Penguins on Parade: Charles Lamb!

Some Penguin Classics almost seem like they’ve been around forever, and yet a prime such example, the Selected Prose of Charles Lamb, only came into existence in 1985, in a pretty trade paperback with Hazlitt’s famous portrait of the young Lamb on its cover. The edition is edited by Adam Phillips, whose Introduction cites Lamb’s “infamous good nature” and gives a good, if light, account of the charm of the man’s work: “The essays, like the letters, revealed not only Lamb’s idiosyncratic reading but a vigorous moral intelligence that was always whimsically understated. His art made light of things.”

This is true, and it was something of an accomplishment all on its own. Although literature welcomed him with open arms, Lamb’s life was a study in tragedy and traducement. His intermittently mad sister Mary killed their mother with a carving knife when both of them were very young, and in order to keep her out of the barbaric state-run insane asylums of the time, Lamb took it upon himself to care for Mary for the rest of his life, working as a clerk at the East India Company, which he referred to as his own “official confinement.” In spite of these huge and ongoing tensions – and, one can’t help but suspect, as a relief from them – Lamb steadily generated prose for public consumption, and a great deal of it – most conspicuously his famous “Elia” essays – was very good … immortal, in fact. Even today, with the Georgian and Victorian periods a century in their graves, Lamb is still the most excellent company for the allegedly desultory reading he himself championed with such wry amusement.

He never fails the reader, and he’s frequently luminous of phrasing, especially when he’s ‘on a roll’ – as in the great essay “Imperfect Sympathies” when he warms to the task of describing a certain kind of person, ostensibly a variety of starched, over-serious Scotsman, but the reader quickly senses that Lamb had a much less narrowly ethnic group of people in mind – an eternal group, alas, with members found in all nationalities, then and now:

His Minerva is born in panoply. You are never admitted to see his ideas in their growth – if, indeed, they do grow, and are not rather put together upon principles of clockwork. You never catch his mind in an undress. He never hints or suggests any thing, but unlades his stock of ideas in perfect order and completeness. He brings his total wealth into company, and gravely unpacks it. His riches are always about him. He never stoops to catch a glittering something in your presence, to share it with you, before he knows whether it be true touch or not. You cannot cry halves to any thing he finds. He does not find, but bring. You never witness his first apprehension of a thing. His understanding is always at its meridian – you never see the first dawn, the early streaks. – He has no falterings of self-suspicion. Surmises, guesses, misgivings, half-intuitions, semi-consciousnesses, partial illuminations, dim instincts, embryo conceptions, have no place in his brain, or vocabulary. The twilight of dubiety never falls upon him.

This Penguin Classic contains all the great Lamb that isn’t in his letters. “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” is here, and “A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People,” “The Superannuated Man,” and “Sanity True Genius.”All the well-known and oft-anthologized passages are here, as well as the perfectly-phrased little byways the reader of Lamb comes to treasure more than the highways. Lamb was an avid reader with steadfastly uncategorizable tastes. Even when he was the thick-chinned young man in Hazlitt’s painting, he had a wide vein of sentimentality for a lost golden age of writing and especially reading. The explosion of publishing he saw in his era – and the movement of pleasure-reading outward from the private libraries to the coffee houses and interchange floors filled him with a kind of feinting dismay (even while it proved profitable) that he voiced most memorably in “Readers Against the Grain,” where the deplorable picture he paints will be instantly recognizable to any professional book-reviewer:

I have something to do in these book-clubs, and know the trick and mystery of it. Every new publication that is likely to make a noise, must be had at any rate. By some they are devoured with avidity. These would have been readers in the old time I speak of. The only loss is, that for the good old reading of Addison or Fielding’s days is substituted that never-ending flow of thin novelties which are kept up like a ball, leaving no possible time for better things, and threatening in the issue to bury or sweep away from the earth the memory of their noble predecessors. We read to say that we have read.

Lamb probably never envisioned a time when his own name and writing would seem as firmly a part of “good old reading” as Addison and Fielding – it’s possible that even he wasn’t quite egotistical enough to dream of such a thing as a Penguin Classic version of his Selected Prose. But we were lucky to have it just the same, for the brief window when Penguin still printed it. And we’ll always have the Brattle, for a nice used copy.

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