Tuesday, October 30, 2012

`A Robust, Inward Strength, Like Keats'

“He had a robust, inward strength, like Keats, which has defended him from the worst endeavors of literary mawkishness, while his fortunes and his circumstances have moved the tenderness of all comers but Carlyle, who no doubt caught one aspect of him truly enough. We are never tired hearing of him; we are glad of every chance of his intimacy…”

William Dean Howells, of all people, was a great admirer – in his words, a “lover” -- of Charles Lamb. From January 1886 to March 1892, Howells published his “Editor’s Study” column in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, all of which can be read here. Much of the March 1891 column is devoted to a review of B.E. Martin’s In the Footprints of Charles Lamb. I’m pleased by Howells’ revisionist understanding of Lamb and Keats, so often trivialized into harmless sprites. Lamb, he says, has been “unsparingly sentimentalized.”

Howells suggests that “the English do not yet rank Lamb so high as we [Americans] do, or care so tenderly for him.” He accounts for this, a little dubiously, by citing Lamb’s friendships with such “low radicals” as Hunt and Hazlitt. I’m also puzzled by Howells’ assertion that Lamb’s humor “seems as little English in character as Heine’s wit seems German.” The Heine half I understand, but Lamb’s humor seems quintessentially English to me – the antiquarianism, the fine eye for manners, the puns and other linguistic extravagance, and Lamb’s enthusiastic tolerance for eccentricity and sheer silliness. With Sterne and Dickens, Lamb constitutes my American understanding of at least one strain of Englishness. A little poking about has uncovered another allusion to Lamb by Howells, in a novel I haven’t read, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890):

“[Basil March] went to his business, and hurried back to forget it, and dream his dream of intellectual achievement…he could not conceal from himself that his divided life was somewhat like Charles Lamb’s, and there were times when, as he expressed to Fulkerson, he believed that its division was favorable to the freshness of his interest in literature…He was proud of reading critically, and he kept in the current of literary interests and controversies.” 

Also, Howells above refers to Carlyle’s dissenting opinion on Lamb. Here’s what the Scotsman, surely among the most relentlessly unpleasant monomaniacs in literary history, writes in his Notebooks on Nov. 2, 1831, after visiting Lamb in Enfield:

“Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, rickety, gasping, staggering, stammering tomfool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for: more like a convulsion fit than natural systole and diastole. — Besides he is now a confirmed shameless drunkard; asks vehemently for gin-and-­water in strangers’ houses; tipples till he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him. Poor Lamb! Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!”

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