Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1828

1828 was one of the worst years for literature in the entire 19th century. I think I have read one novel from this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe, a disgrace, although possibly of interest to alumni of Bowdoin College. Hawthorne himself agreed with me - his wife did not learn of the novel's existence until after Hawthorne's death in 1864.

I've scrounged around, trying to look up more novels. How about Edward Bulwer-Lytton's first novel, Pelham? Or Benjamin Disraeli's Popanilla? Walter Scott, poor, sick Scott, must have published something - let's see, yes, The Fair Maid of Perth. I suspect that I will remain ignorant of the contents of these books.

A number of poets were just beginning their careers at this time - Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Thomas Hood, Edgar Allan Poe - and Heinrich Heine, Alexander Pushkin, and John Clare were established. None of them seems to have published any books in 1828. There must, at least, be some good poems scattered around. The chronological Penguin Book of English Verse picks out Hood's "Death in the Kitchen",* and a surprisingly late Samuel Taylor Coleridge sonnet ("Duty Surviving Self-Love").

What else? Plays, essays? Charles Lamb was writing; William Hazlitt was alive. Surely there's something there. Goethe was 79 years old, working on part two of Faust, but I doubt he was publishing much. The first volume of Audubon's Birds of America, does that count (to the left, the Kentucky Warbler)?

The entire last half of the 1820s was a sort of literary disaster, actually. Take out Heine and Pushkin, and there's not much left. Two very different prose masterpieces, Manzoni's epic The Betrothed, and Eichendorff's anti-epic Life of a Good-for-Nothing, the poets mentioned before, Hazlitt and Lamb and Thomas de Quincey, and not much else. Feel free to claim otherwise.

But of course, a small mountain of books were published. For this single year, 180 years of erosion have left a nearly flat plain; the scree has been pulverized and washed into the Rare Book collections. The December year-end lists always remind me of this. I don't mean to say that nothing but bad books were published in 1828. Obviously not. No, it's just that time and history are relentless.

Tomorrow, I'll attack my own point with a rather different year.

* Hood's "On the Death of a Giraffe" is also from 1828.


  1. hello I got sent your blog cos i have a beddoes alert...yet I don't see him mentioned...? Did he publish in 1828? No He too thought the literary climate was DIRE in england so had decamped to germany. I loved your blog. What a lovely round up of this very brooding year - thankyou

  2. If Beddoes published in 1828, I missed the reference. He was obviously writing, because the first version of "Death's Jest-Book" was finished in 1829. Otherwise, his attention seemed to be on his medical studies in Göttingen.

    This game, although still instrutive, I think, is much harder with poets than with novelists. Much easier to miss things, even important things.

    Thanks for the kind words. "Death's Jest-Book" is a favorite of mine.

  3. Looking at the past this way is great -- too often, I think, we look at the past in sweeping terms, decades at a time, and forget about what was going on in particular years or months. What interests me is the question of what people in 1828 thought of their literary climate. Were they excited about new publications that are now lost to us? Did they think they were having a fabulous publishing year and have no idea it would turn out to be awful, from our perspective? It would be cool to know ...

  4. Dorothy, I agree - I wish I knew more about that. I can think of examples, like the one I wrote about today, Goethe's Faust, where everyone who was paying attention knew that great things were afoot. Or the wasy Poe writes about Dickens, putting Dickens in his own category.

    We look at the Elizabethan Age as a sort of Golden Age of English literature. Did the Elizabethans have any idea? They seemed to be enjoying themselves, at least.