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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIII. Historians

§ 10. Publication of Vol. 1 of The Decline and Fall

While the political phase of his career, as a whole, was lame and self-ended, the first instalment of his great historical work, of which vol. I was published on 17 Feburary, 1776, took the town by storm; nor has The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ever ceased to hold the commanding position in the world of letters which it occupied at the outset.

He had produced the first portion of his work in a more leisurely way than that in which he composed the five succeeding volumes, on each of which he spent about a couple of years; and everything in the circumstances of its publication pointed to a fair success. But the actual reception of the volume very far surpassed the modest expectations entertained by him just before its issue, when, as he avers, he was “neither elated by the ambition of fame, nor depressed by the apprehension of contempt.” He felt conscious of his essential accuracy, of the sufficiency of his reading, of his being in accord with the spirit of enlightenment characteristic of his age and of the splendour, as well as the attractiveness, of his theme. Yet the triumph was not the less sweet; and he confesses himself “at a loss to describe the success of the work without betraying the vanity of the writer.” Three editions were rapidly exhausted; Madame Necker brought him her congratulations in person; and when, in the following year, he returned her visit at Paris, the world of fashion (which, more entirely here than in London, covered the world of letters) was at his feet. At home, Hume wrote him a letter which “overpaid the labour of ten years,” and Robertson’s commendations were equally sincere. Other historians and scholars added their praise; and, when it proved, for a time, that he had provoked the susceptibilities of religious orthodoxy, without calling forth the cavils of “profane” critics, he was satisfied.