Last week, Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry posted a passage from “Library of Old Authors,” an essay collected in James Russell Lowell’s My Study Windows (1871). The first sentence – “What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us!” – echoes my own suspicion that critics are superfluous, and discerning readers are the legitimate arbiters of literary worth. My library’s copy of Lowell’s book is the twenty-third edition, published in 1886, which suggests his one-time popularity. “Library of Old Authors” is eighty-four pages long. Lowell’s style will remind readers of Charles Lamb. Detractors will find it fulsome or fusty. His pacing is leisurely and conversational, more like a storyteller’s than a stiff-necked academic’s. His sentences can be enormously (and comically) long. Lowell is an entertainer as well as a man of letters, and style is a means of charming, not dazzling, offending or boring the reader.
Lowell’s essay is ostensibly a review of Library of Old Authors, a series of reprints published by John Russell Smith of London between 1856 and 1864. Lowell is not uncritical, and he writes in a manner not seen since the triumph of Modernism a century ago:
“It is not easy to divine the rule which has governed Mr. Smith in making the selection for his series. A choice of old authors should be a florilegium [OED: “a collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology”], and not a botanist’s hortus siccus [“an arranged collection of dried plants; a herbarium”], to which grasses are as important as the single shy blossom of a summer. The old-maidenly genius of antiquarianism seems to have presided over the editing of the Library.”
The Latin tags, elevated vocabulary and stringent whimsy are borrowed straight from Lamb. When Lowell writes, “We confess a bibliothecarian avarice that gives all books a value in our eye,” we recall “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” and Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books.” Lowell preaches respect for his old authors, and condemns the sloppiness of editing he finds in the series: “It is impossible that men who cannot construct an English sentence correctly, and who do not know the value of clearness in writing, should be able to disentangle the knots which slovenly printers have tied in the thread of an old author’s meaning.” Lowell gives a remarkably close and learned reading of many texts, with emphasis on scholarly incompetence, and reaches new heights of invective. Of writers whose work is “mainly bibliographic” (that is, not literary) – a distinction all but evaporated today -- Lowell writes:
“As literature, they are oppressive; as items of literary history they find their place in that vast list which records not only those named for promotion, but also the killed, wounded, and missing in the Battle of the Books. There are hearts touched with something of the same vague pathos that dims the eye in some deserted graveyard. The brief span of our earthly immortalities is brought home to us as nowhere else. What a necrology of notability!”
In a fractionally more hopeful mood Lowell writes, “There is scarcely any rubbish-heap of literature out of which something precious may not be raked by the diligent explorer,” which has always been one of the working assumptions here at Anecdotal Evidence.
Lowell is amusingly merciless with one of the editors in the series, William Carew Hazlitt, grandson of the great essayist:
“We are profoundly grateful for the omission of a glossary. It would have been a nursery and seminary of blunder. To expose pretentious charlatanry is sometimes the unpleasant duty of a reviewer. It is a duty we never seek, and should not have assumed in this case but for the impertinence with which Mr. Hazlitt has treated dead and living scholars, the latchets of whose shoes he is not worthy to unloose, and to express their gratitude to whom is, or ought to be, a pleasure to all honest lovers of their mother-tongue.”