Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, January 30, 2012


The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
by Tobias George Smollett
Introduction by Robert Gorham Davis
Published by Hold, Rineheart and Winston
this edition 1967
originally published 1771

  I can honestly say that I've read every major novel of the 18th century, and several of the minor ones.  It's been whatever the opposite of a "wild ride" is- every other great 18th century novel is 500 pages long, they are written in a style of English that is almost as foreign as a novel written in a different language entirely and the novels of the 18th century lack many of the characteristics of what the modern reader considers to be integral to a novel.  Oh- and you know what was popular in 18th century Novels? The epistolary novel.  That's a novel composed entirely of LETTERS.

 Sooo...  In terms of "what's left" of the 18th century canon of literature I'm down to minor works of English authors and almost all of the books written by French guys.  Tobias Smollett was Scottish born- who worked from about 1750 to 1770.  Smollett is the primary go-to guy for the picaresque novel.  Picaresque novels have more then the average amount of appeal to the modern reader because they deal with roguish adventures- much in the same way that people will watch a COPS episode on basic cable.

  The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker is both a picaresque AND an epistolary novel, which is why it took me this long to get around to it.  ALSO- not as cheap as you would think- turns out the minor classics often cost more then the major hits because they aren't as popular with modern readers.  Like other picaresque novels, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, is basically a tour of different places, with lots of adventures and what today we would call "travelogue."

   The narrative is split between three people- the rich old guy who is paying for everything, his... nephew? And a quasi-illiterate servant woman.  The plot, such at is revolves around a couple of marriages and a false arrest (of the title character, Henry Clinker, who is a servant of the rich old guy.)  I believe there are many reasons why this book is a minor classic: It's interesting that Smollett has multiple narrative perspectives, but it basically boils down to two white guys basically talking about the same thing over and over again for 400 pages- not really necessary.

  There's about 100 pages of Scottish travelogue- wouldn't you know that Smollett was Scottish? He was! It makes for fun reading, but it's hardly "great novel" material.  Characters in picaresque novels do not learn lessons, nor is there a concern with depicting events "realistically"  what IS there:  PLOT TWISTS, FUNNY CHARACTERS AND DETAILED SCENERY.

  Ok, so maybe Smollett isn't the biggest 18th century novelist out there, but his books are still widely available in print 250 years ish after he wrote.  That is an impressive accomplishment, and in my opinion, it's worth the time to see what kind of art stands up to 250 years of scrutiny.   Classic art, that's what.

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