Alexander Grosart, ‘The First True Gentleman That Ever Breathed’, and the Independent Scholar

Cathcart, Charles (2019). Alexander Grosart, ‘The First True Gentleman That Ever Breathed’, and the Independent Scholar. English: Journal of the English Association, 68(262) pp. 264–282.



The Presbyterian clergyman and amateur scholar Alexander Grosart borrowed a line from the Renaissance play, The Honest Whore, Part One, in his sermon for the opening of Blackburn’s new church in 1868. Christ ‒ says Grosart ‒ was ‘the first true gentleman that ever breathed’. Exploring the resonances of this unacknowledged use of secular drama and turning to the editorial work of Grosart himself allows the essay’s underlying concern to emerge. What does it mean to be an independent scholar? This is an issue with implications for all who value scholarly study within the humanities ‒ for the practice of academic research in literary studies is diminished if these studies are the preserve of salaried academics and if the discussions that they comprise rarely extend beyond universities. This subject, so it is argued – the place of scholarship undertaken on an unaffiliated or independent basis in the world of English studies – is a topic worthy of sustained attention. In this essay, I acknowledge the challenges of scope and tact that lie in the path of all who pursue this matter and I propose that one way of doing so is to celebrate the work of the amateur scholars of the past. The essay concludes by returning to Alexander Grosart and reflecting upon his reputation during the years since his death in 1899.

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