Monday, November 18, 2013

`Stumbled Into It Without Ambition'

In 1932, Edmund Blunden delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and chose as his subject Charles Lamb, a writer with whom he clearly shared temperamental affinities. The following year the revised lectures were published as Charles Lamb and His Contemporaries. Blunden notes that Wordsworth recognized Lamb’s “power of characterization and of atmosphere,” and advised him to write a novel. I was surprised to learn that by early in the nineteenth century the novel had already been fetishized as a form, anointed with an elevated literary status. Wordsworth seems unaware that Lamb had written a novel, Tristram Shandy, starting in 1759, sixteen years before his birth. The centerpiece of Blunden’s book, the chapter titled “Elia,” is devoted to Lamb’s alter ego’s essays. In it, he defends Lamb’s choice of the short form: 

“…he had not the conditions of life in which he might envisage a great construction of the imaginative faculty, therefore he kept away from any harassed and uncertain attempt. Lamb’s reverence for the highest literature is expressed in this as much as any of his tributes to genius ancient and modern. And yet, he was destined to create what has been counted for over a century one of the best books.” 

Unlike many writers, Lamb intuitively understood and respected his gifts and limits. He remained immune to gigantism, for instance, a disorder pandemic among American writers. Blunden says of Elia’s appearance between hard covers, after the essays were published in London Magazine, that Lamb “stumbled into it without ambition; no preliminary operation orders were circulated through the coteries and the columns; he gave himself none.” Lamb’s nearest approach to “the deliberate framing of a masterpiece,” Blunden says, was the creation of Elia, the mask that permitted Lamb unlimited flexibility of tone and point of view. Blunden calls Elia a “phantom personality.” In rigid first-person, Lamb might have succumbed more often to his whimsical and lugubrious streaks. Part of the fun of reading Lamb at his best is watching him skirt these temptations without surrendering to them. Blunden judges Lamb a hero of the essay and, implicitly, a hero of literature: 

“He perceived that the course of his predecessors had gradually become a sunk road, whence you could not see the landscape or receive the open sun and wind; he changed all that.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

"Wordsworth seems unaware that Lamb had written a novel, Tristram Shandy, starting in 1759, sixteen years before his birth."

Sorry -- I don't get this, exactly. Do you mean that Tristram Shandy is the novel Lamb would have, could have, written if he had written one?

I don't see it. For one thing, the relationship of each of them to his readers is so different. Lamb coddles them and invites them into his world. Sterne teases them and plays a sort of peek-a-boo. To put it another way: while we're sitting in Lamb's kitchen, we're only looking in through Sterne's windows.