Our first contribution looking forward to the ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop is from Ian Newman of the University of Notre Dame, to whom we’re very grateful for these wide-ranging reflections on taverns as literary institutions.)

Samuel Johnson’s Club, founded at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Gerrard Street in 1764, was frequently referred to by its members the “literary club.”  As Charles Burney explained, it was Johnson’s wish that the Club “should be composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession that we might not talk nonsense on any subject that might be started, but have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened.”[1]  Exactly what Burney meant by “liberal and literary professions” or indeed “Science” isn’t entirely clear, but given the presence in the Club of musicians like Burney himself, artists like Joshua Reynolds, actors like David Garrick, and aesthetic theorists and politicians like Edmund Burke, it is evident that the lines between disciplines were far less anxiously patrolled than they would become later, and “literariness” was a helpfully capacious quality which might encompass every possible subject.

The breadth of what “literature” could mean in the eighteenth century has been frequently noted, but what I’d like to add to previous discussions is the sense to which Johnson’s Club could be conceived of as a “literary club” in part because it was tavern-based.  The “literary club” here seems to indicate something like a convivial gathering of well-educated men with bookish impulses, who have the financial capacity and leisure time to converse widely on the current state of knowledge.  For Boswell and other members of Johnson’s circle, the link between literariness and tavern conversation was frequently assumed, though rarely commented upon.

Thanks in no small part to Habermas, scholars today have a way of thinking about this link between literariness and the tavern, and we understand that taverns, along with coffeehouses, formed an important part of the eighteenth century public sphere.  They were certainly understood that way by Johnson, whose descriptions of taverns frequently echoed Addison’s descriptions of coffeehouses.  “As soon as I enter the door of a tavern,” John Hawkins recorded Samuel Johnson saying, “I experience an oblivion of care and a freedom from solicitude… wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those who I most love.”[2]  For Johnson, the tavern represented a secure space, a space in which thoughts, ideas, and opinions, stimulated by wine and urged on by affectionate company could be given free reign and tested out without fear of repercussion.  This is close to Habermas’s much discussed notion (derived from Addison) that the coffeehouses of the eighteenth-century public sphere were places where distinctions of rank and status were suspended and the best argument would win the day.  Taverns within this tradition were above all institutions of Enlightenment sociability in the familiar sense – places of improving conversation, and rational critical discourse, albeit underpinned by wine and love.

Aside from this way of understanding eighteenth century taverns there is another common way in which eighteenth century taverns have been understood.  Here, Hogarth is perhaps the best exemplar.  In the third plate of A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth shows the Rose Tavern in Drury Lane where Tom Rakewell, having inherited his father’s fortune, begins his descent into debauchery and insanity.


William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress, Scene 3, located at the Rose Tavern. Public Domain.


Here the tavern is associated with (among other things) prostitution, venereal disease, gambling, theft, and ballad-singing.  Hogarth’s image is a complex one, but the status of the tavern in the sequence is unequivocal, it is a site of debauchery and moral depravity, powerfully represented by the night-watchman’s staff and lantern that lies shattered at Tom’s feet.  This is the opposite of an Enlightenment institution—a place where light gets destroyed.

Each of these images will be familiar to scholars of the eighteenth century, and most of us will identify probably more with one or the other.  Our image of the eighteenth century might tend towards either the polite and rational public sphere or to the debauched and depraved City of Laughter.  My point, though, is not that we need to use the Hogarthian tavern as a corrective to our sense of the Habermasian public sphere, or vice versa, rather it is that both are true.  These conceptions of the tavern coexist, so the challenge posed by the tavern is how we can make sense of their simultaneous existence.

Consider, for example, the Shakespeare Head in Covent Garden.  This was the tavern in which Harris, author of the List of Covent Garden Ladies, was a waiter, and in which Boswell recounted fornicating with two prostitutes in his London Journal.  But it was also the tavern in which respectable meetings of electors were held before Westminster elections, and in which Charles James Fox’s Whig Club gathered.  The Shakespeare (as it was often known) also had close connections with the “literary world” in the narrower sense we have become accustomed to, as it was attached to the Covent Garden theatre.

This multifaceted aspect of the tavern has far-reaching implications for how we conceive of “institutions of literature,” partly because it encourages a flexible definition of the literary – literature in the eighteenth century consisted of “every possible subject,” and while that definition had narrowed by 1900, there is no reason why we need to privilege the later conception, even if our work is more focused on later periods.  But taverns also alert us to the fact that institutions need not be austere and formal, engines of ridged classificatory systems and inflexible arrangements of knowledge.  In order to understand the rise of institutions between 1700 and 1900, we need to be able to account for their appeal beyond the obvious professional advantages of institutional affiliation.  Understanding how and why institutions gave pleasure is equally important.  Johnson’s recognition that the knowledge tavern talk promoted was underpinned by wine and love is perhaps a good place to start, but we might also attend to the less polite forms of pleasure that institutions of literature promoted.

So I’ll be interested in hearing in our discussions when and under what circumstances “institutions of literature” seem to be restrictive or promote specialization, and when they seem to be more inclusive.  And I’ll be interested too in learning more about when the austerity of the institution is matched by levity, and when seriousness is matched by pleasure.


[1] James Boswell, The Correspondence and other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the ‘Life of Johnson’, ed. Marshall Waingrow (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), p. 331.

[2] John Hawkins, Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD (London, 1787), p. 87.