The recent kerfuffle over pornography sends Endpapers back to the early 18th century, when Edmund Curll emerged as one of the most tireless propagators of pornography in print. Curll’s name is enshrined in English literature owing to his hilarious feud with the poet Alexander Pope, and his appearance as a butt of ridicule in Pope’s mock-epic The Dunciad. But even before tilting against Pope, Curll was notorious as the enfant terrible of English publishing, feared and reviled by those who had suffered at his hands.

Beginning his life as an apprentice printer, Curll set up shop in 1708 and began to look for the shortest route to publishing success. He specialized in scandals, unauthorized biographies, manufacturing quarrels and so on, but his forte was in erotic literature masquerading as medical works. In 1708, he published a work on syphilis titled The Charitable Surgeon, in which he ran down the cure prescribed by one John Spinke as useless and claimed that only his own shop sold an effective cure. Spinke, a doctor, successfully debunked his claim, but this only gave Curll the opportunity to publish a revised version of the book, titled A New Method Of Curing, Without Internal Medicines, That Degree Of The Venereal Disease, Called A Gonorrhoea, Or Clap. It was typical of Curll to turn every controversy into a publishing opportunity, including those which showed him in a poor light.

By the 1720s, the notorious Curll’s indecent publications had acquired a generic name for themselves: Curlicisms. In 1723, he published A Treatise Of The Use Of Flogging In Venereal Affairs, which in turn was a translation of a 1639 Latin treatise. This was followed by The Venus In The Cloister in 1724, also a translation of a 1683 French work by the Abbé du Prat, belonging to a sub-genre called “whore dialogue". However, the publication of these works resulted in a complaint to the House of Lords, at a time when there was no legislation concerning obscene publications, so Curll was arrested and prosecuted for libel. We are told that Curll promised to quit publishing but his apology was in fact an advertisement for two new titles!

While in prison, Curll had met a spy from Queen Anne’s reign and decided to publish his memoirs. Since the account contained matters of state, Curll wrote to the prime minister, Robert Walpole, for permission, but receiving no reply, took his silence as acquiescence. The publication of the memoirs led to a longer prison sentence, fines and one hour in the pillory. Curll, however, succeeded in persuading the crowds not to beat him up while in pillory and was carried away by a cheering populace.

All this pales into insignificance next to the epic battle between Pope and Curll. It is impossible to summarize it but the high (low?) point came when Pope called Curll to a peace meeting in a tavern and put an emetic in his drink. Curll went home and was heartily sick. Pope immediately published two pamphlets on the incident and gleefully informed the public that Curll was dead. But Curll continued to give as good as he got, on one occasion advertising a biography of Pope with the catchline, “Nothing shall be wanting but his (universally desired) Death", and on another changing the name of his shop to the “Pope’s Head". Pope’s revenge was to put Curll in his poem Dunciad, where Curll competes against other publishers and booksellers in a series of unfortunate events, in the course of which he slips on his own faeces and wins a urinating contest!

But the greatest alarm was caused by Curll’s unauthorized biographies, which led to a famous quip that they had become “one of the new terrors of death". If any notable died, Curll would be the first one out with a biography, full of wild inaccuracies. This led Jonathan Swift to predict, in 1731, in Verses On The Death Of Mr Swift, that “Now Curll his shop from rubbish drains:/ Three genuine tomes of Swift’s remains!" When Swift died 14 years later, Curll did exactly what the satirist had predicted.

Detested and reviled in his own time, Curll has been treated more kindly by posterity.

Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press.

Also Read Abhijit’s previous Lounge columns