Share this article

print logo

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Everything

NONFICTION

Everything Explained That Is Explainable

Encyclopedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition

By Denis Broyles

Knopf

442 pages, $30

By William L. Morris

Not only did the “Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition” “explain everything that was explainable,” it was also the greatest encyclopedia ever assembled. It changed journalism. It saved the Times of London and other serious newspapers like it. It used the power of brands for the first time. It showed how saturation advertising can mass market books. It showed how a class society and a classless one could work together. It showed that women were just as capable as men in a business setting. It almost gave us a universal public education system that would have been the envy of the world.

That’s a heavy burden for one book to deal with. It really needs a BBC series like “Downton Abbey.”

Like “Downton,” it has two English speaking nations – the U.S. and Great Britain – joining forces to preserve what’s best in their cultures. Like “Downton,” it requires a range of characters from all walks of life. Like “Downton,” its characters suffer setbacks that seemed insurmountable until they weren’t.

“Downton Abbey” deals with the decline of Great Britain from the sinking of the Titanic through the Great War to the rise of Nazism. But “Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition” belongs to the first decade of the 20th century, when it was still possible to save the world from yellow journalism and its verbal philistinism and create almost by accident a new kind of journalism that would, in its happier manifestations, attack income inequity and an inbred educational system that served only a few.

For more than a decade, an intellectual Camelot existed in London, led by a successful American book seller, Horace Hooper, and a well-educated and amiable club man, British journalist and editor Hugh Chisholm.

In the 1890s, journalism was at a crossroads - a lot like it is today. The only papers that were making money were “suspect.” The Times of London was highly thought of and read all over the British Empire, but it was badly run and losing money. It hadn’t changed its look in a hundred years.

The owners showed little interest in solving its problems. In fact, they were the problem. They’d given so much stock to employees over time that they were constantly being sued for mismanagement. They couldn’t sell the paper. It wasn’t worth anything. But one of them noticed the capabilities of one of their writers in Cairo named Moberly Bell. (It can’t be a coincidence that Ezra Pound named his poem about the failure of literature, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” after two of the main players in the creation of one of Britain’s great literary successes.) They called Bell to London to bring some order to things. He accomplished this, but the only way he could solve the cash flow problem was by printing atlases and supplements to keep the expensive presses busy.

This attracted the attention of Hooper when he visited England. Hooper used mail order and advertising to sell all kinds of printed material to the people who lived where the printed word was scarce, like the American West. He was always looking for books no one wanted that he could distribute using this new method.

He discovered that thousands of “Encyclopedia Britannica’s Ninth Edition” were sitting in warehouses. He thought if he could persuade Bell to let him use the Times’ brand to sell these books, he might be able to help himself and the Times. Bell was skeptical at first, but he was always looking for ways to keep the Times afloat. Bell got permission from the owners of the Times, and Hooper bought the encyclopedias. The ace up Hooper’s sleeve was Henry Haxton, the evil genius of advertising.

Henry Haxton would need an entire episode of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition/Downton Abbey series. “His nimble being in his twisted and failing body” was capable of advertising outbursts that walked the thin line between genius and madness, “creating interest in a fairly dull product that was difficult to deny or resist.” Advertising was just one of his talents, and he only did it when he ran out of money. He was a bohemian writer and prankster who was one of William Randolph Heart’s favorites. He could be counted on to create newsworthy pranks at the drop of a hat.

One morning, the British public opened the Times and found the modern newspaper. Haxton’s long, slightly mad advertisements for the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica flooded the sacred pages of the Times. The owners were not pleased, but there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. The Times’ brand sold all of the 30-year-old books at a hefty profit. Hooper showed the world the value of a strong brand and that journalism didn’t have to resort to sensationalism to survive. It could survive on advertising.

If there was that much pent up hunger for a 30-year-old, thrown-together encyclopedia, the obvious next step in a country filled with great writers and thinkers, many of whom were out of a job, was to produce a new Encyclopedia Britannica. It would be better than the old in every way. It would be published all at once, not in dribs and drabs. Entries would be written by the best authorities in the field, and it would be readable and well edited. The British intellectual community didn’t know it, but it was in its last flowering. It was ripe for the picking.

They put Chisholm and his team on the top floor of the Times building. Slowly but surely, he started assigning topics, though he never missed lunch at his club. They also hired Janet Hogarth, who’d made her reputation problem solving at one of Hooper and Bell’s interesting experiments that was ahead of its time, the Times Book Club. Hogarth was put in charge of the formidable index for the Eleventh Edition.

All their advertisements promised that “Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition” would be available in 1910. They would lose credibility if they didn’t meet that deadline. Just as the goal was within reach, the owners of the Times, realizing they owned something valuable and embarrassed by the Americans’ shenanigans, put it up for sale. The only offers came from publishers of newspapers that were making money — the yellow press. The best offer came from the worst of the two. At the eleventh hour, Bell managed to get the other publisher to be his silent partner. Bell appeared to buy the Times. It was an uneasy partnership.

Bell was as British as they come. But the restive readership saw only his swarthy complexion and the fact that he’d been born in Egypt. It was whispered widely that Bell was not British enough to own and run a British institution like the Times. Bell’s silent partner heard the whispers and withdrew the Times’ brand from the project just as the deadline approached.

It wasn’t possible to put off the publication date. Chisholm, Hogarth et al. kept working on the encyclopedia, and Hooper swung into action, looking for a brand as strong as the Times. The solution was near at hand. Many of the entries in the new encyclopedia were written by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, and those institutions had book publishing departments. Oxford’s Press was doing much better than Cambridge’s, so Hooper offered Oxford 10 percent of the profits for doing nothing but putting its brand on the product.

But Cambridge was leery of having another enormous book project. James Murray’s “Oxford English Dictionary” showed no sign of ever being finished. An even bigger problem was that, although the Times had to put up with Haxton’s over-the-top advertising methods because they produced much-needed revenue, Cambridge University and its sober faculty didn’t need cash flow. They overwhelmingly voted not to be associated with Haxton’s hucksterism.

Hooper suspected that his generous offer had scared off the dons, so he offered Cambridge half as much. School was not in session, and the man in charge was none other than M.R. James, medievalist scholar and frightening ghost story writer. (See why this has to be a BBC series?) He and Hopper hit it off, and the deal was done.

It seemed like a marriage made in heaven. From the start, the major focus of the Eleventh Edition was educational. Now associated with one of the world’s great universities, that focus could be transformed into something revolutionary. But the scholars returned to Cambridge and worked themselves into a frenzy about being associated with such an egalitarian instrument.

Even while the undeserved royalties were rolling in, the faculty made sure that no more Encyclopedia Britannicas would be published with their imprimatur. So Bell sold it to Sears Roebuck, and Encyclopedia Britannicae were never the same.

How could they be? Things like this only happen once.

Hooper saw the value that existed in the crusty institutions of the British Empire, and he, Chisholm, Hogarth and countless others managed to get it on paper. If any of these values still existed before the Great War, they were wiped out in that debacle.

We’ve had a hundred years of unimaginable catastrophes, but out of it came a middle class that kept reinventing itself. Now that the middle class is disappearing, we are once again faced with income inequality, unfiltered information clogging our ability to make wise decisions and an education system that regularly dumbs down its curriculum.

Yet the “Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition” still exists. You can get digital copies easily and cheaply. All over the world, young people are reading it as Jorge Luis Borges did as a boy in the library he was to run years later. It became one of his favorite books, and he memorialized it in “The Book of Sand.”

Will one of these youths grow up and come to America the way Hooper went to England? Will she or he bring an idea that will save us from ourselves? Or will she or he be deported for being Mexican or Muslim?

William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a former teacher. He lives and writes in Florida.