Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Tobias George Smollett (1721–1771)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Pitts Duffield (1869–1938)
SMOLLETT is probably one of the least “literary” of the names that live in English literature. For a long time, it is true, the critics took him over-seriously. The people who first had the task of writing his biography and estimating his genius set the example. There is an edition of his works in 1797, twenty-six years after his death, in which Dr. John Moore, before beginning the life of his subject, feels obliged to expend himself upon ‘A View of the Commencement and Progress of Romance.’ It is a dissertation which the eighteenth-century folks would have called “learned and ingenious.” It begins with a “contrast between the manners of the Greeks and Romans and those of the Goths,” examines the condition of knight-errantry in the Middle Age, postulates Prince Arthur and Charlemagne as the two original heroes of romance, touches upon the troubadours, Dante, Cervantes, and concludes with the products of Tobias Smollett. Subsequent writers, continuing the inquiries thus set on foot, have tried, though in vain, to ascribe to him some special contribution to letters, or some special importance in the evolution of the English novel. The fact is, that Smollett himself would have been the first to jeer at these attempts to deal scientifically with him. He might have exclaimed, as he makes some one do in ‘Humphrey Clinker,’ that he would as soon expect “to see the use of trunk-hose and buttered ale” deriving itself from the feudal system. Altogether, it is not hard to find reasons why his popularity survives most genuinely among people whose interests are uncritical and unliterary.  1
  For one thing, he is nothing if not typical of the English writers who, without the genius which invents or the subtler genius which makes old matter new, succeed nevertheless by the sheer force of their British vigor in gaining a place by their more laborious brothers. In all Smollett’s novels, where there is little anyway that is not external in its aspects and observations, one finds nothing which has not its origin in the actual experiences of his own life. Born in 1721 in Dalquhurn, in Dumbartonshire, of a good family but of a younger son, he was dependent all his life on what he could earn himself; and believing himself to be of a literary taste, he set out, after some education and an apprenticeship to a surgeon in Glasgow, upon the high-road to London. His tragedy, with which he had armed himself,—‘The Regicide,’ a story drawn from the powerful romance of Scottish history, but treated in the hopeless pseudo-classic manner,—came to nothing; and in 1741 he got an appointment as surgeon’s mate on one of the ships of the expedition to Carthagena. It was on this voyage that he met Miss Anne Lascelles, a reputed Jamaica heiress, whose name he characteristically converted into Nancy Lassells. Next, after unsuccessful attempts at practice in London and in Bath, he cooked up some of his adventures in ‘Roderick Random,’ and for the first time was fairly successful. ‘Peregrine Pickle,’ ‘Ferdinand, Count Fathom,’ a translation of ‘Don Quixote,’ the editorship of the Critical Review, his ‘History of England,’ ‘Sir Launcelot Greaves,’ and occasional poems and satires, were some of the means by which he sought subsistence. In the mean time he had traveled for his health in France and Italy; in 1771, soon after finishing ‘Humphrey Clinker,’ he died at Leghorn; and is celebrated there, and on the banks of the Leven in Scotland, by monuments with ponderous Latin epitaphs. One of the epitaphs is on the theme of genius unappreciated; and the life on the whole was indeed not happy. Macaulay is not much too rhetorical when he says Smollett was most of the time “surrounded by printers’ devils and famished scribblers.”  2
  It is from such company and such adventures—the same, be it noted, which are supposed to be valuable in the modern reporter’s stock in trade—that Smollett gets his distinguishing characteristic: a fund of coarse but lively humor. Dr. John Moore says somewhat mildly that “in the ardor of his satirical and humorous chase, Dr. Smollett sometimes leaves delicacy too far behind.” The frankest and healthiest way to state the question is to say that it is not a question of delicacy at all. A certain coarseness of fibre in the English, often their strength and not always their reproach, was first touched upon fearlessly by the shrewd and observant Hawthorne. What many brave or useful or wise men in many ages have seldom been completely without, can hardly be condemned in Smollett because with him it is undisguised. He had not the grace of the French, the specious pathos of Sterne, or the deliberate euphemism of the mawkish modern drama, to conceal the primal instincts of his nature. People have called Smollett foul; but this, in certain moods, may seem as wide of the mark as to call him simply indelicate. ‘The Adventures of an Atom’ are mentioned with a shudder when it is necessary to mention them at all, yet they are scarcely worse than the occasional conversation of very reputable medical students in all times. It may be questioned, finally, whether it is any hurt to a language to have nothing but specifically vulgar names for vulgar things, and so escape the deification of lubricity to which less robust nations commit themselves. Vigorous and outspoken, irreverent, and sometimes too high-tempered, Smollett is a pervading exemplar of the British humorist. He has indeed the scorn of affectation, which, in spite of his exclusion from any evolutionary scheme of things, may be regarded as one distinguishing trait of the modern funny man. His attitude toward the Venus de Medici and the Pantheon in Rome—which, in the case of the Venus at any rate, is after all not so very discordant with modern æsthetic appreciation—may be said, half in earnest, to stand for the kind of thing Mark Twain and others have done in our own day. “The Pantheon,” he declares, “after all that has been said of it, looks like a huge cockpit open at the top;” and the world of connoisseurs was in arms at once. Sterne satirized him as the “learned Smelfungus, who set out with the spleen and the jaundice.” But whether it was the jaundice or the spleen, the people who read Smollett—who are rarely the people who read only for the name of the thing—are just the ones to like him for being thoroughly, if a bit brutally, honest. People who read him to study him, moreover, may remember with advantage that it is just this direct and unaffected habit of expression that gives him his hold on life. Editions of his works have been numerous and handy; and many a reader who would yawn over more delicate tales, however seductive, finds himself diverted by his pages. “Since Granville was turned out,” he says, “there has been no minister in this nation worth the meal that whitened his periwig.” That is the way to say things for the average man, bent less on the speculations of art than on hearty sense. The coarseness, or the foulness, which people condemn in him, is perhaps the same at bottom with the instinct that makes his style to-day still readable and vigorous.  3
  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Sir Walter Scott—both interesting critics—have made what later critics call the mistake of crediting Smollett with the gift of invention. Lady Mary was perhaps the more excusable, since the extraordinary variety of incident in his novels could not have been known to her to be transcripts from the man’s life. The language and the characters of British seamen and surgeons’ apprentices—the idiosyncrasies of Commodore Trunnion, Pipes, Hatchway, and the famous Tom Bowling—had in the eighteenth century a novelty which must have seemed more than mere reproductions. Thackeray, though he did abundant justice to Smollett’s humor, discerned that he depended less on invention than on copying. The point now is that he had the resources to copy from, and instinctively drew upon them. In this again he may have foreshadowed a modern method of procedure, which travels about the earth in search of literary capital. In Smollett are found many of the types which have since been elaborated in special departments of fiction. His sea people, of course, may have had their prototypes in the drama and in some of the older romances; but Smollett goes further in carefully reproducing their talk, and the scenes and incidents of their lives. Similarly, though unconsciously, his medical episodes and similitudes may be forerunners of the medico-literary and psycho-physical novels which find vogue in our own days. Winifred Jenkins, also, in ‘Humphrey Clinker,’ is one of the most laughable of the Malaprop breed; and her bad spelling, though it has been often imitated, has rarely been improved on. So that if Smollett cannot have been a force in evolution, he may at least have had a few germs, whether of good or evil.  4
  It is to be remembered lastly, whatever strictures may be passed on his life and writings, that his valedictory was becoming. ‘The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker’ is remarkable for the transformation and chastening which overspread his method and his manner. That his vicissitudes troubled him, and sharpened his temper, may be excused in the fact that when all was done he looked beneficently on the world, and was willing to amuse it without making it laugh over-loudly or cruelly. If his literary reputation suffers by what the exigencies of his times and fortunes compelled him to do, he lived through them to retrieve it. The style of ‘Humphrey Clinker’ is easy and familiar, and the epistolary form in it more than usually adapted to the desultory manner in which the narrative goes forward. Here the critics are willing to admit that Smollett created characters over and above mere types, and put himself for once in a line with Sterne and Fielding. Tabitha Bramble, Matthew Bramble, and Lismahago, are really charming additions to the galleries of English portraiture. Smollett is unusually hard to represent by a limited number of excerpts; his range is too wide to be surely represented by less than a variety of his pages. Yet if one selection were to be made, it should in justice to him be taken from the book in which the worker has lived through the years of drudgery to become at last, for once anyway, the artist.  5
  Like his great contemporary Fielding, the author of ‘Humphrey Clinker’ was born to the lot of literary hack. His case has many resemblances to the literary workers of these days,—the days of innumerable hacks. He had in more ways than one the instincts, the temper, and the method of the modern newspaper man. The journalist who travels about confessedly to get material differs not essentially from the writer who uses what fortuitous travel has brought him. A ready humor, quick wit, and real though acrid sympathy, are other details of the analogy. The sequel is only too apt to be a story of dull routine and ultimate mediocrity. In the obscurity of hackdom it must be, in some essence at least, a fine nature that will not relax its efforts to do well what it has to do, and ends by doing it better than ever. Smollett was, throughout his twenty-five years of work, a conscientiously careful employer of the English language. Perhaps, therefore, a point of view more grateful to him and more adequately estimating him, would be not that which compares him disadvantageously on the same level with Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne; but that which credits him with having raised himself from lower regions to a place near them.  6

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.