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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Lamb’

Advice for Travelers: Beware Cannibals!

February 10, 2015 | by


A map by John Cary of “Independent Tartary,” 1811.

A letter from Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning from February 1803. Lamb, an English essayist, was born on this day in 1775; his correspondence is known for veering into what he called “nonsense.” Here he responds to news that Manning, one of Europe’s earliest Chinese Studies scholars, will embark soon for China and Tibet—he went on to become the first Englishman to secure an interview with the Dalai Lama. “Independent Tartary” is an outmoded term for Central Asia.

My Dear Manning,—The general scope of your letter afforded no indications of insanity, but some particular points raised a scruple. For God’s sake, don’t think any more of “Independent Tartary.” What are you to do among such Ethiopians? … I tremble for your Christianity. They will certainly circumcise you. Read Sir John Mandeville’s travels to cure you, or come over to England. There is a Tartar man now exhibiting at Exeter Change. Come and talk with him, and hear what he says first. Indeed, he is no very favorable specimen of his countrymen! But perhaps the best thing you can do is to try to get the idea out of your head. For this purpose repeat to yourself every night, after you have said your prayers, the words “Independent Tartary, Independent Tartary,” two or three times, and associate with them the idea of oblivion (‘t is Hartley’s method with obstinate memories); or say “Independent, Independent, have I not already got an independence?” That was a clever way of the old Puritans—pun-divinity. My dear friend, think what a sad pity it would be to bury such parts in heathen countries, among nasty, unconversable, horse-belching, Tartar people! Some say they are cannibals; and then conceive a Tartar fellow eating my friend, and adding the cool malignity of mustard and vinegar! … The Tartars really are a cold, insipid, smouchy set. You’ll be sadly moped (if you are not eaten) among them. Pray try and cure yourself … Shave yourself oftener. Eat no saffron, for saffron-eaters contract a terrible Tartar-like yellow. Pray to avoid the fiend. Eat nothing that gives the heartburn. Shave the upper lip. Go about like an European. Read no book of voyages (they are nothing but lies); only now and then a romance, to keep the fancy under. Above all, don’t go to any sights of wild beasts. That has been your ruin. Accustom yourself to write familiar letters on common subjects to your friends in England, such as are of a moderate understanding. And think about common things more … You’ll never come back. Have a care, my dear friend, of Anthropophagi! their stomachs are always craving. ‘Tis terrible to be weighed out at fivepence a pound. To sit at table (the reverse of fishes in Holland), not as a guest, but as a meat!

God bless you! do come to England. Air and exercise may do great things.

Talk with some minister. Why not your father?

God dispose all for the best! I have discharged my duty.

Your sincere friend,


Hang Your Quiver on Your Wagon, and Other News

October 20, 2014 | by

An illustration of the Amazons from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

  • In 1882, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde spent an afternoon together. They had some homemade elderberry wine and talked about how to be famous.
  • And in 1817, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb had dinner. Lamb said repeatedly, “Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on.”
  • Winning the Nobel Prize causes an intense, nearly insurmountable euphoria. But according to Patrick Modiano, there is one way to magnify this sensation: by having a family member who hails from the same country that gives the prize. “It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson … It’s to him I dedicate this Prize. It is, after all, from his country.”
  • Historically, fiction has afforded writers the chance to break taboos—under the guise of the fictive, one can “talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself.” So what happens when taboos fall away? “It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer ‘gets older’ … he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame.”
  • The sexual congress of the Amazons “was robust, promiscuous. It took place outdoors, outside of marriage, in the summer season, with any man an Amazon cared to mate with … The sign for sex in progress was a quiver hung outside a woman’s wagon.”


Post-Breakup Fiction; Comma Stutterers

January 27, 2012 | by

I recently got out of serious relationship. Since then I have not been able to read, though I usually love sad, sappy love stories. Can you recommend some books that have zero romance or love in them? Some good post-breakup fiction?

Readers of this column know my high opinion of the Jeeves books and Life on the Mississippi. They cheer me up, and are rigorously free of mushy scenes. Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land is a post-breakup book, I mean the hero has been dumped by his wife, but really that's the least of his problems—and the one time they get back together (for about two and a half minutes) it’s enough to cure you of the whole idea of coupledom for at least the rest of the day.

Also: How do you feel about dogs? It’s not fiction, and it is full of love, but something tells me J. R. Ackerley’s 1965 memoir, My Dog Tulip—about the unlikely romance between a crusty, middle-aged English bachelor and his German shepherd—might make a welcome distraction.

Dear Lorin,

I was talking to another writer-friend recently about the use of commas. I tend to err on the safe side, slipping too many of them, perhaps, around phrases I think are supposed to be identified. But is this precious or old-fashioned or out of style?

In this Paris Review interview with Mary Karr, she claims to have had a comma stutter in The Liars’ Club. Do you think there’s such a thing as a comma stutter, or is it more like a sentence stutter, reflecting hesitation, or something, from the writer? I’d like to smooth out, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Comma Stutterer in Manhattan

A good comma stutter never goes out of style. Where would Henry James be without his commas—or that real-life stutterer Charles Lamb? Here is Lamb on his gruff but cowardly friend John Tipp: “With all this there was about him a sort of timidity—(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)—something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic.”

You can, of course, write in comma stutters then simply take out the punctuation. That is what Henry Green liked to do, for example when he describes what it was like to be unpopular at Eton:

These were the days when to be alone was to feel one had escaped for the moment not from any overt bullying but from what appeared to be the threat. There was a strain in trying to keep up with new friendships which probably did not exist. There was the dread of going into a friend's room to find one was not wanted, to be abandoned by the two leaders now that they were too busy to bother and worst of all the self questioning as to why this should be, the fear it might be a peer or one of the school’s racquet players and of what this meant if true. The best was to get away in those few hours we had on our own, to chance being seen lonely in the effort to forget.

Green teaches the reader to hear his pauses, to anticipate his hesitations, and, thus, to think like a man of his class and sensibility. Such is the magic. When women say of a good dancer that he knows how to lead, this must be what they mean.

Then of course there is Gertrude Stein, who so loved the comma stutter that she would abolish the punctuation altogether. This is the typographical equivalent of burning the village to save it:

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.

The point is, if your sentences are guided by your feelings, you can race or hesitate as the spirit moves you. Your reader will understand. Read More »


Making ‘Of Lamb’

July 6, 2011 | by

In 1796, at the age of thirty-two, Mary Lamb had an attack of madness and killed her mother and wounded her father with a knife. She was institutionalized for three years until the death of her father, when, at the behest of her younger brother, Charles, she was brought to live with him. Charles Lamb was a clerk at the East India Company and a well-regarded essayist, and he remained Mary’s caretaker and companion for the rest of their lives. The Lamb siblings were part of a literary circle that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Wordsworths, William Hazlitt, and Mary Shelley, and they are the subject of the biography A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil.

Their story is also at the heart of a strange new illustrated poem that was published as a book by McSweeney’s this month. Of Lamb is a collaborative project between poet Matthea Harvey and artist Amy Jean Porter. Harvey was fascinated by the process of erasures after seeing Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Jen Bervin’s Nets and decided to do one herself with the first book she could find for three dollars. “I picked up A Portrait of Charles Lamb completely randomly,” Harvey told me. “When I discovered that Mary and Lamb were on each page, a story in poems started to emerge.” There are echoes of Sarah Josepha Hale’s famous nineteenth-century rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which tells the story of a young girl named Mary Sawyer who brings her pet lamb to school. But there are also weirder, more fascinating moments, too: “Nerves his family / Trouble his home / Dark spirits his company.”

Below are a few slides of Harvey’s erasures and the illustrations by Porter. Porter says she was “thinking of an illustrative tradition of a nineteenth-century British variety—Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, Eleanor Vere Boyle” but also cites brass chandeliers, water towers, and artists such as Balthus and Gabriel Orozco as inspiration. Click to enlarge.

Join Harvey and Porter tomorrow, on July 7, at P.P.O.W. Gallery at 7:00 P.M. at 535 West 22nd Street, in New York, for a reading from Of Lamb.