I first encountered the work of Charles Lamb in high school when a teacher saw fit to forego the prevailing trend of sidestepping essays for poetry, bravely giving equal weight to Lamb and Coleridge. Despite her best efforts I dismissed Lamb’s work, or perhaps failed to ever acknowledge it at all, in part due to an exploding interest in fiction – novels specifically, which made essays seem too plain, too matter-of-fact – but mostly due to adolescence. She presented the class with Lamb’s ‘Dream Children’, a bachelor’s semi-fictional reflection on the life that he had narrowly missed and the many ways that love had failed him. It was too soon for me to connect with the intense desire for children evidenced in his narrator’s conjuring of ghostly children that never were, or the pangs of unrequited love that inspired his references to an elusive and unattainable Alice; and because I had yet to witness the last breath of a loved one, I rolled past Lamb’s mention of his deceased brother John without a thought. The essay was a class assignment, and after school I abandoned any thought of it and moved on to sexier stuff – modern American novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, borrowed from my father’s shelves when he was out working the night shift as a firefighter.
It wasn’t until many years later, with high school and college behind me, that I was again faced with Lamb’s work, struck by the opening line of the very same essay that I had ignored years earlier – ‘Children love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle or grandame, whom they never saw.’ Stung because it poked at the sorespot of my too-late desire to know my grandmother better.
My father and I had set out to examine a box of her belongings which had sat idle beneath our piano bench since she left us some time earlier. We had found a small notebook containing notes from a bicycle trip that she had taken as a young woman, consisting primarily of a list of foods that she had consumed along the way; the programme from her wedding; the patent for an early model crank-out window invented by her father; sheet music for a song called Yankee Boy and other patriotic ditties (also created by her father) printed by the Success Music Company; and a photograph of a young John F. Kennedy shaking hands with a spectacled man, with a young woman bearing my grandmother’s features centered just behind the border of their arms, her head thrown back in irreverent laughter. At the bottom of the box was the most valuable item – a copy of her high school literary magazine from 1934, which contained an essay that she had written entitled ‘Still a Place for Dreams’. Sandwiched between a classmate’s thoughts on Zionism and a poem about balloons, it spoke about the necessity of cultivating one’s dreams in a world ‘too busy to enjoy beauty of thought.’ In the course of her argument, she referenced only three personalities who were meant to provide a substantial example of the power of dreaming: Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, and Charles Lamb. Wondering about her choice of Lamb (whom she had gone so far as to call ‘the most beloved and most pathetic figure in all literary history’), I set out to find a copy of The Essays of Elia. There were no copies in local American bookstores, and the only copies that were available for order online were mildewed and stained with brittle brown pages. I bought one – a Random House edition printed the year after my grandmother had put pen to paper.
I was surprised to find the same kind of essays that now dominate contemporary web and print culture – personal, entertaining, concise (and, therefore, portable) musings with no need for any introduction. Minus the thees and thous, essays like ‘A Dissertation upon Roast Pig’ and ‘A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People’ could easily find a place at McSweeney’s, while ‘A Complaint on the Decay of Beggars’ and ‘Grace before Meat’ would be as much at home at Granta or The New Yorker as in the pages of London Magazine, where they originally appeared. And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of Lamb’s influence on contemporary writing, the nineteenth-century superstar has been largely ignored and mostly forgotten.
I would attribute this to a single fatal characteristic, one which I had recognized as a teenager – namely, an undisguised relish for the most ordinary details of life. In fact, Lamb has devoted greater attention to these details than most, writing with candour and humour about acquaintances and schoolmates, places of employment, books, and even squirrels. One could easily get lost in the entertainment of his pieces, dismiss them because of their easiness, their exchangeability with what we read today if it weren’t for essays such as ‘Dream Children’ and ‘New Year’s Eve’, an essay that I discovered only after I had watched someone take their final breath, the vision repeating itself morbidly in my imagination for weeks. It was then that I came to the only page of The Essays of Elia where the corner had been turned down not once, but twice by previous owners, where finally Lamb does more than any other author to convince us that these ordinary details are important when he speaks of his disdain for death, his inability to face it, his refusal to face it, and confesses simply, ‘I am in love with this green earth.’ Reason enough to give Lamb another look.