|Title||Journalism and the Problem of Progress|
The book submitted in support of my application for a PhD by published work — Everything Explained That Is Explainable1 — is a definitive study of the creation of the 29-volume Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1910-11), a reference work that gave shape and authority to a publishing model instrumental in developing new, interesting, occasionally profitable ways of designing, manufacturing, distributing and marketing books.
The Eleventh’s most significant innovation: It was edited not by an esteemed academic, like Thomas Spencer Baynes, who was the principal editor of the Ninth edition (1875-1889), but by a journalist. For the Eleventh was not just a “collection of detached monographs”, to use the description of the Ninth by the Britannica’s new editor, Hugh Chisholm. The Eleventh was a “book”, one “planned on uniform lines as a single organism”. The book was about Progress. It was very long and very successful. Its story contains lessons useful in examining the topic of this essay.
First, it was a project of journalism published in an era of dramatic transition. Where previous reference works were, as Chisholm remarked, simply serial compilations of entries arranged alphabetically, the Eleventh was a complex multifaceted examination of the topic that fascinated its editor, the Oxford-educated former editor of The St James’s Gazette, and his employer, an energetic American huckster named Horace Everett Hooper.
All encyclopedias before the Eleventh had been compiled by scholars, each of whom had assiduously avoided a narrow focus or even a discernable point of view (with the possible exception of the first encyclopedia of the modern age, that created by Denis Diderot in 1751, which had a controversial focus on revolution and other similar expressions of Enlightenment understanding). But the Eleventh was radically different. Its focus on an “ideology of transition” mirrored a contemporary set of assumptions so pervasive that even though Progress was indeed the story it told in its 29 volumes, and 44 million words, not a single entry was devoted to “Progress” per se, just as none was given over to “Truth” or to “Beauty”. Some things defied simple explanation; besides, there was widespread belief in an unexamined virtue of Progress. Nobody was sure what it meant, but Chisholm meant to explain it by making sure every possible entry made reference, however indirect, to Progress.
In an age of revolutionary scientific and philosophical assertions, an appetite for Progress and self-improvement that rivals our own gave rise to social and educational institutions that supported individual effort and received widespread cultural and commercial reinforcement. The Eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was an important element in constructing a worldview that reflected the optimistic assumptions of the age. And that produced its own problems, as this paper explains.
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