ISAAC REED, a gentleman eminently conversant in literary history, was born Jan. 1, 1742, at Stewart-street, Old Artillery-ground, London, of a family, we are told, "highly respectable, and of considerable antiquity," but certainly at this time somewhat reduced, as his father was in the humble occupation of a baker. He is said, however, to have been a man of education and abilities very superior to his condition, and both capable and desirous of bestowing those advantages upon his son, whom he sent to an academy at Streatham. In 1757, Mr. Reed became an articled clerk to Messrs. Perrot and Hodgson, then eminent attornies in London; and at the expiration of his articles, engaged himself as assistant to Mr. Hoskins, of Lincoln's-inn, an eminent barrister and conveyancer. In this situation he remained about a year, when he took chambers in Gray's-inn, and began to practice as a conveyancer on his own account.
Independently, however, of his application to the laborious duties of his profession, he had, previous to this period, acquired great proficiency in general knowledge, and in particular a decided taste for old English literature, and an intimate acquaintance with old English authors. His reading, in this class, was most extensive, and only equalled by a memory uncommonly tenacious of facts and dates. Hence his publications, as editor, are stamped with a peculiar value; and he had not proceeded far in researches into the antiquities of English literature, when he gave up his profession, to which he never appears to have been cordially attached, and devoted his time and his little property to employments more congenial to his disposition, and to his retired and simple manners.
As he had the utmost aversion to the appearance of his name on a title-page, it is not easy to enumerate all the publications of which he was editor, but we are told that the following list may be considered as tolerably accurate. In 1708, he collected into one volume the poetical works of lady Mary Wortley Montagu. In 1778, he printed a few copies of Middleton's unpublished play, called The Witch, a tragi-comedie, which were circulated privately among his friends. In the same year he collected materials for a sixth volume of Dr. Young's Works, small 8vo. In 1773, he collected and published the Cambridge Seatonian prize poems, from their institution in 1750. From 1773 to about 1780, he was, if not editor, a constant contributor to the Westminster Magazine, and particularly of the biographical articles; but about 1782 or 1783 transferred his services to the European Magazine, of which he was from that time editor, and one of the proprietors. He was also an occasional contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. In 1775 he furnished the biographical notes to Pearch's collection of poems, 4 vols. and rendered the same important service to a new edition of Dodsley's collection in 1782, 6 vols. One of the lives of Dr. Dodd, published in 1777, has been ascribed to Mr. Reed, and he certainly conveyed it to his then booksellers, Messrs. Fielding and Walker, but there are doubts whether he was the sole author. There are none, however, respecting the Biographia Dramatica, 2 vols. 8vo, which was his favourite work. It was first published by him in 1782, and he continued to accumulate materials for improvement and enlargement, which he recommended to be put into the hands of Mr. Stephen Jones, in whose knowledge of the subject, and fitness for the office of editor, he had the utmost confidence. A new edition has accordingly been published by that gentleman, extended to 4 vols. 8vo, in 1812. In 1780, Mr. Reed published an improved edition of Dodsley's Old Plays, 12 vols. 8vo. To these we may add two supplemental volumes, a thirteenth and fourteenth, to Dr. Johnson's Works; a select collection of fugitive pieces of wit and humour, in prose and verse, under the title of The Repository, 1777-1783, 4 vols 8vo; the Life of Dr. Goldsmith, prefixed to the second volume of his Essays, collected and published in 3 vols. 12mo, by Mr. Wright the printer, in 1795; and a concise, but masterly delineation of his friend Dr. Farmer, communicated to William Seward, esq. and printed in his Biographiana.
To the generality of readers the name of Mr. Reed is most familiar as annotator on Shakspeare. The first edition of our immortal bard in which he was engaged was that of 1785, 10 vols. This he undertook at the request of his friend Mr. Steevens, with whom he was joint editor in the subsequent edition of 1793. Mr. Steevens had a high respect for him as a coadjutor in this undertaking; and as a testimony of his regard, bequeathed him his own corrected copy of Shakspeare, from which was published, in 1803, Mr. Reed's last edition, in 21 vols. 8vo, and, for the first time, his name was formally prefixed.
But, it is justly remarked by his biographer, all these, though no inconsiderable proofs of his industry and zeal, are far from comprising the sum total of his labours; indeed they give a very inadequate idea of his literary usefulness. The works in which he was partially concerned as editor, are exceedingly numerous, and the occasions on which he has given his assistance in difficult points of literature, almost beyond calculation, particularly in what concerned the literary history of his own country. Although his manner had little of polish, he was always kindly ready to communicate the information he had for so many years accumulated; and perhaps received more public acknowledgments for his assistance in this way than any man of his time. Hence, on his death, so many scholars of eminence hastened with their grateful tributes to his memory. He died Monday, Jan. 5, 1807; and was interred, agreeably to his desire, at Amwell, a place which be was accustomed to visit and admire.
His collection of books, chiefly English, was perhaps one of the most extensive in that series; and most of them were enriched by his MS notes. They were sold in November 1807 by Messrs. King and Lochee, in a sale which lasted thirty-nine days, and produced more than £4000. Few collections have attracted more attention of late years, and it may be doubted whether we shall ever see a collection dispersed, in all respects so well suited to the taste of those who are ambitious of possessing literary curiosities, or of enlarging their knowledge of English literature.