Having said that, I must backpedal and acknowledge that The Essays of Elia is not only an essential text, but a near-buried treasure, an all-but-lost masterpiece in our contemporary culture, one which stands in periodic danger of going out of print and so must be rescued periodically by heroic preservationists, such as the publishers of this edition. Why has so good and entertaining a classic become so endangered? I would guess that it has something to do with the second-class status of literary nonfiction in the academic canon, relative to novels and poetry; with our altered reading habits, which have brought a preference for stark, simply digested prose and a resistance to densely packed, complex sentences; with the abundance of references Lamb makes that may seem dated or bewildering to today's reader (a problem partly rectified here by the endnotes); and finally, with his sheer strangeness, which raises the question of authorial intent. For Lamb is not your Everyman, not your average Joe, but a very precisely and peculiarly ordered sensibility, whose acute sense of his difference from other people was both a source of strength and loneliness. In highlighting those eccentricities, he created out of himself an unforgettable, three-dimensional character.
By 1833 the frequency and duration of Mary's attacks had increased so that she needed almost constant care, so the Lambs moved to Edmonton to be near Mary's nurse. Charles ended his literary career the same year with Last Essays of Elia. In July, Emma's marriage to Charles's friend Edward Moxon left him depressed and lonely. One year later the death of Coleridge made that loneliness acute. "I feel how great a part he was of me," wrote Lamb. Five weeks later, on Dec. 27, 1834, Lamb himself was dead.
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Charles Lamb achieved lasting fame as a writer during the years 1820-1825, when he captivated the discerning English reading public with his personal essays in the London Magazine, collected as Essays of Elia (1823) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833). Known for their charm, humor, and perception, and laced with idiosyncrasies, these essays appear to be modest in scope, but their soundings are deep, and their ripples extend to . . .