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Essays of Elia (Hesperus Classics) Paperback – October 1, 2009
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“. . . one of the classics of English prose and a cornerstone of the personal essay tradition. All personal essayists worth their salt owe a huge debt to this generous and generative collection. . . ; all apprentice essayists who would strive to make headway in the form will need to read it. . . . Essays of Elia is not only an essential text, but a near-buried treasure, an all-but-lost masterpiece in our contemporary culture.” — Phillip Lopate
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Lamb hasn't been popular through the 20th century - an attack on him by F. R. Leavis and his disciples in the 1930s was the start of the rot, and the gradual decline of the essay has meant he's been almost completely overlooked (though not by the Charles Lamb Society, who are still going in London and meet regularly for lectures - and for Lamb's birthday drinks). So a new edition of Lamb is really to be celebrated, especially one as beautifully produced as this.
But alas! This is a lovely edition, but it has one huge flaw for me. There are only 27 essays here and there should be 28: the edition claims to be a reprint of 'Essays of Elia', but it leaves out one of Lamb's most important essays, 'Imperfect Sympathies'. There's not even a note to explain this omission. Why is this important? Well, 'Imperfect Sympathies' is one of the most difficult, challenging, shocking of Lamb's essays - it starts off with a funny skit on why Elia doesn't like Scotchmen: 'I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair'. Scotchmen don't get jokes. They're terribly literal:
"I have a print of a graceful female after Leonardo da Vinci, which I was showing off to [a Scotchman]. After he had examined it minutely, I ventured to ask him how he liked MY BEAUTY (a foolish name it goes by among my friends) -- when he very gravely assured me, that "he had considerable respect for my character and talents" (so he was pleased to say), "but had not given himself much thought about the degree of my personal pretensions."
But then, terribly, the essay takes a darker turn, as Elia voices prejudices about Jewishness and black people. I've always read this essay as a reflection on the nature of prejudice. It's not LAMB who's voicing these opinions - it's Elia, and he's doing so (I think) to make us see how an innocent sounding joke (against Scotchmen), and a bit of 'harmless' prejudice can be the slippery slope to something much worse - as such, it's very timely.
But it's up to us, surely, to read this difficult essay and decide for ourselves. Simply leaving it out - without any word of acknowledgement - is bad editorial practice (though the notes to this edition, too, are pretty much non-existent). And it's also giving people a false sense of Lamb - a kind of misguided political correctness which actually amounts to admitting that these editors do think Lamb is a racist old bigot and there are some aspects of his writing which we'd just better not mention. Disrespectful to Lamb, and to his readers, I'd say...
Surely everyone remembers Lamb and his tragic story from high school lit classes, but (perhaps as he intended) his essays transcend the reality of his life and speak to the modern reader. Lamb is erudite; he is funny; he is precise and flamboyant; in a phrase, he is a literary tour de force.
There are twenty-seven well-wrought essays, among them interesting insights on Valentines Day, ears, gallantry, and, of course, his famous discourse on roast pig.
Modern reader do not despair in this age of quick and easy journalism; here's a master at work.
Read, smile, relax!