Charles Lamb is writing about himself in this passage from “Imperfect Sympathies,” one of the Elia essays. Its gentle, faintly comic self-deprecation nicely positions Lamb as a literary critic. He has no pretentions to science or scholarship. It should be squarely acknowledged that later in the essay Lamb indulges in a defect of character, a moral taint, hardly rare in English and American letters – anti-Semitism, expressed with various degrees of loathsomeness by other writers whose work is important to me (Santayana, Chesterton, Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot). Lamb always wins me over with his charm and wit, and with his essential goodness, but I can never forget his odious weakness.
We can easily forget that Lamb, still safely pigeonholed as “one of the English humorists,” issued a sizeable inventory of critical judgments. E.M.W. Tillyard collects some of them in Lamb's Criticism: A Selection from the Literary Criticism of Charles Lamb (Cambridge University Press, 1923). The book is slender and Tillyard makes no claims to being comprehensive. After much qualifying, he says of his likely reader: “…if he goes to [criticism] for something that by some subtle means brings him closer to certain works of art than he has been unable to get unaided, for something that creates in his mind the right receptive mood, then he will put Lamb among the very greatest of critics.” Lamb, in other words, is no Johnson or Winters, and never claims to be. Here he is, in a letter to Walter Wilson, written on Dec. 16, 1822, and excerpted by Tillyard, on the novels of Daniel Defoe:
“In the appearance of truth, in all the incidents and conversations that occur in them, they exceed any works of fiction I am acquainted with. It is perfect illusion. The author never appears in these self-narratives, (for so they ought to be called, or rather autobiographies,) but the narrator chains us down to an implicit belief in every thing he says. There is all the minute detail of a log-book in it…It is like reading evidence given in a court of justice.”
Let’s remember that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was mistaken by many among his contemporaries for reportage. It purports to be an eyewitness account of the last outbreak of bubonic plague in England, the Great Plague of 1655-66 that claimed more than 100,000 lives. Defoe was born in 1660 and was five years old when Londoners started dying. Two of our best journalists, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, were great admirers of the novel, and Lamb ranks it among Defoe’s best work, with Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), Colonel Jack (1722) and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724).
The affinity I feel for Lamb as a critic is our shared status as amateurs, in the etymological sense. We love to write about the things we love. Those who confuse criticism with forensic science will find us laughably lacking in what it takes. Here, Tillyard quotes a Dec. 5, 1796, letter to his childhood friend Coleridge:
“I have been reading `The Task’ with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton; but I would not call that man my friend who should be offended with the dive chit-chat of Cowper.”
Here, from an August 1824 letter to C.A. Elton, is Lamb on Hesiod: “To read the Days and Works is like eating nice brown bread, homely sweet and nutritive.”
And here, in a more condemnatory mood, is Lamb rightly savaging Shelley in an August 1824 letter to Bernard Barton:
“For his theories and nostrums, they are oracular enough, but I either comprehend ’em not, or there is miching [OED: “skulking, lurking”] malice and mischief in ’em. But, for the most part, ringing with their own emptiness. Hazlitt said well of ’em—Many are the wiser and better for reading Shakespeare, but nobody was ever wiser or better for reading Shelley.”