Wednesday, December 3, 2014

12/3: Patrick Madden's Beneficial Encounter with an Obscure Christmastime Essay

Over the years I’ve been keeping an eye out for old Christmas essays, but I’ve found only a few. Both Alexander Smith and G. K. Chesterton wrote essays called “Christmas,” but the former hasn’t aged well, and the latter, while charming in its wit, is at core a lament and an argument against extending the celebration back into November, as we are doing here and as our consumer culture has done irreversibly. Hilaire Belloc unsurprisingly remembers better Christmases in “A Remaining Christmas,” and shares some insights about tradition and ritual and, on the other hand, divisiveness in society. Charles Lamb, who often wrote on/about holidays (“New Year’s Eve,” “Valentine’s Day,” “All Fools’ Day”), never made it to Christmas, and Joseph Addison, writing as the Spectator (no. 269), brought us only brief reflections on Christmas via his imaginary friend Sir Roger De Coverley. Scant references to the holiday appear here and there (twice in Montaigne’s Essays, each time as stand-in for “winter” and “cold weather”), yet it would seem that during the preceding centuries, most essayists took the holidays off.

All this preamble will, I hope, serve a double function. First, I am keen to learn; if you know of another classical essay about Christmas, please let me know in the comments. Second, I want to share an essay that’s indirectly “about” Christmas, which I think most people don’t know, and which I love: Louise Imogen Guiney’s “On a Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket.”

The plot of the essay is simple: on December 21, 1892, while walking home, Guiney, a struggling Boston poet and postmistress, was pickpocketed and lost some money (payment for some poems) that she’d been hoping to use to pay back a loan and buy presents for her family. But what interests me is her response(s) to the event, which aligns well not only with the seasonal timing but with the Adventine spirit of self-improvement.

The theft caused some consternation, as you might expect. We know this because Guiney wrote a letter to her friend Sonny Day (the photographer who gave us the image above), lamenting:

I write in a melancholy mood. My pocket was picked yesterday…. As for the cash, it is gone, and I have such respect for the inevitable that I would say nothing of it except that it happens to concern you, and Johnny too. George Norton’s bill, a five…was in that bag; and the other five I meant to send you as the last considerable fragment of what I owed you in francs of France. Besides that there were $4.00 extra of my hard-earned own, to be devoted to little Christmas gifts.

Even here she seems resigned, stoical, yet she describes her mood as melancholic, which suits an essayist just fine, but perhaps doesn’t suit the essay. Who wants to read a sob story seeking sympathy? No, in order to essay the experience, she’d have to find or make some other meaning from it. So when she set pen to paper a second time, intending public consumption, she made fun of her distractedness (“I was in town the other evening, walking by myself, at my usual rapid pace, and ruminating, in all likelihood, on the military affairs of the Scythians” she began), and in describing the thief’s ingenious method of escape (no spoilers here), she paused “overcome, nay, transported with admiration and unholy sympathy!” declaring the maneuver “the prettiest trick imaginable.” After the necessary and ineffectual dealings with police, she continued on her way, conversing with Marcus Aurelius, who pipes his wisdom about honor and self-vexing and imperturbability. “Methinks I have ‘arrived’” Guiney concludes, “I have attained a courteous composure proof against mortal hurricanes.”

It is my contention that the very process of essaying combined with and enhanced the writer’s natural (or hard-won) proclivities to bring her to this resolute, peaceful, even wise response, allowing her to “make love to the inevitable” as she says, and I recommend her Christmastime essay here, for your benefit, sure that what Phillip Lopate promises—

The self-consciousness and self-reflection that essay writing demands cannot help but have an influence on the personal essayist’s life.

— works when we read essays, too.


Patrick Madden once took a stroll, in the dead of winter and through shin-high slush, to the very place where Louise Imogen Guiney was pickpocketed (corner of Berkeley and Chandler in Boston). He left a dollar bill hanging temptingly out of his pocket and hoped for the best, but nobody, not even the biting wind, took the bait. When not seeking pickpockets, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He's published one book of essays, Quotidiana, and has another on the way, Sublime Physick, plus an anthology, After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, which he co-edited with David Lazar, also forthcoming. He curates the online anthology of classical essays


  1. I definitely plan to check this essay out-- it sounds great. But doesn't Charles Lamb have a Christmas essay? "A Few Words on Christmas?" I remember I stumbled upon it online a few years ago, and I feel like I remember you and I discussing it briefly on Facebook. But now I'm wondering if the essay was misattributed to him? Or if I imagined a Facebook conversation with you.

    Regardless, Essay Daily Advent is my favorite time of year. And I always appreciate the opportunity to read your work, Patrick.

  2. Charles Dudley Warner wrote an essay "Christmas Past." It is in Harper's December 1884. It is more of a review of Christmas traditions in England. If you do not have access to it, let me know and I'll email you a copy. Andrew Petersen

  3. William: Right you are! And how (unsurprisingly) shameful of me to forget that we discussed this years ago. Here's that Lamb essay: It doesn't appear in his two main books (Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia), nor is it in my 1869 compilation Elia and Eliana. But it does appear in Essays and Sketches (1859), with the caveat that it is "presumptively the work of Lamb, but the fact of his authorship cannot yet be taken as fully established."

    But thanks for reminding me. I'm tempted to revise the note above, but I should leave the mistake for posterity.

    And Andrew: Thanks for that new essay. Here it is: I look forward to reading it.

  4. The plot thickens: William McDonald, the editor of The Works of Charles Lamb (vol. IV, 1903), wrote in a note to the essay, "When I decided to include ["A Few Words on Christmas"], I was of the opinion that though the entire article could hardly be by Lamb (I take it to be Hood's), yet Lamb had a hand in it, and that the description of the Beadle, which stands out markedly from every other part of the article, was most probably his. I feel more doubtful of that now. All we know is that Lamb sent a little contribution to Hone, the one object of which was to have this passage about the Beadle transferred (by way of quotation) to the pages of the "Every Day Book." I will therefore quote here the little contribution entire, with its bright imbedded quotation, and its picture; these appeared in the "Every Day Book" for January 28, 1826."

    "Hood" is Thomas Hood, a "sub-editor" of London Magazine and a minor poet.

    Here is the "Every Day Book" from January 28, 1826:

    Meanwhile, I gotta get back to work. I look forward to picking up this trail of clues later, and I welcome other loupes to help in the investigation.

  5. Fascinating. I remember when I found it thinking that it didn't quite sound like Lamb, but, you know, the Internet said it was his. I was even more skeptical when you said you were unfamiliar with it.

  6. What do you think McDonald is saying, above? That he's ultimately convinced that the essay IS Lamb (mostly or all)? Or that he's not even sure the Beadle passage was Lamb? What does "I feel more doubtful of that now" mean? What part does he doubt?

    BTW, "Hone" is William Hone, a 19th-C muckraker/writer who from 1826-1829 published a series of books--Every-day Book, Table Book, and Year Book--with daily entries. I found a combined volume of the first two with the subtitle "or, Everlasting calendar of popular amusements, sports, pastimes, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to each of the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times; forming a complete history of the year, months, and seasons, and a perpetual key to the almanac ... for daily use and diversion," which sounds delightful. Apparently he had Lamb's assistance with the endeavor.

  7. Here, for instance, are the Every-day Book's December entries, a precursor to this very Essay Daily Advent Calendar, I would say!

  8. Margaret Fuller has a brief Christmas essay here: