The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Seven

Life of a Pedagogue — Kindness to Schoolboys — Pertness in Return — Expensive Charities — The Griffiths and The “Monthly Review”— Toils of a Literary Hack — Rupture with the Griffiths

Among the most cordial of Goldsmith’s intimates in London during this time of precarious struggle were certain of his former fellow-students in Edinburgh. One of these was the son of a Dr. Milner, a dissenting minister, who kept a classical school of eminence at Peckham, in Surrey. Young Milner had a favorable opinion of Goldsmith’s abilities and attainments, and cherished for him that good will which his genial nature seems ever to have inspired among his school and college associates. His father falling ill, the young man negotiated with Goldsmith to take temporary charge of the school. The latter readily consented; for he was discouraged by the slow growth of medical reputation and practice, and as yet had no confidence in the coy smiles of the muse. Laying by his wig and cane, therefore, and once more wielding the ferule, he resumed the character of the pedagogue, and for some time reigned as vicegerent over the academy at Peckham. He appears to have been well treated by both Dr. Milner and his wife, and became a favorite with the scholars from his easy, indulgent good nature. He mingled in their sports, told them droll stories, played on the flute for their amusement, and spent his money in treating them to sweetmeats and other schoolboy dainties. His familiarity was sometimes carried too far; he indulged in boyish pranks and practical jokes, and drew upon himself retorts in kind, which, however, he bore with great good humor. Once, indeed, he was touched to the quick by a piece of schoolboy pertness. After playing on the flute, he spoke with enthusiasm of music, as delightful in itself, and as a valuable accomplishment for a gentleman, whereupon a youngster, with a glance at his ungainly person, wished to know if he considered himself a gentleman. Poor Goldsmith, feelingly alive to the awkwardness of his appearance and the humility of his situation, winced at this unthinking sneer, which long rankled in his mind.

As usual, while in Dr. Milner’s employ, his benevolent feelings were a heavy tax upon his purse, for he never could resist a tale of distress, and was apt to be fleeced by every sturdy beggar; so that, between his charity and his munificence, he was generally in advance of his slender salary. “You had better, Mr. Goldsmith, let me take care of your money,” said Mrs. Milner one day, “as I do for some of the young gentlemen.”—“In truth, madam, there is equal need!” was the good-humored reply.

Dr. Milner was a man of some literary pretensions, and wrote occasionally for the “Monthly Review,” of which a bookseller, by the name of Griffiths, was proprietor. This work was an advocate for Whig principles, and had been in prosperous existence for nearly eight years. Of late, however, periodicals had multiplied exceedingly, and a formidable Tory rival had started up in the “Critical Review,” published by Archibald Hamilton, a bookseller, and aided by the powerful and popular pen of Dr. Smollett. Griffiths was obliged to recruit his forces. While so doing he met Goldsmith, a humble occupant of a seat at Dr. Milner’s table, and was struck with remarks on men and books which fell from him in the course of conversation. He took occasion to sound him privately as to his inclination and capacity as a reviewer, and was furnished by him with specimens of his literary and critical talents. They proved satisfactory. The consequence was that Goldsmith once more changed his mode of life, and in April, 1757, became a contributor to the “Monthly Review,” at a small fixed salary, with board and lodging, and accordingly took up his abode with Mr. Griffiths, at the sign of the Dunciad, Paternoster Row. As usual we trace this phase of his fortunes in his semi-fictitious writings; his sudden transmutation of the pedagogue into the author being humorously set forth in the case of “George Primrose,” in the Vicar of “Wakefield.” “Come,” says George’s adviser, “I see you are a lad of spirit and some learning; what do you think of commencing author like me? You have read in books, no doubt, of men of genius starving at the trade; at present I’ll show you forty very dull fellows about town that live by it in opulence. All honest, jog-trot men, who go on smoothly and dully, and write history and politics, and are praised: men, sir, who, had they been bred cobblers, would all their lives only have mended shoes, but never made them.” “Finding” (says George) “that there is no great degree of gentility affixed to the character of an usher, I resolved to accept his proposal; and having the highest respect for literature, hailed the antiqua mater of Grub Street with reverence. I thought it my glory to pursue a track which Dryden and Otway trod before me. Alas, Dryden struggled with indigence all his days; and Otway, it is said, fell a victim to famine in his thirty-fifth year, being strangled by a roll of bread, which he devoured with the voracity of a starving man.”

In Goldsmith’s experience the track soon proved a thorny one. Griffiths was a hard business man, of shrewd, worldly good sense, but little refinement or cultivation. He meddled, or rather muddled with literature, too, in a business way, altering and modifying occasionally the writings of his contributors, and in this he was aided by his wife, who, according to Smollett, was “an antiquated female critic and a dabbler in the ‘Review.’” Such was the literary vassalage to which Goldsmith had unwarily subjected himself. A diurnal drudgery was imposed on him, irksome to his indolent habits, and attended by circumstances humiliating to his pride. He had to write daily from nine o’clock until two, and often throughout the day; whether in the vein or not, and on subjects dictated by his taskmaster, however foreign to his taste; in a word, he was treated as a mere literary hack. But this was not the worst; it was the critical supervision of Griffiths and his wife which grieved him: the “illiterate, bookselling Griffiths,” as Smollett called them, “who presumed to revise, alter, and amend the articles contributed to their ‘Review.’ Thank heaven,” crowed Smollett, “the ‘Critical Review’ is not written under the restraint of a bookseller and his wife. Its principal writers are independent of each other, unconnected with booksellers, and unawed by old women!”

This literary vassalage, however, did not last long. The bookseller became more and more exacting. He accused his hack writer of idleness; of abandoning his writing-desk and literary workshop at an early hour of the day; and of assuming a tone and manner above his situation. Goldsmith, in return, charged him with impertinence; his wife with meanness and parsimony in her household treatment of him, and both of literary meddling and marring. The engagement was broken off at the end of five months, by mutual consent, and without any violent rupture, as it will be found they afterward had occasional dealings with each other.

Though Goldsmith was now nearly thirty years of age, he had produced nothing to give him a decided reputation. He was as yet a mere writer for bread. The articles he had contributed to the “Review” were anonymous, and were never avowed by him. They have since been, for the most part, ascertained; and though thrown off hastily, often treating on subjects of temporary interest, and marred by the Griffith interpolations, they are still characterized by his sound, easy, good sense, and the genial graces of his style. Johnson observed that Goldsmith’s genius flowered late; he should have said it flowered early, but was late in bringing its fruit to maturity.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38