Oliver Goldsmith Goldsmith, Oliver (Drama Criticism)

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(Drama Criticism)

Oliver Goldsmith 1730?-1774

Goldsmith was one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century. Although financial necessity drove him to devote most of his time to producing translations, compilations, and popularizations of the works of others, he made notable contributions of his own to nearly every literary form that was in vogue during the period. His most important play, She Stoops to Conquer, was popular from its first performance and remains one of a very few plays from its time that is still performed. It has been credited with ushering in a new era of robust comedy to an English theater overwhelmed by sentimentalism.


Goldsmith was born in County Longford, Ireland, the fifth child of the Reverend Charles Goldsmith and his wife Ann Jones Goldsmith. The family was poor but not in serious financial straits during Goldsmith's youth. He suffered a physical misfortune, though, when around the age of eight he contracted smallpox and was left badly scarred by the disease. This, along with an already unprepossessing appearance, convinced him of his own ugliness and made him the subject of ridicule throughout his life. Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1745 as a "sizar," an indigent student who Was allowed to attend college for a small fee in exchange for performing menial work at the school. Disappointed with the harshness of his situation, Goldsmith neglected his studies and spent more time carousing than attending classes. Although he left college briefly, he eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1749.

After college Goldsmith cast about for a profession. He considered entering the ministry and also studied medicine for a time. In 1753 he embarked on a walking tour of Europe, which provided the inspiration for several of his later works, including the narrative poem The Traveller and the adventures of George Primrose in the novel The Vicar of Wakefield. After three years of travel he returned to London in 1756. During the next several years he held a variety of poorly paying jobs, but he eventually secured a position writing book reviews for the Monthly Review. This experience introduced Goldsmith to professional magazine writing, a vocation which would eventually provide most of his income. After his association with the Monthly Review ended, he obtained a proofreading job with the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson and continued to contribute essays as well as book and theater reviews to a number of journals. Goldsmith's periodical writing eventually attracted the notice of booksellers, whose sponsorship was important to aspiring writers in the eighteenth century.

From October through November of 1759 Goldsmith wrote the entire contents—essays, short fiction, and reviews—of the complete eight-issue run of the magazine the Bee. At the same time he published his first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, an extended essay on European literature and culture. The following year Goldsmith began his most famous series of periodical essays, the "Chinese Letters." Purporting to be a series of letters from a Chinese philosopher visiting London, these sometimes witty, sometimes philosophical pieces provided social satire thinly veiled by fiction. They were collected and published in 1762 as The Citizen of the World. With the success of this work Goldsmith became a prominent figure in London literary society. He became associated with group of well-known intellectuals, including the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor and theater manager David Garrick, and the writers Samuel Johnson, Thomas Percy, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell. This group, known simply as The Club (later the Literary Club), met regularly in coffeehouses, taverns and one another's homes. Although he was now successful, Goldsmith was unable to handle his money, gambled, and ran up debts.

The Traveller appeared in 1764 and The Vicar of Wake-field in 1766. Goldsmith's first play, The Good Natured Man was...

(The entire section is 43,801 words.)