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Augustus De Morgan and The Athenaeum: An Introduction to the Book Reviews

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Go to the listing of De Morgan's book reviews

Between 1840 and 1869 Augustus De Morgan, a Professor of Mathematics at the new University of London, wrote over a thousand book reviews for The Athenaeum, a leading literary weekly published in London. He accomplished that in just 26 years since there was a five year gap in 1850 though 1854 when, due to a disagreement with the editor, no reviews were published. The reviews ranged from detailed multipage discussions to one-liners.

The listing of De Morgan's reviews, arranged chronologically, lists the 1,003 reviews attributed to him, and contains links, when available, to the full text, on line, of the page in the each issue of the Athenaeum where the review occurred, and links to the full text of the book being reviewed, at the British Library and/or the Hathi Trust. Not all books could be found on-line, and not very issue of the Athenaeum could be located either, but in the majority of cases they are, and it becomes a simple matter to read the original review and then examine the original edition of the book under review.

These book reviews a just a small part of De Morgan's impressive output. As well as being a highly regarded teacher he published numerous books and articles on mathematics, wrote hundreds of articles for the Penny Cyclopaedia, did actuarial consulting for "assurance" companies, wrote other tracts for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, was secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, wrote book reviews for other publications, and did signed contributions to the Athenaeum as well (for example, the Budget of Paradoxes series). De Morgan's wife Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan provides a detailed list of his numerous publications and contributions at the end of the Memoirs of Augustus De Morgan published after this death, but it does not include the Athenaeum contributions. "The voluminous contributions to the Athenaeum, Notes & Queries, &c I have been obliged to omit on account of their number."

The Athenaeum's reviews were unsigned; however the publishers maintained a bound set of file copies with the each contributor's name noted in the margins. As long ago as 1940 L. P. Marchand in his book The Athenaeum. A Mirror of Victorian Culture noted the existence of these marked files, and wrote "I am convinced that a carefully indexed list, with ample cross reference, of reviews and reviews, from 1830 to the end of the nineteenth century, would be an extremely valuable tool for scholars concerned with literary reputations, critical theory, of cultural history of the Victorian period".

That index was created around 2000 at the City University of London, and is available online at http://smcse.city.ac.uk/doc/cisr/web/athenaeum/athall.html. At that site one can search by book author and title, or by reviewer name. That is the source of the very long listing that is attached to this site.

Marchand's very interesting book is primarily focused on literary matters. De Morgan did not review fiction and poetry- he did initially mathematics and astronomy, and branched out to engineering, finance, philosophy, religion and almost anything technical or curious (astrology, spirits, the occult, etc). In scanning his reviews in chronological order one gets a picture of the developments occurring from 1840 to 1870.

Each weekly issue of the Athenaeum was arranged in a similar fashion; over the years the page count was occasionally modified, and once or twice the font was changed, but in general it was quite uniform. Each issue began and ended with pages of advertisements. There was little or no original content during this period. The real content began with a lead review of two or three pages; each page was three columns of small type. This would be followed by other reviews, some of which could fill more than a page. The reviews would get smaller, and end with a section called "Our Library Table", where books might get a very brief review, or simply a mention. There were then sections on the activities of associations that were about to or had met; music, the stage, and "gossip", brief bits of news, which might be local or from various other countries, chiefly literary, musical or artistic.

De Morgan did something like 26 lead reviews over the years, and many smaller but still significant reviews; however the bulk of the reviews was achieved in the "Our Library Table" sections, where he frequently turned in brief reviews of multiple books for the same issue.