Contemporary biography is attended with many inconveniences. The motives of the writer are often mistaken by the zealous, the envious, and the intimate. Impartiality is called aspersion; truth, a wish to detract from merit by the promulgation of trifling facts; and criticism is often dignified with the appellations of malice and envy. But such will ever be the case while the object is living; for, according as he is esteemed or contemned, venerated or despised, so will all attempts to investigate his character or appreciate his merits be applauded or condemned. The object of the following memoir has rendered himself peculiarly obnoxious to many, from the heterodox boldness of his opinions, and the tenacity, not to say arrogance, with which he has maintained them; while his real or pretended contempt for all who have gone before him in similar walks of literature has excited the greatest indignation in liberal minds. Mr. Pinkerton has, indeed, many of the characteristics of his countrymen; supercilious, dogmatical, irritable to an uncommon degree, and indefatigable in study. This last quality is eminently conspicuous all his antiquarian and historical works, which display a fund of reading and a pertinacity of enquiry, we believe, not equalled by any modern author. It was this quality or turn that led Gibbon to pronounce him, "one of the children of those heroes whose race is almost extinct," and to declare, "that hard assiduous study is the sole amusement of his independent leisure." The eulogy of a man like Gibbon, published after his death, when nothing was to be gained from flattery, must be allowed to carry with it some weight.
The writer of the following life has been in habits of intimacy with Mr. Pinkerton; and the facts which he is about to mention, though partly derived from a published work, are, he knows, correct and irrefragable, for they proceed from a source not easily liable to mistake.
In giving an account of an antiquary, it is natural to mention antient records. The first appearance of the name of Pinkerton is in Prynne's Papers of the reign of Edward I, whence it appears that Nicol de Pynkerton paid homage to that prince for his lands in the neighbourhood of Dunbar, probably containing the village still called Pinkerton. This seems to have been the first seat of the name which arose from the village; but the most numerous branch of it are in the west of Scotland, particularly about Dalserf and Rutherglen, in Clydesdale; and the name frequently appears in the list of magistrates of the latter town, as published in a recent history of it. In a quarto pamphlet published 1651, called An Abstract of the State of his Majesty's Revenue, there is the item: "To Robert Pinkerton, falconer to the king 18d per diem, and £13 13s 9d per annum for his living." There was also a Captain Pinkerton, who conducted part of the unfortunate expedition to Darien, as appears from Carstair's State Papers. The grandfather of Mr. John Pinkerton was Walter, a worthy and honest yeoman at Dalserf, who had a pretty numerous family. As presbyterians at that time abounded in the west of England, there was a considerable intercourse between them and those of Scotland. James Pinkerton, a son of Walter, settled in Somersetshire, where he acquired a moderate fortune, being, as is believed, what was then styled a hair merchant, wigs being much worn, and considerable profits arising from an article in universal request. About 1755 he returned to his native country, and married Mrs. Bowie, the widow of a respectable merchant in Edinburgh, who left three children. James, the eldest, was a spirited youth, who joined the army as a volunteer, and was slain at the battle of Minden; his brother Robert succeeded to an estate in Lanarkshire left by their father. By his wife, whose maiden name was Heron, the daughter of a Physician or apothecary in Edinburgh, James Pinkerton acquired some additional property.
John Pinkerton was born at Edinburgh on the 17th of Feb. 1758. His father soon afterwards removed to one of his wife's houses at Grangegateside, near Edinburgh, where John went to a day school kept by an old woman, who relieved the dryness of English grammar by a mixture of sweetmeats. About 1764, be was sent to the capital grammar school at Lanark, kept by Mr. Thomson, who married the sister of Thomson the poet, then an old lady with a glass eye, and with a temper equally brittle. But Mr. Thomson was quite the reverse, and possessed great dignity of person and demeanor. Inheriting from his father a portion of hypochondriacism, young Pinkerton was always a shy boy, fonder of rural and solitary walks than of boisterous amusements; and, from an original infirmity of nerve, laboured under an incurable mauvaise honte; a shocking sensation, which ought to be the punishment of the wicked, instead of the companion of the modest and the good. At school he was generally the second or third of his class; but nothing remarkable distinguished this period. One incident, indeed, deserves to be recorded. Mr. Thomson one day ordered the boys to translate apart of Livy into English; when he came to young Pinkerton's version, as it is called in Scotland, he read it silently to himself, then, to the great surprise of the boys, walked quickly out of the school, but soon returned with a volume of Hooke's Roman History, in which the same part of Livy was translated. He read both aloud, and gave his opinion decidedly in favour of his disciple's translation, which not a little flattered his boyish vanity, and, perhaps, first sowed in him the seeds of authorship.
In what consisted the great excellence of this version cannot now probably be known; but, if excellence it had, it stands alone in the list of Mr. Pinkerton's productions. In nothing which he has published can there be discovered much polish or energy of diction; much harmony of construction, or force of selection. His style is remarkably poor, there being but few instances where he rises above colloquial eminence. He is frequently ungrammatical, and never presents any of those embellishments, and phraseological beauties which give force to argument, and a degree of interest to the most abstruse points of study. It may, indeed, be said, and perhaps with truth, that the nature of some of his productions precluded all attempts at a figurative and polished style: this is ever the case, for the dry details of antiquarian research are but little susceptible of an animated and glowing dress; but in history, ample room is afforded for the brightest coruscations of language, when we bring into temporary existence the warrior leading forth his armies to conquest; the statesman delivering with bold yet chaste eloquence the dictates of sound policy or dignified resentment; the philosopher contemplating, in his study, the laws and phenomena of nature; the poet following the airy and resplendent track of imagination, and excogitating in solitude the noblest productions of the lyre; the zealous patriot at one time planning the deliverance of his country, at another pining in the gloom of a dungeon, loaded with chains, and led forth to an ignominious death! These are among the varied subjects which history presents, and which start into life at the ethereal touch of a refined and delicate imagination; which have breathed, with more than living splendor, beneath the pens of a Tacitus, a Hume, a Robertson, and a Gibbon! But these subjects display only the torpid accuracy of plodding research in the history of Mr. Pinkerton: he is correct without animation, and laborious without spirit. That his antiquarian productions are thus, can excite little surprise; but that works on history and polite literature should be so barren of ornament, can be accounted for only on the supposition, that Mr. P. has never paid any attention to his style. Burke's "Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful" has all the dryness of metaphysical discussion; the subject rendered this impossible: but who is not charmed with the fire, the elegance, the glowing animation, which pervade all the rest of his works? To return, however, to the immediate subject of our memoir.
After being six years at school, the last year of which only was dedicated to the Greek, he returned to his father's house near Edinburgh. The father having some dislike to a university education, John was kept in a kind of solitary confinement at home; and, his father being of a morose and severe disposition, his durance did not tend to give much firmness to his nerves. An hour or two passed every day in attending a French teacher; and in his eagerness to attain this language he had totally lost his Greek and nearly his Latin also: but soon after, meeting with Rollin's Ancient History, and observing references to the original authors, he bought the History of Juistinus, &c, and soon recovered his Latin, so as to write, when he was about thirteen years of age, tolerable specimens in that language. He afterwards studied mathematics two or three years under Mr. Ewing, an able teacher at Edinburgh, and proceeded as far as the doctrine of infinities.
Though he expected a decent competency from his father, yet, being tired of constant confinement, and the want of company and diversity, it was proposed that he should study the law; and he accordingly served a regular apprenticeship of five years to Mr. William Aytoun, an eminent writer to the signet, a gentleman more fond of expence, show, and rural life, than of the law, but of a noble and liberal disposition. He would sometimes, however, check his pupil for poring over Copernicus, when he ought to have been reading Dallas's Styles, being old models for law papers. From the indefatigable nature of Mr. Pinkerton, it is probable he would have attained to some eminence in legal knowledge, tho' constitutional defects would have prevented him from ever being celebrated as a forensic orator.
Our author had no taste for poetry till he was upwards of twelve years of age, the idea he had conceived of it, being merely that it was more nonsensical than prose, as using many words to express little meaning; a conceit sufficiently foolish, it must be confessed. But Beattie's Minstrel being much talked of, he read it, and was delighted. Shakespear and Milton followed; and it then struck him that he had read Virgil, Horace, and Anacreon, merely as tasks.
After perusing the Minstrel, he was induced to attempt English verses, all his prior little compositions having been in Latin. As he often visited Craigmillar Castle, in his neighbourhood, once the residence of the unfortunate Mary, he printed a little Elegy called Craigmillar Castle, dedicated to Dr. Beattie, who favoured the young author with his criticisms and advice. This boyish production appeared about 1776. A tragedy afterwards followed, which he committed to the flames, built upon a modern Latin drama called Zeno. Another manuscript tragedy we know is still in being, which, by the intervention of a lady, was shewn to Dr. Blair, who praised the style, but said that it wanted incident. It has since been revised, and greatly altered.
The pathetic old Scottish ballads inspired him with a wish to attempt something of that kind; and the second part of Hardyknute was written about 1776, when the author was eighteen. He also wrote other pieces in that manner, all of which were confessed and pointed out in his edition of the Maitland Poems, 1786. Nothing of imposition was here intended. He has been heard to say, that he perfectly recollects his train of ideas upon the subject, while his mind would have shrunk from the smallest dishonesty or disingenuity. It was merely that, as we know not the authors of any of the old Scottish ballads, the very uncertainty seemed to lend an additional charm and veneration. His youthful vanity led him to hope that his might pass into the same class; but he resolved at the same time to avow himself the author, after a certain period had elapsed.
In 1780, soon after his apprenticeship was expired, his father died; and being often disappointed in procuring uncommon books at Edinburgh, he visited London, where the size and extent of the booksellers' catalogues formed his sole motive for wishing to fix his residence here. This determination was confirmed by the bankruptcy of some merchants in Glasgow who held about £1000 of his father's money, the whole of which was lost. He accordingly returned to Scotland in the spring of 1781, took up the remaining sums lying in mercantile hands, and, returning to England, settled in the neighbourhood of London in the winter of that year. On his first visit to the metropolis, he had published a small volume of Juvenile Poetry, written too much after the manner of the Spenserian and Italian school of allegory and extreme refinement.
These poems display a remarkable instance of a vitiated taste. They possess the very worst, the most flagrant errors and incongruities of the Spenserian and Italian manner, without one particle of fancy, or one ray of genuine poetry. Extravagant, irregular, absurd, and incoherent, the serious reader is sometimes tempted to ask himself whether they are intended as a burlesque upon the quaintness of Spenser, and the wire-drawn imagery of the Italians. In the first volume of our Magazine (vide p. 572, N.S.) a correspondent has produced a specimen from these "Rimes," as they are termed. But it is probable that Mr. Pinkerton soon perceived he was not calculated to become a successful votary of the Muses; for he courted them early, and soon abandoned the hopeless pursuit.
He now returned to London merely as a reader, and without the smallest intention of proceeding farther in his authorship. Being a great admirer of Gray, it has been said that he wished, like him, to begin and end his career with one small book! If he really thought so, it is an instance of self-complacency not easily to be paralleled; but this anecdote has probably no origin in truth. It is however to be observed, that he considered the publication of the Scottish ballads as the trifling office of an editor, and not as that of all author. In the former capacity he has frequently since appeared to advantage before the public.
From a boy, he was fond of collecting medals, minerals, &c. To the subject of mineralogy he has lately paid great attention, and printed, about the year 1800, a small pamphlet of 124 octavo pages, entitled A Sketch of a New Arrangement of Mineralogy. Of these he had not more than one hundred printed, which he designed merely for the perusal of a few intimate friends, and for his own convenience; he having arranged his own small collection of minerals according to the plan there laid down.
His fondness for collecting medals was increased by the acquisition of a rare coin of Constantine on his Sarmatian Victory, given him by a lady who had taken it as a farthing. He soon, therefore, laid the foundation of a little collection, and used to read Addison's Dialogues on Medals with infinite delight. These pursuits led him to see the defects of common books on the subject; and he drew up a manual and tables for his own use, which afterwards grew to the excellent and complete Essays on Medals, published by Dodsley in 1784.
Horace Walpole, the late Earl of Orford, being highly pleased with this able and classical work, sent a polite letter to the author, which was followed by a long and intimate acquaintance.
In the year 1785 appeared his Letters of Literature, under the fictitious appellation of "Robert Heron, Esq." This work deservedly gave great offence both to the literary and political world, as well from the crudities with which it abounded as from the contempt of established forms, and arrogance with which it decides upon authors the most eminent in the annals of literature. The Monthly Reviewers formed, at first, a correct judgement of the book, and condemned it to that oblivion to which it has long since hastened; but the Rev. H. Maty, in his New Review, with literary Curiosities, and literary Intelligence for the Year 1785, affected to regard it as a singular but excellent publication, and criticised each letter individually. The book, in fact, does not contain a single letter which is not open to censure on the score of contumely, or contemptible from its absurdity. The author was certainly young when he wrote the work; and we know that, at the present period, he is not ambitious of his offspring; but the same intolerant and supercilious temper which pervades that production is discoverable, more or less, in every thing, he has since written. One fact will be sufficient to establish the peculiar character of these Letters. Many of the epistles are exclusively devoted to the task of depreciating the merits of Virgil, and to the endeavour to convince the world that he is one of the very worst of Latin poets! But nothing can exceed the vulgarity of the language which is employed, or the virulence of the appellations which are given to Virgil, Boileau, &c. This is not the place for illustration, or we could produce examples of what we assert: they would, however, give pain to every liberal mind.
Mr. Pinkerton has likewise published the well known Dissertation on the Scythians or Goths, which excited at the time considerable opposition. An Enquiry into the Antient History of Scotland, two volumes. A History of Scotland, two volumes quarto: and, lastly, his Modern Geography; a work which certainly eclipses every thing of the kind which this country has produced. It occupied him three whole years; and it would be difficult to conceive the uncommon labour and assiduity which he bestowed upon it until its completion. It will certainly carry his name down to posterity with greater lustre than it can derive from any other of his publications.
As an editor, he has published many volumes of antient Scotish history, and a collection of antient Latin lives of saints, tending to illustrate the early history of his country.
The literary character of Mr. Pinkerton has been highly appreciated by Mr. Gibbon, who has even deigned to become the apologist of his friend, by softening down the petulance and asperity which mark his various productions. This last mentioned great man anxiously wished to see the Latin memorials of the middle age, the "Scriptores Rerum Anglicarum," published in England in a manner worthy of the subject and of the country. But he despaired of finding a man "who could devour and digest whole libraries;" who would be ready to employ "several years of his life in assiduous labour, without any splendid prospect of emolument or fame."
This man, however, he at length found in Mr. Pinkerton, who, when he heard of his wishes and his choice, "advanced to meet him with the generous ardour of a volunteer, conscious of his strength, desirous of exercise, and careless of reward." They discussed the matter in several conversations; but the death of Gibbon interrupted the scheme, and it may be doubted whether Mr. Pinkerton will ever commence the arduous undertaking by himself.
Mr. Pinkerton is the author of several anonymous trifles, and is a regular writer for the "Critical Review."
His manners are far from being prepossessing, and in conversation he is extremely warm and impetuous. His person is more of the scholar than the gentleman, not having the least dignity or elegance about it. He has been married some years, but we fear he cannot boast much of the felicity this union has produced.
The rank which he holds in the literary world may be pretty clearly estimated from the preceding remarks; and those who with for a splendid eulogy on his antiquarian researches and talents may be referred to Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, published by Lord Sheffield, p. 713, vol. II, where they will find the observations of a man certainly well qualified to appreciate the merits of Mr. Pinkerton.