A Good-Natured Man

Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith

edited by Arthur Friedman
Oxford, 5 volumes pp., $53.80 the set

Oliver Goldsmith
Oliver Goldsmith; drawing by David Levine

Goldsmith must be read in bulk. The works on which his reputation depends fit snugly in two of Mr. Friedman’s volumes, but these give a misleading impression. We think of Goldsmith as the author of The Vicar of Wakefield The Good-Natured Man, She Stoops to Conquer, the essays, the poems, especially The Deserted Village and The Traveller. This is fair enough. But the story implied in the list is incomplete. To take its full weight we have to include the things he wrote as a bookseller’s hack, the compilations, translations, and biographies. Of this stuff it is necessary to say, as Goldsmith said of Prior’s Alma: “There are some parts very fine; and let them save the badness of the rest.” But Goldsmith spent so much time and spirit as a hack that we exclude this part of his life only at the cost of making the picture prettier than it was. As he wrote of another unfortunate, Edward Purdon:—

He led such a damnable life in this world,
I don’t think he’ll wish to come back.

So we need the slave-work as ballast. Mr. Friedman includes the biographies, even the Life of Bolingbroke, which is nine parts plagiarized from the Biographia Britannica, but he has no room for the translations or the histories. I particularly regret the absence of the History of the Earth and Animated Nature, but I concede that its inclusion would have upset the balance of things. We have, then, an ample Selected Writings, not a Collected Works.

The quality of Mr. Friedman’s textual work is impressive. He normally takes the first edition as his copy-text on the grounds that it is closer than any other to the manuscript, and he introduces only those readings of later editions which he considers authorial. This is excellent. Again, he has a very large Index which gives most of the cross-references. The editorial comment is always brief and sometimes curt to the point of silence. Many details which would be dark, I think, to the general reader are left in that condition. Presumably Mr. Friedman thinks his readers are likely to take in their stride such words as “patton,” “chowse,” and “courtain.” He may be right; as Milton may have been right in deeming it unnecessary to make any provision in a student’s day for learning Italian, one would pick it up in spare moments between specific concerns. Mr. Friedman is Miltonic in his expectations.

THE COMMON VIEW of Goldsmith is that he was a peripatetic clown who somehow managed to write like an angel. Biographers from Washington Irving to R. M. Wardle make him sound like an amiable idiot: His life seemed to aspire to the condition of farce, he was never the right man in the right place at the right time. In this figure he looks like Moses in The Vicar of Wakefield, who…

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