Tuesday 26 June 2012

Review: The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith by John Hopkins

The idea of this review being part of the Goldsmith Season may seem a bit absurd as I wrote those posts many months ago; but if English weather teaches us anything, it teaches us that seasons can be as long or short as they want and can pop up at any weird time. This little moment of Goldsmith is to review the book The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith by John Hopkins.
The aim of the book is to argue that Goldsmith is more than a gooseberry fool, writing entertaining and easy to read writing of a sentimental bent but actually a sharp and incisive satirist whose writing is written with such delicate irony that it has been misread for two-hundred odd years.
The argument goes through a number of stages. The first is to disprove the notion of Goldsmith as a Sentimentalist and early Romantic, but to establish him with the hard-nosed, rational Augustin tradition that included Swift and Johnson. He does this by quoting parts of his works and correspondence that clearly show him to be on that side of the fence. We are then taken through his early essays and his Treatise on Polite Learning in Europe to further back this point up.
Next he takes us through Goldsmith’s two big poems, The Deserted Village and The Wanderer. It is important to his argument that these poems are read as rhetoric pieces, arguments and not sentimental emotional splurges. He does this by going through The Wanderer and linking it to passages of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
Then he looks at the Chinese Letters, published as The Man of the World, one of my favourite books. He looks at how Lien Chi Altangi is not a complete voice of reason in the book, how the satire of the book is pointed at his supposedly pure rational character as much as it is at the foolish habits of the English. He also reinterprets passages often seen as sentimental in a way that is satirical and explains that Goldsmith is often writing for a dual audience, one who see the subtle and pointed satire that is presented in a sentimental fashion, and those who merely enjoy at a sentimental novel.
Finally he gets to the crux of the argument, a complete reinterpretation of The Vicar of Goldsmith, a book I recently described as ‘where a man loses everything and learns nothing’. Hopkins argues that this anti-climax is not the result of bad writing but is the key punchline in the book. That through a very delicate layering of language, (for example ‘treasure’ being a term of endearment for his children but also his literal conception of them). He looks at how other critics may have missed the levels of irony, and then teases them out for the reader.
He concludes that satire is a spectrum, from the big bolshy satire of Swift at one end and the sly, ironic, subversive sneaky sort of Goldsmith at the other. He says that Goldsmith is a supreme satirist and finishes the book saying;
  “We will no longer think of Goldsmith as merely an amuser but second only to Chaucer as a master of the art of amiable satire”. High praise indeed.
I am one who loves Goldsmith, and have always read those sentimental moments of his writing with a lopsided smile - it is clear that Goldsmith is no Henry Mackenzie and could never have written A Man of Feeling as is view of the world if too tough for that. However, in his zeal for establishing Goldsmith as a proper writer, he forgets all the things that make Goldsmith’s writing so enjoyable. He makes a few off the cuff comments about Goldsmith’s readability but usually in a negative way, that it is his readability that has stopped people reading him closely. Goldsmith’s writing is always clear an enjoyable, not so with Hopkins, who throws terminology around the page, expecting his readers all to be up on their Aristotle and mid-twentieth century literary criticism.
Although Hopkins’s awkward writing style doesn’t detract from his argument for Goldsmith as an important writer, it does lessen the persuasive power of the book. What saves The True Genius from being a dryasdust literary quibble is the pure passion that Hopkins has for his theory. I have never read an academic point of view put forward so vigorously (if sometimes confusingly).
To me, he was preaching to the converted, but to anyone who thinks that The Vicar of Wakefield is merely a bit of fluff, I recommend you re-read it, looking for the sly smile behind the text.
Anyway, have fun. 

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