For other uses, see Charles Lamb (disambiguation).
Charles Lamb (10 February 1775 – 27 December 1834) was an Englishessayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and for the children's book Tales from Shakespeare, co-authored with his sister, Mary Lamb (1764–1847).
Friends with such literary luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Hazlitt, Lamb was at the centre of a major literary circle in England. He has been referred to by E. V. Lucas, his principal biographer, as "the most lovable figure in English literature".
Youth and schooling
Lamb was born in London, the son of Elizabeth Field and John Lamb. Lamb was the youngest child, with a sister 11 years older named Mary and an even older brother named John; there were four others who did not survive infancy. His father John Lamb was a lawyer's clerk and spent most of his professional life as the assistant to a barrister named Samuel Salt, who lived in the Inner Temple in the legal district of London. It was there in Crown Office Row that Charles Lamb was born and spent his youth. Lamb created a portrait of his father in his "Elia on the Old Benchers" under the name Lovel. Lamb's older brother was too much his senior to be a youthful companion to the boy but his sister Mary, being born eleven years before him, was probably his closest playmate. Lamb was also cared for by his paternal aunt Hetty, who seems to have had a particular fondness for him. A number of writings by both Charles and Mary suggest that the conflict between Aunt Hetty and her sister-in-law created a certain degree of tension in the Lamb household. However, Charles speaks fondly of her and her presence in the house seems to have brought a great deal of comfort to him.
Some of Lamb's fondest childhood memories were of time spent with Mrs Field, his maternal grandmother, who was for many years a servant to the Plummer family, who owned a large country house called Blakesware, near Widford, Hertfordshire. After the death of Mrs Plummer, Lamb's grandmother was in sole charge of the large home and, as Mr Plummer was often absent, Charles had free rein of the place during his visits. A picture of these visits can be glimpsed in the Elia essay Blakesmoor in H—shire.
Why, every plank and panel of that house for me had magic in it. The tapestried bed-rooms – tapestry so much better than painting – not adorning merely, but peopling the wainscots – at which childhood ever and anon would steal a look, shifting its coverlid (replaced as quickly) to exercise its tender courage in a momentary eye-encounter with those stern bright visages, staring reciprocally – all Ovid on the walls, in colours vivider than his descriptions.
Little is known about Charles's life before he was seven other than that Mary taught him to read at a very early age and he read voraciously. It is believed that he suffered from smallpox during his early years, which forced him into a long period of convalescence. After this period of recovery Lamb began to take lessons from Mrs Reynolds, a woman who lived in the Temple and is believed to have been the former wife of a lawyer. Mrs Reynolds must have been a sympathetic schoolmistress because Lamb maintained a relationship with her throughout his life and she is known to have attended dinner parties held by Mary and Charles in the 1820s. E. V. Lucas suggests that sometime in 1781 Charles left Mrs Reynolds and began to study at the Academy of William Bird.
His time with William Bird did not last long, however, because by October 1782 Lamb was enrolled in Christ's Hospital, a charity boarding school chartered by King Edward VI in 1553. A thorough record of Christ's Hospital is to be found in several essays by Lamb as well as The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt and the Biographia Literaria of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom Charles developed a friendship that would last for their entire lives. Despite the school's brutality, Lamb got along well there, due in part, perhaps, to the fact that his home was not far distant, thus enabling him, unlike many other boys, to return often to its safety. Years later, in his essay "Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago", Lamb described these events, speaking of himself in the third person as "L".
"I remember L. at school; and can well recollect that he had some peculiar advantages, which I and other of his schoolfellows had not. His friends lived in town, and were near at hand; and he had the privilege of going to see them, almost as often as he wished, through some invidious distinction, which was denied to us."
Christ's Hospital was a typical English boarding school and many students later wrote of the terrible violence they suffered there. The upper master (i.e. principal or headteacher) of the school from 1778 to 1799 was Reverend James Boyer, a man renowned for his unpredictable and capricious temper. In one famous story Boyer was said to have knocked one of Leigh Hunt's teeth out by throwing a copy of Homer at him from across the room. Lamb seemed to have escaped much of this brutality, in part because of his amiable personality and in part because Samuel Salt, his father's employer and Lamb's sponsor at the school, was one of the institute's governors.
Charles Lamb suffered from a stutter and this "inconquerable impediment" in his speech deprived him of Grecian status at Christ's Hospital, thus disqualifying him for a clerical career. While Coleridge and other scholarly boys were able to go on to Cambridge, Lamb left school at fourteen and was forced to find a more prosaic career. For a short time he worked in the office of Joseph Paice, a London merchant, and then, for 23 weeks, until 8 February 1792, held a small post in the Examiner's Office of the South Sea House. Its subsequent downfall in a pyramid scheme after Lamb left (the South Sea Bubble) would be contrasted to the company's prosperity in the first Elia essay. On 5 April 1792 he went to work in the Accountant's Office for the British East India Company, the death of his father's employer having ruined the family's fortunes. Charles would continue to work there for 25 years, until his retirement with pension (the "superannuation" he refers to in the title of one essay).
In 1792 while tending to his grandmother, Mary Field, in Hertfordshire, Charles Lamb fell in love with a young woman named Ann Simmons. Although no epistolary record exists of the relationship between the two, Lamb seems to have spent years wooing her. The record of the love exists in several accounts of Lamb's writing. "Rosamund Gray" is a story of a young man named Allen Clare who loves Rosamund Gray but their relationship comes to nothing because of her sudden death. Miss Simmons also appears in several Elia essays under the name "Alice M". The essays "Dream Children", "New Year's Eve", and several others, speak of the many years that Lamb spent pursuing his love that ultimately failed. Miss Simmons eventually went on to marry a silversmith and Lamb called the failure of the affair his "great disappointment".
Both Charles and his sister Mary suffered a period of mental illness. As he himself confessed in a letter, Charles spent six weeks in a mental facility during 1795, at the time while he was already making his name as a poet:
Coleridge, I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol. My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told. My Sonnets I have extended to the number of nine since I saw you, and will some day communicate to you.
— Lamb to Coleridge; 27 May 1796.
However, Mary Lamb's illness was particularly strong, and it led her to become aggressive on a fatal occasion. On 22 September 1796, while preparing dinner, Mary became angry with her apprentice, roughly shoving the little girl out of her way and pushing her into another room. Her mother, Elizabeth, began yelling at her for this, and Mary suffered a mental breakdown as her mother continued yelling at her. A terrible event occurred: she took the kitchen knife she had been holding, unsheathed it, and approached her mother, who was sitting down. Mary, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night", was seized with acute mania and stabbed her mother in the heart with a table knife. Charles ran into the house soon after the murder and took the knife out of Mary's hand.
Later in the evening, Charles found a local place for Mary in a private mental facility called Fisher House, which had been found with the help of a doctor friend of his. While reports were published by the media, Charles wrote a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in connection to the matricide:
MY dearest friend — White or some of my friends or the public papers by this time may have informed you of the terrible calamities that have fallen on our family. I will only give you the outlines. My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad house, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses, — I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. Mr Norris of the Bluecoat school has been very very kind to us, and we have no other friend, but thank God I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write, —as religious a letter as possible— but no mention of what is gone and done with. —With me "the former things are passed away," and I have something more to do that [than] to feel. God almighty have us all in his keeping.
— Lamb to Coleridge. 27 September 1796
Charles took over responsibility for Mary after refusing his brother John's suggestion that they have her committed to a public lunatic asylum. Lamb used a large part of his relatively meagre income to keep his beloved sister in the private "madhouse" in Islington. With the help of friends, Lamb succeeded in obtaining his sister's release from what would otherwise have been lifelong imprisonment. Although there was no legal status of "insanity" at the time, the jury returned the verdict of "lunacy" which was how she was freed from guilt of willful murder, on the condition that Charles take personal responsibility for her safekeeping.
The 1799 death of John Lamb was something of a relief to Charles because his father had been mentally incapacitated for a number of years since suffering a stroke. The death of his father also meant that Mary could come to live again with him in Pentonville, and in 1800 they set up a shared home at Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple, where they would live until 1809.
In 1800, Mary's illness came back and Charles had to take her back again to the asylum, probably Bethlehem Hospital. In those days, Charles sent a letter to Coleridge, in which he admitted he felt melancholic and lonely, "almost wishing that Mary were dead."
Later she would come back, and both he and his sister would enjoy an active and rich social life. Their London quarters became a kind of weekly salon for many of the most outstanding theatrical and literary figures of the day. In 1869, a club, The Lambs, was formed in London to carry on their salon tradition. The actor Henry James Montague founded the club's New York counterpart in 1874. 
Charles Lamb, having been to school with Samuel Coleridge, counted Coleridge as perhaps his closest, and certainly his oldest, friend. On his deathbed, Coleridge had a mourning ring sent to Lamb and his sister. Fortuitously, Lamb's first publication was in 1796, when four sonnets by "Mr Charles Lamb of the India House" appeared in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects. In 1797 he contributed additional blank verse to the second edition, and met the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, on his short summer holiday with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, thereby also striking up a lifelong friendship with William. In London, Lamb became familiar with a group of young writers who favoured political reform, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt.
Lamb continued to clerk for the East India Company and doubled as a writer in various genres, his tragedy, John Woodvil, being published in 1802. His farce, Mr H, was performed at Drury Lane in 1807, where it was roundly booed. In the same year, Tales from Shakespeare (Charles handled the tragedies; his sister Mary, the comedies) was published, and became a best seller for William Godwin's "Children's Library".
On 20 July 1819, at age 44, Lamb, who, because of family commitments, had never married, fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, of Covent Garden, and besides writing her a sonnet he also proposed marriage. She refused him, and he died a bachelor.
His collected essays, under the title Essays of Elia, were published in 1823 ("Elia" being the pen name Lamb used as a contributor to The London Magazine).
The Essays of Elia would be criticised in the Quarterly Review (January, 1823) by Robert Southey, who thought its author to be irreligious. When Charles read the review, entitled "The Progress of Infidelity", he was filled with indignation, and wrote a letter to his friend Bernard Barton, where Lamb declared he hated the review, and emphasised that his words "meant no harm to religion". First, Lamb did not want to retort, since he actually admired Southey; but later he felt the need to write a letter "Elia to Southey", in which he complained and expressed that the fact that he was a dissenter of the Church, did not make him an irreligious man. The letter would be published in The London Magazine, on October, 1823:
Rightly taken, Sir, that Paper was not against Graces, but Want of Grace; not against the ceremony, but the carelessness and slovenliness so often observed in the performance of it. . . You have never ridiculed, I believe, what you thought to be religion, but you are always girding at what some pious, but perhaps mistaken folks, think to be so.
— Charles Lamb, "Letter of Elia to Robert Southey, Esquire"
A further collection called The Last Essays of Elia was published in 1833, shortly before Lamb's death. Also, in 1834, Samuel Coleridge died. The funeral was confined only to the family of the writer, so Lamb was prevented from attending and only wrote a letter to Rev. James Gilman, a very close [word missing], expressing his condolences.
He died of a streptococcal infection, erysipelas, contracted from a minor graze on his face sustained after slipping in the street, on 27 December 1834. He was 59. From 1833 till their deaths, Charles and Mary lived at Bay Cottage, Church Street, Edmonton, north of London (now part of the London Borough of Enfield). Lamb is buried in All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton. His sister, who was ten years his senior, survived him for more than a dozen years. She is buried beside him.
Lamb's first publication was the inclusion of four sonnets in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1796 by Joseph Cottle. The sonnets were significantly influenced by the poems of Burns and the sonnets of William Bowles, a largely forgotten poet of the late 18th century. Lamb's poems garnered little attention and are seldom read today. As he himself came to realise, he was a much more talented prose stylist than poet. Indeed, one of the most celebrated poets of the day—William Wordsworth—wrote to John Scott as early as 1815 that Lamb "writes prose exquisitely"—and this was five years before Lamb began TheEssays of Elia for which he is now most famous.
Notwithstanding, Lamb's contributions to Coleridge's second edition of the Poems on Various Subjects showed significant growth as a poet. These poems included The Tomb of Douglas and A Vision of Repentance. Because of a temporary fallout with Coleridge, Lamb's poems were to be excluded in the third edition of the Poems though as it turned out a third edition never emerged. Instead, Coleridge's next publication was the monumentally influential Lyrical Ballads co-published with Wordsworth. Lamb, on the other hand, published a book entitled Blank Verse with Charles Lloyd, the mentally unstable son of the founder of Lloyds Bank. Lamb's most famous poem was written at this time and entitled The Old Familiar Faces. Like most of Lamb's poems, it is unabashedly sentimental, and perhaps for this reason it is still remembered and widely read today, being often included in anthologies of British and Romantic period poetry. Of particular interest to Lambarians is the opening verse of the original version of The Old Familiar Faces, which is concerned with Lamb's mother, whom Mary Lamb killed. It was a verse that Lamb chose to remove from the edition of his Collected Work published in 1818:
I had a mother, but she died, and left me,
Died prematurely in a day of horrors -All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
In the final years of the 18th century, Lamb began to work on prose, first in a novella entitled Rosamund Gray, which tells the story of a young girl whose character is thought to be based on Ann Simmons, an early love interest. Although the story is not particularly successful as a narrative because of Lamb's poor sense of plot, it was well thought of by Lamb's contemporaries and led Shelley to observe, "what a lovely thing is Rosamund Gray! How much knowledge of the sweetest part of our nature in it!" (Quoted in Barnett, page 50)
In the first years of the 19th century, Lamb began a fruitful literary cooperation with his sister Mary. Together they wrote at least three books for William Godwin’s Juvenile Library. The most successful of these was Tales From Shakespeare, which ran through two editions for Godwin and has been published dozens of times in countless editions ever since. The book contains artful prose summaries of some of Shakespeare's most well-loved works. According to Lamb, he worked primarily on Shakespeare's tragedies, while Mary focused mainly on the comedies.
Lamb's essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation", which was originally published in the Reflector in 1811 with the title "On Garrick, and Acting; and the Plays of Shakspeare, considered with reference to their fitness for Stage Representation", has often been taken as the ultimate Romantic dismissal of the theatre. In the essay, Lamb argues that Shakespeare should be read, rather than performed, in order to protect Shakespeare from butchering by mass commercial performances. While the essay certainly criticises contemporary stage practice, it also develops a more complex reflection on the possibility of representing Shakespearean dramas:
Shakespeare’s dramas are for Lamb the object of a complex cognitive process that does not require sensible data, but only imaginative elements that are suggestively elicited by words. In the altered state of consciousness that the dreamlike experience of reading stands for, Lamb can see Shakespeare’s own conceptions mentally materialized.
Besides contributing to Shakespeare's reception with his and his sister's book Tales From Shakespeare, Lamb also contributed to the recovery of acquaintance with Shakespeare's contemporaries. Accelerating the increasing interest of the time in the older writers, and building for himself a reputation as an antiquarian, in 1808 Lamb compiled a collection of extracts from the old dramatists, Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare. This also contained critical "characters" of the old writers, which added to the flow of significant literary criticism, primarily of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, from Lamb's pen. Immersion in seventeenth-century authors, such as Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, also changed the way Lamb wrote, adding a distinct flavour to his writing style. Lamb's friend, the essayist William Hazlitt, thus characterised him: "Mr. Lamb ... does not march boldly along with the crowd .... He prefers bye-ways to highways. When the full tide of human life pours along to some festive show, to some pageant of a day, Elia would stand on one side to look over an old book-stall, or stroll down some deserted pathway in search of a pensive description over a tottering doorway, or some quaint device in architecture, illustrative of embryo art and ancient manners. Mr. Lamb has the very soul of an antiquarian ...."
Although he did not write his first Elia essay until 1820, Lamb’s gradual perfection of the essay form for which he eventually became famous began as early as 1811 in a series of open letters to Leigh Hunt’s Reflector. The most famous of these early essays is The Londoner, in which Lamb famously derides the contemporary fascination with nature and the countryside. He would continue to fine-tune his craft, experimenting with different essayistic voices and personae, for the better part of the next quarter century.
It has been pointed out that spirituality played an important role in Lamb's personal life, and that, although he was not a churchman, and disliked organised religion, he yet "sought consolation in religion," as shown by letters to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Bernard Barton, in which he described the New Testament as his "best guide" for life, and where he talked about how he used to read the Psalms for one or two hours without getting tired. Other papers have also dealt with his Christian beliefs. As his friend Samuel Coleridge, Lamb was sympathetic to PriestleyanUnitarianism and was a dissenter, yet, he was described by Coleridge himself as one whose "faith in Jesus ha[d] been preserved" even after the family tragedy. Wordsworth also described him as a firm Christian in the poem Written After the Death of Charles Lamb. Alfred Ainger, in his work Charles Lamb, writes that Lamb's religion had become "an habit".
The poems "On The Lord's Prayer", "A Vision Of Repentance", "The Young Catechist", "Composed at Midnight", "Suffer Little Children, And Forbid Them Not, To Come Unto Me", "Written a twelvemonth after the Events", "Charity", "Sonnet To A Friend" and "David" reflect much about Lamb's faith, whereas the poem "Living Without God In The World" has been called a "poetic attack" to unbelief, in which Lamb expresses his disgust for atheism attributing its nature to pride.
Anne Fadiman notes regretfully that Lamb is not widely read in modern times: "I do not understand why so few other readers are clamoring for his company... [he] is kept alive largely through the tenuous resuscitations of university English departments".
Notwithstanding, there has always been a small but enduring following for Lamb's works, as the long-running and still-active Charles Lamb Bulletin demonstrates. Because of his notoriously quirky, even bizarre, style, he has been more of a "cult favorite" than an author with mass popular or scholarly appeal.
Lamb was honoured by The Latymer School, a grammar school in Edmonton, a suburb of London where he lived for a time; it has six houses, one of which, "Lamb", is named after Charles.
William Wordsworth composed an epitaph-poem "Written After The Death Of Charles Lamb" (1835; 1836), in which he exalts the moral character of his friend. Sir Edward Elgar titled an orchestral work "Dream Children" having in mind Lamb's essay of that name.
- "But, then, in every species of reading, so much depends upon the eyes of the reader..." – From Lamb's essay "On the Danger of Confounding Moral with Personal Deformity"
- "He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested. Hence not many persons of science, and few professed literati, were of his councils. They were, for the most part, persons of an uncertain fortune; ... his intimados, to confess a truth, were, in the world's eyes, a ragged regiment. He found them floating on the surface of society; and the colour, or something else, in the weed, pleased him...He never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people." – From Lamb's essay "A Character of the Late Elia"
- "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." – From Lamb's essay The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple; features in the preface of To Kill a Mockingbird
- "Man is a gaming animal. He must always be trying to get the better in something or other." – features in the Essays of Elia (1823)
- Blank Verse, poetry, 1798
- A Tale of Rosamund Gray, and old blind Margaret, 1798
- John Woodvil, poetic drama, 1802
- Tales from Shakespeare, 1807
- The Adventures of Ulysses, 1808
- Specimens of English Dramatic poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, 1808
- On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, 1811
- Witches and Other Night Fears, 1821
- The Pawnbroker's Daughter, 1825
- Eliana, 1867
- Essays of Elia, 1823
- The Last Essays of Elia, 1833
- ^Lucas, Edward Verrall; Lamb, John (1905). The life of Charles Lamb. 1. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. xvii. OCLC 361094.
- ^Last Essays of Elia page 7
- ^Lucas, Life of Lamb page 41
- ^The Essays of Elia page 23
- ^Works of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb. Letter 1, 1976.
- ^As quoted in Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Letters (1905).
- ^Letter to S. T. Coleridge. Monday, 12 May 1800.
- ^History of The Lambs
- ^Charles Kent, ‘Kelly, Frances Maria (1790–1882)’, rev. J. Gilliland, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 18 Nov 2014
- ^"Commentary: Charles Lamb on Robert Southey".
- ^Literary EnfieldArchived 13 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 4 June 2008
- ^James, Felicity. Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.50.
- ^Liberto, Fabio. "Visions, Dreams and Reality: Charles Lamb and the Inward ‘Topography’ of Shakespeare’s Plays". In The Languages of Performance in British Romanticism. Peter Lang, 2008, p.156.
- ^Cecil, David. A Portrait of Charles Lamb. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983, pp. 130–1.
- ^Barnett, George L. Charles Lamb: The Evolution of Elia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 200–14.
- ^Hazlitt, William. "Elia, and Geoffrey Crayon", The Spirit of the Age, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, vol. 11, P. P. Howe, ed. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1932, pp. 178–79.
- ^Biography: Charles Lamb 1775–1834, The Poetry Foundation:
- ^The Open Court Publishing Company, 1923, "The Religious Opinions of Charles Lamb;" by Dudley Wright. No. 810, the Religion of Science, and the Extension of the Religious Parliament Idea.
- ^Works of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb (2010), MobileReference. ISBN 1607787598, 9781607787594: ""His great, and indeed infinite reverence, nevertheless, for Christ is shown in his own Christian virtues and in constant expressions of reverence."
- ^E.V. Lucas. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, Volume 2
- ^CHARLES LAMB (1775–1834). The Charles Lamb Society.
- ^In it, Wordsworth wrote of Lamb: "From the most gentle creature nursed in fields / Had been derived the name he bore— a name, / Wherever Christian altars have been raised,/ Hallowed to meekness and to innocence
- ^Jeremy Black (2007), "Culture in Eighteenth-Century England: A Subject for Taste, Continuum, p.97
- ^Charles Lamb Society (1997), "The Charles Lamb Bulletin", Números 97-104
- ^Fadiman, Anne. "The Unfuzzy Lamb". At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. pp. 26–27.
- ^"Latymer School - Lamb House". Latymer School. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
- ^William Wordsworth (1904), "The complete poetical works of William Wordsworth", Houghton, Mifflin & Co., p. 734
- Life of Charles Lamb by E.V. Lucas, G.P. Putman & Sons, London, 1905.
- Charles Lamb and the Lloyds by E.V. Lucas Smith, Elder & Company, London, 1898.
- Charles Lamb and His Contemporaries, by Edmund Blunden, Cambridge University Press, 1933.
- Companion to Charles Lamb, by Claude Prance, Mansell Publishing, London, 1938.
- Charles Lamb; A Memoir, by Barry Cornwall aka Bryan Procter, Edward Moxon, London, 1866.
- Young Charles Lamb, by Winifred Courtney, New York University Press, 1982.
- Portrait of Charles Lamb, by David Cecil, Constable, London, 1983.
- Charles Lamb, by George Barnett, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1976.
- A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb by Sarah Burton, Viking, 1993.
- The Lambs: Their Lives, Their Friends, and Their Correspondence by William Carew Hazlitt, C. Scribner's Sons, 1897.
It was online that I first read Gay and Jamison (who has since become a Bookends columnist), and it’s online that I’ve done most of my essay reading in recent years, discovering and sharing work by writers both new and already known to me. In this insular yet influential milieu — where the measure of success has nothing to do with book deals or best-seller lists but is quite simply many people posting a link preceded by a sentiment along the lines of You have to read this — the personal essay is king. Online, any number of women essayists have found, if not fame, at least a fervent following of the sort that would be hard to imagine happening elsewhere. Among even the noblest publishers, essay collections are generally as popular as a kid with head lice at a slumber party, thanks to the oft-repeated mantra that essay collections don’t sell. Never mind Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Alice Walker, Nora Ephron, Annie Dillard, Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Zadie Smith and Sarah Vowell, among many others — and I haven’t even mentioned all the men essayists — whose collections definitely sell in spite of the fact that they aren’t supposed to. (I also wonder about the maddening chicken-and-egg situation of those essay collections not made available for sale because, well, they “don’t sell.”)
When I saw “The Empathy Exams” appear on the best-seller list in April and “Bad Feminist” appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world. By which I mean a whole lot of people went out and bought books by authors they probably wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for the Internet. If we’re in a golden age of anything, I’d say it’s that: a slightly more democratic route for essayists of both sexes to get themselves on the literary map.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, will be released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.
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By Benjamin Moser
Much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not.
“Above all, they thought of women as ‘we,’ ” Carolyn Heilbrun wrote of the poets — Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich — born between the wars. Would Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, Maya Angelou, Janet Malcolm — essayists of roughly the same generation — agree even to be described as “women essayists”? The adjective “women,” after all, so often places them in quarantine, suggesting, in Clarice Lispector’s words, “a closed community, separate, and in some sense segregated.”
If these writers thought of women as “we” — surely none thought of women as “them” — they rarely agreed on what, beyond biology, that meant. Biology was the starting point for what the French feminist Hélène Cixous called l’écriture féminine, and Rich urged women to “begin, at last, to think through the body.” Others feared that writing too explicitly as women would mean erecting a ghetto wall. Unwilling to brick themselves into traditional subjects like education, romance, motherhood and fashion, they tried to carry on as if sex didn’t really matter. “I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman,” Sontag had one of her characters confess. “Thus do all women, including the author of this book.”
But what did it mean to be honest about how complicated it is to be a woman? What, besides a sex, did women share? As only Jews announce that they aren’t really that Jewish, only women announce that their sex is irrelevant. But in artistic matters, it is disagreement rather than agreement — texts and their responses — that lay out territory, that make up a tradition. And the creation of a tradition where there was none before is the great legacy of the women essayists born between the wars.
This tradition came to life with all the energy of a people freed from a ghetto. In 1929, the year Adrienne Rich was born, Virginia Woolf could still ask: “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” As if on cue, essays by Rebecca West, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt began pouring forth. It was a start, but not yet a tradition: Carolyn Heilbrun, born in 1926, titled her intellectual memoir “When Men Were the Only Models We Had.”
No essayist young enough to be Heilbrun’s granddaughter could say the same. If entering a golden age means stumbling forth from a desolate medievalism, the successors of Sontag and Didion have a high bar to clear. But the good thing about having such illustrious predecessors is that they don’t have to try. Tradition, like grammar, is something that exists for a writer to rubbish or pervert, elevate or refine; it lays out paths of expression but does not confine its users to them. It is a great conquest of feminism that women writers today no longer have to write as women. That does not mean writing as men; it means writing as writers.
But if the feminist revolution was a movement for individual liberation (“the poet’s heart”), it was also, like the gay and black revolutions to which it was intimately connected, a movement for social justice: for “women as ‘we.’ ” Barriers have fallen, and much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not. With its thicket of allusions and the expensive education required to grasp them, the essay has largely been a bourgeois form. It doesn’t have to be. A generation might prove itself worthy of those predecessors who opened the genre to women by opening it to more people, women and men, black and white, gay or straight, who didn’t go to Harvard, who never took a seminar on l’écriture féminine.
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,”a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine,he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.Continue reading the main story