Oliver Goldsmith is best known for his comedy She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which is still regularly staged, for the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and for his poem The Deserted Village (1770). However, for a period roughly coinciding with the Seven Years’ War—Goldsmith began reviewing books in 1757 and largely withdrew from essay writing after 1763–he distinguished himself as a Tory critic, a guardian of English paternal authority; as a social satirist, assuming an outsider’s stance; and, for better or worse, as one of the most commentedupon figures in the Johnson circle.
Goldsmith’s “apprenticeship” to Samuel Johnson began after “Doctor Minor” published two influential books of essays, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759) and The Citizen of the World (1762). Goldsmith reviewed books for Ralph Griffiths’ Monthly Review and for its rival the Critical Review, edited by Tobias Smollett. He published his own single-author periodical, the Bee (1759), and was among the most prolific “daily historians” for the newspapers and magazines of the High Georgian era.
Goldsmith entered the field of professional authorship as a sort of intern for Griffiths.
In this capacity, he reviewed some of the principal publications of the late 1750s, including works by Smollett, Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Thomas Gray. The opportunity further afforded him the chance to develop several of the authorial personae that would serve him as an essayist in the years to come: the scourge of the romance writer, the British patriot, the English gentleman, the upholder of taste and morality.
Decrying the exploding popular fascination with the novel, he followed the Tory line in declaring the genre morally bankrupt and aesthetically offensive. In 1759, jumping to the rival Critical Review, he continued his reviewing work while beginning a productive association with Smollett, with whom he also collaborated on the British Magazine a year later.
At a time when single-author periodicals were becoming outmoded, Goldsmith attempted the Bee (1759), which he saw as carrying on the tradition of Addison and Johnson. In one of its most celebrated essays, “A Resverie,” more commonly called the “Fame Machine,” the author imagines himself riding in a coach toward literary immortality. The procession he joins includes Addison, Swift, Pope, Steele, Congreve, and Colley Cibber. In the later edition of his essays that the author himself compiled, Essays by Mr. Goldsmith (1765, revised 1766), Goldsmith appears fairly convinced of his own eventual fame, though the anonymity of his early work makes identifying his entire canon nearly impossible. Although the Bee demonstrated his remarkable range and stylistic panache, it suffered a meager reception and quick demise.
In 1760 Goldsmith began another productive assocation: with the bookseller John Newbery who, with Smollett, founded the British Magazine. In addition to essays on manners and morals, Goldsmith used the magazine to experiment with short fiction, moral tales that anticipated in tone and theme his Vicar of Wakefield. But it was in another Newbery periodical, the Public Ledger, that Goldsmith would reach the pinnacle of his achievement as an essayist. His “Chinese Letters,” published on average ten times per month, appeared first as lead columns in Newbery’s newspaper, and later were collected as The Citizen of the World. His fictional persona Lien Chi Altangi comments on the vulgarity of the British press, the hypocrisy of English society, and the peculiarity of English fashion. The work gives form to the authorial voice for which he has become best known: the genial and wise humorist, aloof from the ubiquitous foibles of his era.
Hester Thrale-Piozzi and James Boswell depict Goldsmith as a social misfit, or as an errant pupil corrected by his master, Johnson. No doubt he suffered for his being Irish, and so a target for stereotypical characterization. His being an “outsider” in London may have also contributed to the failure of his medical practice and led him to construct the fictionalized “English gentleman” and “Chinese visitor,” aghast at England’s literary, social, and political customs.
Throughout his essays Goldsmith carefully crafts a reputation for being apolitical, above the partisan fray. Yet he provides important political commentary on the coronation of George III in his Chinese Letter of 5 November 1760 and offers support for the new king’s political housecleaning. He frequently voiced his opposition to the Pitt ministry in its execution of the Seven Years’ War, and he remained suspicious of the sort of “liberty” advanced by John Wilkes and his allies in the early 1760s. Goldsmith’s importance as an advocate of political, religious, and social orthodoxy has long been underestimated.
For six years, Goldsmith was among the most prolific contributors to London’s newspapers and magazines, appealing to a coffeehouse readership and engaging in what was arguably the most prominent form of public discourse of that period. His adaptability to his readership and to the changing modes of essay writing, as well as his remarkable stamina and productivity, assure his position as one of the most prominent essayists of the period.
Born 10 November 1730 (possibly 1728 or 1731) in Pallas, near Ballymahon, County Longford. Studied at schools in Athlone, 1739–41, and Edgeworthstown, Longford, 1741–44; Trinity College, Dublin, 1745–49, B.A., 1750; medicine at the University of Edinburgh, 1752–53, and University of Leiden, 1754; failed the examination at the College of Surgeons, 1758. Traveled on the continent, 1755–56. Moved to London;
briefly a physician in Southwark; usher, Dr. Milner’s classical academy, Peckham, 1756, 1758. Contributor to various journals, including the Monthly Review, Critical Review, and British Magazine, 1757–60; editor, the Bee, 1759, and the Lady’s Magazine, 1761; contributor of the “Chinese Letters” to the Public Ledger, 1760–61; editor, Compendium of Biography, 7 vols., 1762; founder member of Samuel Johnson’s literary Club, 1764.
Died (possibly of a kidney infection) in London, 4 April 1774.
Essays and Related Prose
An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, 1759
The Bee, nos. 1–8, 6 October–24 November 1759; in 1 vol., as The Bee: Being Essays on the Most Interesting Subjects, 1759
The Citizen of the World; or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to His Friends in the East, 2 vols., 1762
Essays by Mr. Goldsmith, 1765; revised edition, 1766
Selected Writings, edited by John Lucas, 1988
Other writings: four plays (including She Stoops to Conquer, 1773), the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), poetry, and books on history.
Collected works edition: Collected Works (Clarendon Edition), edited by Arthur Friedman, 5 vols., 1966.
Scott, Temple, Oliver Goldsmith Bibliographically and Biographically Considered, New York: Bowling Green Press, 1928
Woods, Samuel H., Oliver Goldsmith: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1982
Hopkins, Robert H., The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969
Quintana, Ricardo, Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study, New York: Macmillan, 1967; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969
Spector, Robert D., English Literary Periodicals and the Climate of Opinion During the Seven Years’ War, The Hague: Mouton, 1966
Taylor, Richard C., Goldsmith as Journalist, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993
Wardle, Ralph M., Oliver Goldsmith, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, and London: Constable, 1957
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