John Wolcot, under his nom de plume of Peter Pindar, was one of the most popular satirists of the late eighteenth century. Today his work is primarily known for his anti-ministerial satires during the 1790s and discussed in terms of its radical credentials in ways that have narrowed our understanding of his achievement and interests. This essay reads three of Wolcot's key poems from the 1780s in terms of his focus on the use of anecdote in writing history and biography, and his self-conscious interest in writing about great men. In A Poetical and Congratulatory Epistle to James Boswell, Esq on his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with the celebrated Dr Johnson (1786) and Bozzy and Piozzi, or, The British Biographers, A Town Eclogue (1786), Peter critiques the tendency of Johnson's biographers to represent him not through an account of his great work, but through trivial and undignified personal detail. In Instructions to a Celebrated Laureat; alias The Progress of Curiosity; alias A Birthday Ode; alias Mr Whitbread's Brewhouse (1787), Peter diagnoses the opposite problem in Thomas Warton's celebration of King George III, which treats an essential trivial figure as if he were a great one. In this way, Wolcot engages in significant cultural debates about the meaning and representation of greatness and significant achievement in the 1780s. Our appreciation of this engagement and the larger cultural debates into which it is keyed can broaden our sense of the questions it is possible to pose about Wolcot as a writer beyond those to do with his attitude to ministerial policy during the revolutionary period.
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Dafydd Moore; John Wolcot and “The Anecdotic Itch”: Peter Pindar, Biography, and Historiography in the 1780s. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 April 2016; 40 (2): 88–118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-3483900
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