According to George Orwell, a pamphlet is “a short piece of polemical writing, printed in the form of a booklet and aimed at a large public.” Orwell differentiates the pamphlet from similar productions of the press, “such as leaflets, manifestoes, memorials, religious tracts, circular letters, instructional manuals,” and so forth, by emphasizing its oppositionality: “in essence it is always a protest.” In many cases, however, neat distinctions such as Orwell’s are impossible to draw. Pamphlets are thus considered in this essay as writings printed and circulated so as to have an immediate political or social impact, and therefore to influence public opinion.
The English word “pamphlet” entered the vernacular in the 15th century: William Caxton, for example, refers to “many dyuerse paunflettis and bookys” (Oxford English Dictionary). Bibliographers, emphasizing form over function, tend to define pamphlets according to the number of pages they contain, the type of binding used, or other physical features. Before 1610 English printers often used black-letter (or Gothic) type for news pamphlets, a typeface generally reserved for ballads, proclamations, and other publications intended for a wide audience (D.C.Collins, 1943). Pamphlet writing rose in importance with the growth of the letterpress and later declined with the appearance of newspapers and magazines. Usually associated with the essay and the medium of nonfiction prose, the term “pamphlet” has nevertheless been applied histOrically to forms such as plays, poems, and romances. When James Boswell remarked to Samuel Johnson that “a pamphlet meant a prose piece,” Johnson retorted, “No, sir. A few sheets of poetry unbound are a pamphlet, as much as a few sheets of prose” (Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1779). The pamphlet’s relation to specific forms of writing is complex and varies according to circumstance. A sense of the pressure of historical events and a spirit of relentless critique are almost always discernible in anything describable as a pamphlet.
Pamphleteering generally thrives in an atmosphere of controversy, in relatively open political cultures where a literate public creates a market for timely and inexpensive printed materials that address contemporary issues. The London bookseller George Thomason made a collection of materials on the English civil wars that included more than 20,000 items, many of them pamphlets. During the Fronde in France (1648–52) more than 5000 political pamphlets appeared (called mazarinades after their usual subject, Cardinal Mazarin), and had a measurable effect on public discourse. Pamphlets are not invariably a product of protest movements or popular consciousness. In his study of Dutch pamphlets in the 17th century, Craig Harline (1987) shows a political elite working to control pamphleteering and thus shape the climate of opinion. In 17thcentury England the word “pamphlet” was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest invective or violent and irresponsible public discourse. A 1610 pamphlet, Martin Mark-All, Beadle of Bridewell denounced Thomas Dekker as “an upstart pamphlet maker and a most iniuirious and Satiricall Libeller,” and Dekker’s writings as “malitious and iniurious Pamphlets” (quoted in Sandra Clark’s The Elizabethan Pamphleteers, 1983). The French word pamphlet (lampoon, satire), introduced in the late 17th century, retains something of this association with aggressive rhetoric. As one might assume, one legacy of the French Revolution is a large body of pamphlet literature, now housed in the collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Library.
While most English pamphlets of the 17th and 18th centuries are rarely read today except by specialists, John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), written to contest a parliamentary order forbidding the publication of unlicensed books and pamphlets, remains a canonical work. No less appreciated for its “literary” merits is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). This brilliantly ironic defense of cannibalism as a remedy for overpopulation, however, had a less immediate impact on contemporary events than Swift’s Drapier’s Letters (1724). The historical circumstances behind the Drapier’s Letters at first might seem parochial and unpromising—a struggle between the Irish Revenue Commissioners and the London government over the minting of copper coins in Ireland. Yet Swift’s writing here was quietly devastating in its indictment of British policy: “Our neighbours, whose understandings are just upon a level with ours (which perhaps are none of the brightest) have a strong contempt for most nations, but especially for Ireland” (Letter 4).
Another 18th-century movement for independence from colonial rule produced Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, the great success of which can be measured by its circulation (100,000 copies sold in three months). Paine’s admirer William Cobbett veered from the radical views he advocated while in England (and to which he reverted upon his return) to a career in the United States that made him a fierce partisan of the
British monarchy and a relentless critic of democracy, republicanism, and Paine. In a series of pamphlets written between 1794 and 1800 Cobbett infused his newly acquired Toryism with satirical indignation. These and other examples bear witness to the pamphlet writer’s motivation as being a desire to intervene in public affairs, often in contentious times.
The pamphlet played a significant role in the development of modern political life, engaging public debate and challenging the practices of secrecy and censorship. Sharon Achinstein (1994) argues that 17th-century pamphleteers and polemicists in England contributed to the formation of a new type of political subject. Milton wrote both his poetry and his pamphlets in the context of a widely shared project to instruct the reading public in techniques of interpretation and textual resistance. Until mass media and advertising took its place, the pamphlet remained an important vehicle for shaping public opinion and expressing political dissent.
See also Polemical Essay
British Pamphleteers (vol. 1: From The Sixteenth Century to the French Revolution; vol.
2: From the French Revolution to the Nineteen-Thirties), edited by George Orwell, London: Wingate, 2 vols., 1948–51
Political Pamphlets, edited by A.F.Pollard, London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner, 1897
The Women’s Sharp Revenge: Five Women’s Pamphlets from the Renaissance, edited by Simon Shepherd, London: Fourth Estate, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985
Catalogue of the Pamphlets, Books, Newspapers, and Manuscripts Relating to the Civil War, the Commonwealth, and Restoration, London: British Museum Department of Printed Books (Thomason Collection), 1908
Lindsay, Robert O., and John Neil, French Political Pamphlets, 1547–1648 (microfilm), New Haven, Connecticut: Research Publications, 1978; supplement, 1981
Achinstein, Sharon, Milton and the Revolutionary Reader, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994
Adams, Thomas R., American Independence: The Growth of an Idea: A Bibliographical Study of the American Political Pamphlets Printed Between 1764 and 1776, Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1965
Ahrens, Rudiger, “The Political Pamphlet: 1660–1714: Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Aspects,” Anglia 109, nos. 1–2 (1991): 21–43
Balcque, Antoine de, “La Dénonciation publique dans la presse et le pamphlet (1789– 1791),” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 287 (1991): 261–79
Birn, Raymond, “The Pamphlet Press and the Estates General of 1789,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 287 (1991):56–59
Clark, Sandra, The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets, 1580– 1640, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983
Collins, D.C., A Handlist of News Pamphlets, 1590–1610, London: Southwest Essex Technical College, 1943
Harline, Craig E., Pamphlets, Printing, and Political Culture in the Early Dutch Republic, Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1987
Sawyer, Jeffrey K., Printed Poison: Pamphlet Propaganda, Faction Politics, and the Public Sphere in Early Seventeenth-Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990
Smithers, James R., “Propaganda and Theater: Authorial Intent and Audience Response to Political Pamphlets, 1550–1650,” Cahiers du Dix-Septième 5, no. 2 (1991):179–94
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