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Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street by Norma Clarke – Reviewed.

July 11, 2016


Reading this book will make you happy and you’ll learn a deal.

But cave emptor.  This is not so much a book about Oliver Goldsmith as a book which uses Oliver Goldsmith to organise a sequence of very lively and readable discussions of fellow Grub Street hacks.  This is a book about John Pilkington, Samuel Derrick and Edward Purdon, the desperate denizens of the Fleet whose lives Goldsmith’s own life did and did not resemble.

Michael Griffin’s recent book Enlightenment in Ruins, the Geographies of Oliver Goldsmith is far more focused and consistent in terms of its theorisation of Goldsmith’s sense of himself as an Irish expat. and I should say rather more about this shorter book at some point.  Clarke also wants to talk about Ireland, but does so in a somewhat occasional and unsystematic way.

Readable detail is Clarke’s great strength.  However, the question that is not really answered is “why Goldsmith”?  Why is it that Goldsmith became regarded as a literary heavyweight with considerable longevity while these other loveable scamps were consigned to footnotes?  Is it really down to happenstance, meeting the right people at the right time – or is there a decisive talent gap that raises Goldsmith’s scribblings deservedly above the herd?

And perhaps the book, by focusing so resolutely on “non canonical” authors ends up reinforcing the canon – from the outside.  The false hindsight of subsequent canonicity is always something to resist when trying to re-establish an experiential context.  However, the best means of doing this is to juxtapose a few more heavyweights alongside the lightweights – as it were – thus destabilising the scales of assumed merit.  Clarke’s Goldsmith is the Goldsmith who swam with Purdon and Pilkington rather than with Burke and Johnson.  But the point, of course, is that he swam with both.  Furthermore, the life story of someone like Samuel Johnson, the heaviest of all eighteenth-century heavyweights, had much in common with that of other desperate Grub Street writers.  Having read Clarke’s book, I remain confident that Johnson was Goldsmith’s most significant literary friend – and like Goldsmith, he knew Grub Street yet felt that he had had earned the right to comment upon it from a site of some detachment.

If Johnson’s tale had been told alongside Purdon and Pilkington’s, and in the same style, then the strange vicissitudes of eighteenth-century literary life would have been granted greater resonance. It could be argued that Johnson’s story has been told too often already – but the great merit of Clarke’s book is its accessibility and its capacity to reach people who don’t even work in eighteenth-century studies, people for whom the stories of the heavyweights could be instructively retold.  People I like to call “the others”.

Discussion of Goldsmith’s major works is rather truncated and belated and there is (for example) no discussion at all of Goldsmith’s Histories of Greece and Rome and England.  Johnson’s defense of Goldsmith’s status as a historian provokes fascinating arguments about the relationship between History and Literature – arguments which are well worth having.

In some ways, this book is precisely the kind of book that Goldsmith himself might not have appreciated, since it re-establishes him in a world that he never quite escaped yet constantly disavowed.  Clarke is convincing when it comes to treating the sophistication of Goldsmith self-fashioning, regarding his celebrated naive folly as a remunerative party piece.  So please buy this book, or order it for your library – and read it.  This is will not explain Oliver Goldsmith, but it will explain an Oliver Goldsmith.

But the big fat new book on Oliver Goldsmith, the book that the twenty first century needs and deserves, has yet to be published.   That’s a tantalising gap in the world of eighteenth century scholarship that is tragic and inspiring at one and the same time.


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