Last week, while poking around my bookshelves, I found a small dark green book entitled Letters to Dead Authors by Andrew Lang, written in 1893. I have no idea where this came from – Uncle Tom? Uncle Jim? Bought by Aunt Judith at an estate sale? The only markings are some pencil lines on the Edgar Allen Poe letter (after all, he lived in Richmond); all these years later, the book is near crisp in newness.
According to my Encyclopedia Britannica, Lang was a Scottish man of letters born in Selkirk, Scotland in 1844 and known as one of the greatest journalists of his time. He wrote on a myriad of topics including history, ballads, crystal gazing and he penned poetry and gathered fairy tales like “The Ugly Duckling” and “Little Red Riding Hood” into collections translated into many languages and named after colors: The Blue Fairy Book (1889), The Red Fairy Book etc. He is on page 657 of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with four lines and on page 668 with a poem written to good friend Robert Louis Stevenson.
In Letters to Dead Authors, Mr. Lang has written to Rabelais and Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott and W.M. Thackeray among others. Some of the writers I have never heard of: Lucian of Samosata, Eusebius of Caesarea and who is Q. Horatious Flaccus?
The letters I read were complimentary – unless he buried his criticisms in Latin.
Of Alexander Dumas, he wrote; “With all your frankness, and with that queer morality of the Camp which, if it swallows a camel now and again, never strains at a gnat, how healthy and wholesome, and even pure, are your romances! You never gloat over sin, nor dabble with an ugly curiosity in the corruptions of sense. The passions in your tales are honorable and brave, the motives are clearly human. Honor, Love, Friendship make the threefold cord, the clew your knights and dames follow through how delightful a labyrinth of adventures!”
I’d be so lucky to have someone wax so eloquently about my novel, The Excellent Advice of a Few Famous Painters. If Mr. Lang had written a review for Amazon, perhaps it would sound something like this:
I take the liberty to maintain that this novel, one The Excellent Advice of a Few Famous Painters is a lonely monument indeed to broken hearts and dashed dreams. There are alas, no heroes in this world of love. The story is tragic, albeit with a glimmer of earthly human light placed here and there, like glistening white pebbles in a mountain stream. I declare these characters in Mrs. Scott’s novel are people I believe I may have known in small and hazy Selkirk. And how I laughed at their triumphs and forgave them their faults. The brilliance of dialogue, the glitter of wit, the symphony of repartee: I did not want this Virginia journey to end.
So, Mrs. Scott! Carry on with the fight for good literature and move our souls with your parlour chat and heaving bosoms! We will continue to weep over your pages as your genius burns!
In honor of Mr. Andrew Lang (1844-1912).