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GREATEST OF THE HUMORISTS
N spite of De Quincey's declaration that
literary excellencies were too fine and exquisite for that, Lamb has proved to be the most popular essayist who ever wrote the English language. Though the sum total of his good work is very small, his position is as secure as that of any writer since Shakespeare.
Though Lamb may be compared to Addison at his best; to Goldsmith, who had much of the same overflowing love in his character and is all but as fondly loved as Lamb himself; to Thackeray, who always was a man of love and the humor of love, still Charles Lamb stands unique, unimitated and inimitable.
The only way in which we can understand Lamb is in the light of his personal history. His father was all his life a servant in the family of a Mr. Salt, a barrister. As a reward for faithful services on the part of the father, Charles Lamb the son was sent to the famous London school of Christ's Hospital, where he came into contact with Coleridge. From Christ's Hospital Coleridge went to Oxford, and Lamb to be a clerk in the South Sea House. Later he was transferred to the India House, from the directors of which corporation he drew a salary until he died, a period of nearly forty years.
Soon after he entered the India House, when Lamb was twenty-one, his sister Mary, ten years his senior, in a passing fit of insanity, killed her mother with a table knife. Soon after, their father died. Charles was attached to a young lady whom he hoped to marry; but he gave up his prospect in this direction, and devoted his entire life to his sister. She was confined in an asylum for a time, but soon recovered her sanity and was released upon her brother's making himself personally responsible for her. Her attacks of insanity returned many times; but she herself could feel them coming, and we read of their going hand in hand across the fields to Hoxton (the asylum). Charles himself was confined in an asylum for six weeks.
As an antidote to the blues, and an offset to the deathlike cloud always hanging over him, Lamb gathered many friends about him, and engaged in regular correspondence with some of the best known literary characters of his day. As his clerical duties did not begin until ten o'clock, and ended at four, he had considerable leisure to study and cultivate his friends. He wrote some verses that were published in a volume with Coleridge's, and composed two dramatic pieces,
which were unsuccessful. With his sister he rewrote some of Shakespeare's plays in the form of tales for children, and that book alone of his earlier efforts has become popular. He did some editing when he was about thirty-three, after which he lapsed into literary silence for twelve years. Finally, at the age of forty-five, just five years before he was to retire from the India House on a pension, he contributed to the “London Magazine," then just rehabilitated, a paper on “ The South Sea House," signing it “ Elia,"
the name of an Italian fellow-clerk of those days of twenty-five years before. The success of this paper brought forth the best of the other
Essays of Elia” within a period of three years. They were in effect Lamb's letters to his friends elaborated into permanent literary form; and Lamb's collected “Letters must stand on every bookshelf, side by side with “ Elia.”
Lamb's essays and letters are elaborate play, the foolery that best dispels the blue-devils with which all humanity is more or less afflicted. What he himself had found effective through a period of twenty-five years he kindly offers to us. The tragedy behind it all, in full view of which the essays were written, makes their foolishness sublime. If Lamb, by the recipe which he offers, could make his life successful and happy under the trying conditions which were forced upon him and which would certainly have wrecked a less truly noble character, what excuse have we