The pleasure of reading the Irish essayist Robert Lynd (1879-1949) should not be mistaken for soft-headed nostalgia. His virtues are vital and we can learn from his example. As a writer, he was a professional amateur, in the etymological sense. Of necessity, Lynd was prolific. From 1913 to 1945 he published a weekly essay in the New Statesman. He was an expert on nothing, seems to have read everything and could write amusingly about anything, which makes him the working definition of an essayist. An Irish history website says of Lynd: “Like Samuel Johnson, who was his favourite writer, he had always something to say, whatever the subject.” The same site adds: “He became noted for his quiet, friendly and reflective style, earning his living, as one critic put it, `by supplying what might be called a point of rest in the newspapers to which he contributed.’” How our anemic newspapers could use a feuilletonist like Lynd today. Take this from the title essay in The Pleasures of Ignorance (Grant Richards Ltd., 1921):
“. . . there is, perhaps, a special pleasure in re-learning the names of many of the flowers every spring. It is like re-reading a book that one has almost forgotten. Montaigne tells us that he had so bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had never read it before. I have myself a capricious and leaking memory. I can read Hamlet itself and The Pickwick Papers as though they were the work of new authors and had come wet from the press, so much of them fades between one reading and another. There are occasions on which a memory of this kind is an affliction, especially if one has a passion for accuracy. But this is only when life has an object beyond entertainment.”
Seasoned readers will smile in agreement. Lynd’s manner has a charm, a confiding, conversational ease, absent from most contemporary essayists, though Joseph Epstein echoes the Lyndian mode. Today, an essayist is likelier to be transgressive rather than merely companionable or amusing. Lynd occasionally tips into the whimsical, but we can forgive so industrious a man. In “Cats” he writes: “A cat is obedient only when it is hungry or when it takes the fancy. It may be a parasite, but it is never a servant. The dog does your bidding, but you do the cat’s.” This is true, of course, but a thousand other writers, many less gifted than Lynd, have said so.
Another of his essay collections, Old and New Masters (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), is strictly literary. It’s always interesting to read the judgments of a working journalist as he reviews new books that for us are embalmed as “classics.” He reads Henry James, Conrad, Chesterton, Kipling, Hardy and Constance Garnett’s translations from the Russian as they are first published. Here is Lynd in “Tchehov: The Perfect Storyteller,”describing a writer still new to the English-speaking world:
“He sees, for one thing, that no man is uninteresting when he is seen as a person stumbling toward some goal, just as no man is uninteresting when his hat is blown off and he has to scuttle after it down the street. There is bound to be a break in the meanest life.”
Lynd nicely echoes Chesterton’s “On Running After One’s Hat.” Both men choose a faintly ridiculous image their readers would recognize because both write for Dr. Johnson’s now-mythical “common reader.” Here is Lynd again on Chekhov:
“He portrays his characters instead of labelling them; but the portrait itself is the judgment. His humour makes him tolerant, but, though he describes moral and material ugliness with tolerance, he never leaves us in any doubt as to their being ugly. His attitude to a large part of life might be described as one of good-natured disgust.”