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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Isaac Disraeli (1766–1848)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AMONG the writers whose education and whose tastes were the outcome of the classicism of the eighteenth century, yet whose literary life lapped over into the Victorian epoch, was Isaac Disraeli, born at Enfield in May 1766. Disraeli was of Jewish origin, his ancestors having fled from the Spanish persecutions of the fifteenth century to find a home in Venice, whence a younger branch migrated to England.  1
  At the time of his birth his family had stood for generations among the foremost English Jews, his father having been made a citizen by special legislation. The boy, however, did not inherit the commercial spirit which had established his house. He was a lover of books and a dreamer of dreams, and so early developed literary tendencies that his frightened father sent him off to Amsterdam to school, in the hope of curing proclivities so dangerous. Here he became familiar with the works of the Encyclopædists, and adopted the theories of Rousseau. On returning to England in his nineteenth year, he replied to his father’s proposition that he should enter a commercial house at Bordeaux, by a long poem in which he passionately inveighed against the commercial spirit, and avowed himself a student of philosophy and letters. His father’s reluctant acquiescence was obtained at last through the good offices of the laureate Pye, to whom the youth had already dedicated his first book, ‘A Defence of Poetry.’  2
  At the outset of his career he found himself received with consideration by the men whose acquaintance he most desired. Following the fashion of the day, and inspired by the books of anecdotes so successfully published by his friend Douce, Disraeli in 1791 produced anonymously a small volume entitled ‘Curiosities of Literature,’ the copyright of which he magnanimously presented to his publisher. The extraordinary success of this book can be accounted for only by the curious taste of the time, which still reflected the more unworthy traditions of the Addisonian era. It was an age of clubs and tea-tables, of society scandal-mongering and fireside gossip; and the reading public welcomed a contribution whose refined dilettantism so well matched its own. The mysteries of Eleusis and the origin of wigs received the same grave attention. This popularity induced Disraeli to buy back the copyright at a generous valuation; he enlarged the work to five volumes, which passed through twelve in his own lifetime, and still serves to illustrate a curious literary phase.  3
  Other compilations of similar nature met the same success: ‘The Calamities of Authors,’ ‘Quarrels of Authors,’ and ‘Literary Recollections’; but the ‘Amenities of Literature,’ his last work, is the most purely literary in form, and affords perhaps the best index to Disraeli’s abilities as a writer. The reader of to-day, however, is struck by the ephemeral nature of this criticism, which yet by a curious literary experience is keeping a place among the permanent productions of its age. The reader is everywhere impressed by the human sympathy, by the wide if rather superficial knowledge, and by innumerable felicities of expression and style, which betray the cultivated mind. To lovers of the curious the books still appeal, and they will continue to hold an honorable place among the bric-a-brac of literature.  4
  The spirit of curiosity which characterized the mind of Disraeli assumed its most dignified concrete form in the ‘Commentaries on the Reign of Charles I.’ Disraeli had an artistic sense of the values in a historical picture, with a keen perception of the importance of side lights; and although the book is not a great contribution to the literature of history, yet it became popular, and in July 1832 earned for its author the degree of D. C. L. from Oxford.  5
  Disraeli’s romances were tedious tales, but his hold upon the public was secure, and the vast amount of miscellaneous matter which he published always found a delighted audience. ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ a philosophical inquiry into the historical significance of the permanence of the Jewish race, showed the author’s psychic limitations. He designed a history of English literature, for which he had gathered much material, but increasing blindness forced him to abandon it. Much of Disraeli’s popularity was unquestionably due to his qualities of heart. His nature was fine; he was an affectionate and devoted friend, and held an enviable position in the literary circles of the day. Campbell, Byron, Rogers, and Scott alike admired and loved him, while a host of lesser men eagerly sought his friendship.  6
  Although brought up in the Jewish faith, Disraeli affiliated early in life with the Church of England, in which his three sons and one daughter were baptized. He died in 1848, and was buried at Brandenham. Twenty years later his daughter-in-law, the Countess of Beaconsfield, erected at Hughenden a monument to his memory.  7
 
 
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