Monday, March 3, 2014

Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities

English Literary Figures


Isaac D'Israeli [ 1766-1848]: This is as he appears in the frontispiece to Vol. I of the 1880 Armstrong and Son edition of Curiosities of Literature.
Credit: Archives.org
Source: PubDomainRev
In an article  in the Public Domain Review, Marvin Spevack looks at the literary life of Isaac D'Israeli, the father of British prime minister, Benjamin D'Israeli, and who was a scholar and a man of letters. One of his better-known works is Curiosities of Literature (first published in 1791, with subsequent volumes in 1793, 1817, 1823 and 1834), which is itself a book of a curious and capacious mind. Byron was one of his faithful readers, enjoying the anecdotes, gossip and scandal the book contained.

Spevack writes:
In a preface dated March 1839 D’Israeli described his ever-evolving work as a “voluminous miscellany, composed at various periods … a circuit of multifarious knowledge [which] could not be traced were we to measure and count each step by some clinical pedometer.” It would, however, be a misjudgment to regard the miscellany as a jungle of whimsical impressions or fanciful thoughts. Rather, it is a man-made woodland landscaped, cultivated, and manicured by an urban if not urbane gentleman. D’Israeli derived most of his knowledge from books – the first essay is on “Libraries” – for he himself was unabashedly bookish and bibliophilic. But in the range and variety of its topics D’Israeli’s curious world was not hermetically sealed off from the world outside the library, else it would never have had so widespread a popularity over so long a period.
If Curiosities of Literature did not directly reflect contemporary social, political, and literary matters, or rely on current gossip or scandal, it did in any case deal with them as recognizable features and phenomena of human existence in recurring clusters unrestricted by time or place. As might be expected, the most prominent is that of literary personalities, productions, and attendant concerns. Of the numerous authors who are subjects of individual essays, although they are drawn from Roman times to the eighteenth century, none are contemporaries of D’Israeli and no particular genre is dominant.
Isaac D'Israeli had literary interests, as is common to  men of such mien; but, more important, he also had the time to pursue them. In Disreali (1928),  André Maurois writes that a young D'Israeli disliked the business of commerce that his father (named Benjamin) pursued and instead preferred the literary life. This was made clear in his youthful poem: "Against Commerce, which is the Corruption of Mankind." His parents, although disappointed in his choice, acquiesced and let him be to follow his interests.

Maurois writes:
Thereupon Isaac D'Isreali adopted a mode of life which went unchanged until his dying day. he spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum, a delicious spot where, in those days, never more than five or six readers were to be seen. there he covered with notes the sheets of paper with which his pockets were always stuffed. (7)
D'Israeli had noted influences; one was undoubtedly Voltaire, Maurois writes: "Isaac D'Isreali was a Voltairean, in matters of politics a Conservative; but any form of government was good in his eyes if it allowed a man of moderate fortune to go on making, without being disturbed, a collection of literary anecdotes" (8).

One salient point is that Isaac D'Israeli had all his children baptized, becoming members of the Church of England (Anglican) in 1817. Isaac was a man who held a modern and progressive outlook on Judaism; and while he himself did not undergo conversion to Christianity, he thought it necessary for his children to better their opportunities, whatever these might be.

Benjamin, the future prime minister, was baptized when he was 12; until 1858 all members of parliament "were required to take the oath of allegiance 'on the true faith of a Christian', necessitating at least nominal conversion," Wikipedia writes. Yet, like many Jews who underwent conversion for political and economic reasons (Mahler is another notable example), the only Jewish prime minister in British history still retained his Jewish spirit, so to speak.

Issac's son, who bore the name of  Benjamin (the same as Isaac's father) was obviously of different temperament than the father and pursued what many would say were more practical interests, entering a life of politics and power.

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You can read more at [PubDomRev]

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