Thursday, May 22, 2008

Charles Lamb: unsung hottie of the Romantic Era

Charles Lamb, the 19th century essayist once wrote, in “Readers Against the Grain,”
Rather than follow in the train of this insatiable monster of modern reading, I would forswear my spectacles, play at put, mend pens, kill fleas, stand on one leg, shell peas, or do whatsoever ignoble diversion you shall put me to. Alas! I am hurried on in the vortex. I die of new books or the everlasting talk about them...I will go and relieve myself with a page of honest John Bunyan or Tom Brown. Tom anybody will do, so long as they are not of this whiffling century.

My feelings exactly, although it's not Bunyan I relieve myself with, but Anthony Trollope and it's not this “whiffling century” I object to, but the last few whiffling decades, or at least, the books written in them that Everybody else is reading and discussing.

I took the above Lamb quote from the essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb” by Anne Fadiman in her new book, At Large and at Small. I was mildly excited to come across this essay on Charles Lamb because he has occupied a corner of my consciousness ever since college, where I was profoundly horrified by the story of how his sister Mary murdered their mother with a carving knife and how Charles subsequently cared for his mad sister for the rest of his life. Fadiman admits to having something of a crush on Lamb and this also interested me because developing crushes on long-dead characters from history is a behavior not unknown to me. Indeed, this portrait of Hawthorne still causes my heart to go pitter-pat.
For some reason, I'd imagined Charles Lamb to have spindly legs, a frizzy periwig and puffy, babyish features, but a quick google image search proves me wrong:

I can see why Anne Fadiman has a crush on him. I think I do too, now.

Of all the excellent essays in At Large and at Small, “The Unfuzzy Lamb” is my favorite. I was happy to learn that Lamb was a late bloomer, working obscurely as a clerk while writing his essays, which were not published until he was in his late forties. Lamb wrote his poems while clerking too. We are so obsessed with youth related to success in the arts, that if you haven't published a masterpiece by the age of 22, you're considered to have missed your chance to write anything of note at all. I am setting up Charles Lamb as the patron saint of people who need to work for a living while nurturing a desire to write.

I happened to be at the Alderman Library, selecting a book of Victorian ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, when I noticed that Charles Lamb's books were shelved in the vicinity. After some deliberation, I chose Wit and Wisdom, attracted by its tiny size, the lovely binding, the handsome profile of Lamb, and the inscription “Eugenia from Papa Christmas 1892” in faded ink on the inside cover.
Wit and Wisdom turned out to be tiny snippets of Lamb's writing. I was instantly charmed. I know I read some Charles Lamb in college, I can remember the classroom, the teacher, my classmates, but alas, not whatever it was of his we read. The passage quoted above, from Fadiman's essay, showed me that Charles Lamb probably had committed many worthwhile thoughts to paper, and so far Wit and Wisdom has not disappointed, as example this passage from “Charles Lamb's Autobiography”

...Has been guilty of obtruding upon the public a tale, in prose, called “Rosamund Gray”' a dramatic sketch named “John Woodvil”' a “Farewell Ode to Tobacco,” with sundry other poems, and light prose matter, collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations; and his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia, whose Essays are extant in a little volume. He died, 18--, much lamented.

1 comment:

  1. hi there! i tagged you for a meme, listing six of your quirks. play only if you feel like it! here is my post on it: i tagged you. in this one you list six of your quirks. read about it here: