While it is possible to read nothing but Samuel Johnson biographies for a whole year, Goldsmith biographies are in less plentiful supply. This may be partly because Goldsmith is a less monumental writer than Johnson, that his works are not as readily available but it may have something to do with an inherent difficulty in Goldsmith’s character.
The problem of Goldsmith is especially relevant to this book and takes it as a specific and particular issue. Quintana’s main aim is to explain the origins of what he calls the Legend and to compare it with a thorough examination of his work. The trouble is, in trying to separate the legend from the man, the legend does not get much airing and the anecdotes that make a Goldsmith biography fun to read are nearly completely omitted.
Unfortunately, the ‘man’ side of Goldsmith is not fleshed out either. The weight of literary criticism obscures the character and pattern of the human and the individual and so this book failed my ultimate test of a biography, I was not sad when he died.
I feel that when presenting Goldsmith, the legend is as important as the man because the legend grew and proliferated in his own life, so the legend shaped the man. Especially a man like Goldsmith, who seemed to live up to and play with his public image. There is also the fact that I believe the legend had a secure basis in truth. Many of his friends, including his closest like Joshua Reynolds said that Goldsmith was socially awkward and at times inept. The reports of his gauchery were most likely exaggerated but to say that he didn’t stick out seems hasty.
That said, the handling of Goldsmith’s work and processes is done very well. Quintana is very clear in presenting Goldsmith as a thoughtful and careful writer who uses his head as well as his intuition. He takes the same line as John Hopkins in ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’, by presenting his work, especially ‘The Vicar of Goldsmith’ as a work of discreet but extreme irony with a subtle satire that bypassed many previous writers. The argument is well made and I really enjoyed the writing on my favourite of Goldsmith’s works, ‘The Citizen of the World’.
Recently I bought a copy of Forster’s life of Goldsmith, a very heavy book which I think will give me the opposite view, a Goldsmith that is all legend and little careful craftsman. It’ll be interesting to compare.