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Essays: English and American. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Introductory Note

WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY, one of the greatest of English novelists, was born at Calcutta, India, on July 18, 1811, where his father held an administrative position. He was sent to England at six for his education, which he received at the Charterhouse and Cambridge, after which he began, but did not prosecute, the study of law. Having lost his means, in part by gambling, he made up his mind to earn his living as an artist, and went to Paris to study. He had some natural gift for drawing, which he had already employed in caricature, but, though he made interesting and amusing illustrations for his books, he never acquired any marked technical skill.

He now turned to literature, and, on the strength of an appointment as Paris correspondent of a short-lived radical newspaper, he married. On the failure of the newspaper he took to miscellaneous journalism and the reviewing of books and pictures, his most important work appearing in Fraser’s Magazine and Punch. In 1840 his wife’s mind became clouded, and, though she never recovered, she lived on till 1894.

Success came to Thackeray very slowly. “Catherine,” “The Great Hoggarty Diamond,” “Barry Lyndon,” and several volumes of travel had failed to gain much attention before the “Snob Papers,” issued in Punch in 1846, brought him fame. In the January of the next year “Vanity Fair” began to appear in monthly numbers, and by the time it was finished Thackeray had taken his place in the front rank of his profession. “Pendennis” followed in 1850, and sustained the prestige he had won.

The next year he began lecturing, and delivered in London the lectures on “The English Humourists,” which he repeated the following winter in America with much success. “Esmond” had appeared on the eve of his setting sail, and revealed his style at its highest point of perfection, and a tenderer if less powerful touch than “Vanity Fair” had displayed. In 1855 “The Newcomes” appeared, and was followed by a second trip to America, when he lectured on “The Four Georges.” After an unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament, the novelist resumed his writing with “The Virginians” (1857–59), in which he availed himself of his American experiences.

In January of 1860 the Cornhill Magazine was founded, with Thackeray as first editor, and launched on a distinguished career. Most of his later work was published in its pages, but “Lovel the Widower” and the “Adventures of Philip” have not taken a place beside his greater work. In the essays constituting the “Roundabout Papers,” however, he appeared at his easiest and most charming. After a little more than two years he resigned the editorship: and on December 23, 1863, he died.

Thackeray’s greatest distinction is, of course, as a novelist, and an estimate of his work in this field is not in place here. But as an essayist he is also great. The lectures on “The English Humourists,” of which the following paper on “Swift” was the first, were the fruit of an intimate knowledge of the time of Queen Anne, and a warm sympathy with its spirit. And here, as in all his mature work, Thackeray is the master of a style that for ease, suppleness, and range of effect has seldom been equaled in English.