Lamb, Charles

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Lamb, Charles

Charles Lamb, 1775–1834, English essayist, b. London. He went to school at Christ's Hospital, where his lifelong friendship with Coleridge began. Lamb was a clerk at the India House from 1792 to 1825. In 1796 his sister Mary Ann Lamb (1764–1847) in a fit of temporary insanity attacked and wounded their father and stabbed and killed their mother. Lamb had himself declared her guardian to save her from permanent commitment to an asylum, and after 1799 they lived together. Mary was an intelligent and affectionate companion, but the shadow of her madness continued to plague their lives. They collaborated on several books for children, publishing in 1807 their famous Tales from Shakespeare. Lamb wrote four plays, none of which were successful. However, his dramatic essays, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (1808), established his reputation as a critic and did much in reviving the popularity of Elizabethan drama. From 1800 on he wrote intermittently for periodicals, the major contribution being the famous Essays of Elia (London Magazine, 1820–25), which were collected in 1823 and 1833. The essays cover a variety of subjects and maintain throughout an intimate and familiar tone. Lamb's style is peculiarly his own. His close-knit, subtle organization, his self-revealing observations on life, and his humor, fantasy, and pathos combine to make him one of the great masters of the English essay. Lamb was a gifted conversationalist and was friendly with most of the major literary figures of his time.

See his Life, Letters and Writings, ed. by P. Fitzgerald (1895, repr. 1971); E. W. Marrs, Jr., ed., The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb (3 vol., 1975–78); biographies by A. Ainger (1901, repr. 1970), E. V. Lucas (1968), D. Cecil (1984), and B. Cornwall (2003); biography of Mary Anne Lamb by S. T. Hitchcock (2004); studies by E. Blunden (1954; 1933, repr. 1967), J. E. Riehl (1980), and G. Monsman (1984 and 2003).

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