- The Letters of Oliver Goldsmith ed. by Michael Griffin and David O'Shaughnessy
It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: canons are not expandable, and every new author added means an author subtracted. In the great canon shift of the past four decades, Oliver Goldsmith has been a casualty, less read and less written about. Hence, for someone who still believes Vicar of Wakefield one of the finest novels of the era, She Stoops to Conquer the best comedy written between Congreve and Shaw, and The Deserted Village, a brilliant socio-economic poem, it was most encouraging to see two new studies devoted to him in recent years. First was Norma Clarke's Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (Harvard, 2016), a well-wrought account of the author and the publishing world in which he struggled and survived. Second was this new edition of Goldsmith's correspondence.
One of Goldsmith's earliest literary chores was to write a review of a new edition of Van Egmont's Travels (1759), which he concluded by posing the question, "To what purpose then a new publication, which contains accounts neither so accurate or so modern as those which have preceded it?" This new edition of Goldsmith's correspondence supersedes Katharine C. Balderston's 1928 Cambridge edition, to which the editors pay an opening tribute, noting that their edition is built on her "remarkable endeavours" and hoping that it will be "an appropriate advancement on her pioneering scholarship." Unfortunately, it is not.
I identify four problems. 1. In dealing with the texts of the letters, almost all of which have been previously published, there is no textual apparatus accounting for different readings in Balderston or any other previous printing. Often the editors are looking at the same copy-text but we cannot tell if the variance is deliberate or accidental. 2. The quantity of typographical, citational, and copying [End Page 263] errors indicates that differences between the texts of Balderston and Cambridge cannot establish this later edition as more accurate than hers; copy-texts would have to be reexamined. 3. The primary scholarly events between Balderston and Cambridge were Arthur Friedman's five-volume Collected Works (Oxford, 1966), and ninety years of commentary on Goldsmith. These new materials find little place in the annotations, which consist primarily of Balderston's notes, elaborated with biographical and bibliographical information often of little relevance to Goldsmith and gathered from unnamed sources. Particularly disturbing is the tendency to paraphrase Balderston without crediting her. 4. The annotations fail to provide sufficient eighteenth-century lexicographic and literary contexts; there is some new work on the theater and Irish connections, but the authors of Goldsmith's age are too often ignored when clearly they would provide context and depth to what otherwise are rather barren letters.
Thirteen additional letters have been added to Balderston's fifty-three, only three of which appear for the first time (40 and 66, mere courtesy notes; and 59, an interesting fragment of a letter to Charles Burney). Nine others were published subsequent to Balderston's edition, while one included by her as doubtful is now confirmed (56, again a courtesy note). The sixty-two-page introduction is informative and sensible, although, as the editors note, the essential details of Goldsmith's life were established in the early nineteenth century by Thomas Percy and James Prior. Modern retellings by Ralph Wardle (1957) and A. Linton Sells (1974) are rarely brought to bear; and while the editors know about Brothers of the Quill, they make little use of it. Friedman's edition is quoted often enough but without establishing what one would hope to discover: how did this modern editorial gathering of Goldsmith's diverse canon elaborate or change our understanding of the author's correspondence?
The most significant new context provided by the introduction ties Goldsmith a bit more closely to the political scene in general, Irish connections, in particular, revisiting Michael Griffin's earlier monograph, Enlightenment in Ruins: The Geographies of Oliver...