Monday, March 15, 2010

Essays in Earnest and Otherwise

I have in mind my next order for the bookstore's new Espresso Book Machine, but I'm anticipating a problem. From what I can see, looking at the database for the affordable Google book, I would get only the first of two volumes. Inexplicably, this would seem to be the standard way of Google books, at least to date, with multiple volume books. Having been burnt now more than once, I am chary of hoping for better from the Google folks anytime soon. Still, The price of the reprint from one of the sources other than Google is absurdly high. For that kind of money, I might almost buy a used copy, even with the shipping. So, for the moment, I'm stymied.

The truth is, I know too little of the book's author, Alfred Ainger (1837-1904) and about the book, in two volumes, of his Lectures and Essays (1905) to make this investment lightly. The little I know of Ainger's biography might as easily be found anywhere online, but can be summarized briefly enough. Son of a London architect, he took holy orders at Cambridge, and, with a becoming gradualism, he slowly rose up to become Canon of Bristol Cathedral and "chaplain-in-ordinary" to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, whatever that may mean. About all that, I couldn't care less. I might have his reprinted Sermons Preached in the Temple Church for roughly the cost of his essays. I'm sure his sermons are perfectly lovely sermons, as sermons go, but I can't imagine why I would want them. It is not, as it were, Ainger's day-job that interests me. Like Sydney Smith's, Ainger's clerical career might entertainingly have been treated by Trollope, but as it wasn't, I don't think I need to read anything much more about that. But Ainger, again like Smith, was known for his wit, and his literary work, as well as his collar, and in that I am most interested.

Ainger wrote, among other things, a life of Thomas Hood, and for Morley's "English Men of Letters" series, he wrote two more biographies: a brief life of the poet Crabbe, which I haven't read, and another, of Charles Lamb, which, of course, I have. (The best biography of Lamb, to my mind, is still E. V. Lucas', which came later and was the better for what was then much new scholarship on the subject, and for being allowed greater length, less reserve, and more scope of quotation. In two fat volumes, Lucas, with great candor and unabashed admiration, seamlessly stitched up a great part of the letters, with all the best anecdotes, and the new research of his day, to make something as nearly like the company of the man as might ever be possible. It is a favorite book of mine, and with his edition of Lamb's letters, perhaps the best thing Lucas ever did.) Ainger's little book was the first book about Lamb that I read, and as such, it has it's own place in my library, but I find I turn to it, in preference even to the Lucas, because it is the best and easiest in which to find the simplest history of Lamb's life. Like the other volumes I've read in Morley's series of brief lives, Ainger's book is an elegant and well-made thing; clear, concise and not much concerned with much other than the subject. History and criticism come into it, but only as needed. Wordsworth, Hazlitt and the rest of Lamb's famous acquaintance and friends, for example, are included, but are never allowed more than what may be due them as having been occasionally present and almost always fondly regarded. The lives of Lamb's friends, more perhaps than any other such circle in English literature, other than perhaps Dr. Johnson's, were the stuff of literary history. In Ainger's biography though, even the most famous of these are kept in their place, at Lamb's table, in his company, and are not allowed to displace the subject that most interests his biographer, and me. This is particularly true of Coleridge, as perhaps Lamb's oldest, and dearest friend other than his sister Mary, and Ainger's refusal to be distracted by the noisy genius is all the more notable as even Lamb found his friend tended to overwhelm even the most distinguished company, and become the focus of any room he was in. Ainger keeps even Coleridge in his place. Ainger's book then is not "the life and times," but simply, Charles Lamb. That is it's chief virtue, though it is also pithy, and as touching and amusing, in it's way, as as any such brief life may and should be. For all the limitations of the space in which he had to write, and with all the equally confining discretion and of the true Victorian, Ainger's Lamb is recognizably both the Elia beloved of generations of his readers, and the more melancholy figure as much now remembered for the tragedies in his life, as for the good humor and good company he kept in all but the worst of times. Moreover, it is worth noting, that Ainger's edition of Lamb, in twelve volumes, was the first good one, and the one from which all subsequent editions, including Lucas', derive. Whatever it's flaws and omissions, Ainger's Lamb is largely the Lamb still read, and his life of Lamb, still worth reading.

The idea that I might read, might need, the Canon's other Lectures and Essays came to me tonight when I had occasion to consult his Charles Lamb. I was curious to find some concise explanation for Lamb's adoption of the name Elia for his most famous essays. Elsewhere tonight in my reading, I came across an unattributed quotation on this subject, in David Cecil's A Portrait of Charles Lamb. (The quote comes from Lamb's essay, "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," an essay with which Cecil may well have assumed any reader of his book to already be familiar. Who else, after all, would read Cecil's book, but someone with Elia already at his elbow? It is worth remembering that such assumptions could still be made, as late even as when Cecil wrote about Lamb, in the early 1970s, without any suggestion of authorial indifference to the rules of good scholarship, or to his reader's less perfect recollection of the subject's famous words. Someone like Cecil might still assume, even in my lifetime as a reader, that the curious, if unsure of what the critic thought a familiar quotation, would, if curious enough, be able to look it up in the original. Not the same thing as being indifferent to attribution, now is it?) The quote, from Elia then by way of Cecil, follows:

"Let no one receive these narratives of Elia for true records. They are in truth but shadows of fact -- verisimilitudes not verities -- or sitting upon the remote edges and outskirts of history.'"

Cecil goes on to analyze the ways in which Lamb's adoption of Elia allows him to "make use of material drawn from his own experience" without being circumscribed by autobiography. Instead, speaking through this character both exactly like and distinctly unlike himself, Lamb could then, and did, alter the details his own experience; changing names, leaving out some, though by no means all of his unhappiest memories, making better some of what may have been bad, so as to make something new, something amusing and beautiful, not just from the life he'd known, ugly and otherwise, but what he'd come to know about that experience. Being not in the business of writing history, or even of recording the facts of his own autobiography, but rather of writing personal essays and making art, Lamb felt no hesitation about making from his life, something new, or changing, as Cecil says, "for the sake of artistic effect," what was true to what he felt told a larger Truth.

This also from Cecil: "Elia, then, is not the whole and unedited Charles Lamb; but he is Lamb at his most characteristic, and composed of those elements in his personality which particularly distinguish him from other people; and with these heightened and lit up by the light of his creative vision..."

So why then "Elia," and not just "Charles Lamb?"

(I should have thought this was too obvious a thing to require much more explanation, but having been lately much troubled by David Shields' new book, I suppose something more might need be said, even if only by me.)

Yes, "Elia" is a fiction, though neither more nor less a fiction than "The Spectator" of Addison & Steele, or Johnson's "Rambler." The Essays of Elia are entirely within the same tradition, though what Lamb made with this assumption of a character was more obviously personal, both in subject and in style, than did his chief models. And this is the point, in so far as I am still thinking about Shields & Co. tonight: the personal essay allows for this lie, not because Lamb had a disregard for factual accuracy or was indifferent to history. His critical journalism and his work as an anthologist of the Elizabethan dramatists show him to have been a champion of many a neglected or forgotten reputation, and always scrupulous about citation and sources, as this could only help his cause in promoting what he thought good, by directing the reader's attention to what he could only excerpt. Nor did Lamb, in Elia or elsewhere, imagine his readers to be indifferent to the distinction between fact and fiction, or incapable of judging and valuing the veracity of the one in preference to the other, an asinine and insulting suggestion that would never have occurred to Lamb, or anyone else not in the business of contemporary cultural criticism.

Let me just quote a passage from Ainger that I found very much to the same point, and even more to my purpose in writing tonight about Shields, and about Lamb, his biographers and critics. It is from Ainger's sixth chapter, covering the years of Lamb's greatest literary activity, from 1817 to 1823, and refers specifically to the style of The Essays of Elia:

"A feature of Lamb's method, as we have seen, is his use of quotations. Not only are they brought in so as really to illustrate, but the passages cited themselves receive illustration from the use made of them, and gain a permanent and heightened value from it. Whether it be a garden-scene from Marvell, a solemn paradox from Sir Thomas Brown, or a stanza from some then recent poem of Wordsworth, the quotation fulfils a double purpose, and has sent many a reader to explore for himself in the author whose words strike him with such luminous effect in their new setting."

The emphasis at the end of that is mine. Lamb did not then, even as Elia, "appropriate" the past, as Shields would seem to suggest contemporary writers not only may, but have some kind of obligation to do. Instead, he reverenced the writers he loved, and sought, even within the limitations imposed on his essays by publisher's requirements and the confinement of newspaper and magazine columns, to direct his readers, always, to what he thought best in the books that made up so much of his life, and more importantly, he sought, like Montaigne, to tell what he knew and found this might best be done by using what he'd read, and often by using only what he was convinced had been better said before him.

Any claim now being made that Montaigne, or Samuel Johnson, or Charles Lamb, of all people! or any of the great essayists, saw nothing in the books about them but the "materials" with which they might, with the impunity of the artist, make something new, without acknowledging what was not, is the most disgraceful canard. Anyone arguing otherwise is exactly what Montaigne, and Johnson, and Lamb never were, namely, dishonest. It is, at best, disingenuous to read the great English essayists in this way, or to claim them as the ancestors for the postmodernists' juvenile irreverence. Nothing could be further from the facts, or the truth.

(It is interesting to note the way in which John D'Agata, in his anthologies, and Shields in his new book, either avoid many of the greatest essayists altogether, or, as D'Agata did with Montaigne, choose to only use that which is least characteristic of their style, and their purpose. It must be hard, trying to find something in Montaigne to support the idea that an "attempt" might be made by any but honest means. When Lamb's Elia makes claim to only "verisimilitude not verities," he speaks for himself, not for the authors he quotes, and his joke is on himself, not them. That is a lesson contemporary essayists would do well to learn, when being all loose an "lyrical" with the work of their betters.)

So perhaps I do indeed need my own copy of Alfred Ainger's Lectures and Essays, however much they may cost me. Everything I've read by that gentleman has suggested he was a honest person. I would do well to have one more honest man in my library.

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