Edward Gibbon’s Letters

We have all heard the wisecrack about Gibbon’s Autobiography, that he wrote of himself as though he were the Roman Empire. How true it is. Never, not even in Plutarchian Rome, did the public mask, the Social Lie, so completely obscure reality as in Gibbon’s day and world. We expect our great politicians, some fraudulent old “tub of whiskey and stale nicotine,” to be strutters on the stage, to be devoid of personal life; and who will ever number the heartaches of Arthur Godfrey? Again, we can enjoy in small doses the letters of that urtype of Fifty-seventh Street pansy Horace Walpole, whom many people consider the best letter writer in the English language. Certainly a little camp now and then is fun. But Gibbon is another matter. Somehow, somewhere, we get the conviction of a tragic, hidden self, nursed through life like an imbecile in a garret. I think the secret leaks through in the fact of the style. Here is one place we can say for sure, the style is the man. True, the Decline and Fall is pompous at times, snickers at times, but by and large, it conveys, more than any other work in English, in sentence after noble sentence, the conviction of integrity and tragedy. The famous footnote on Theodora, “in the decent obscurity of a learned language,” is not just a leer. The whole Theodora story is a muffled cry across time, sex, space and circumstance of one lost and frightened person to another. Reading it, you know Gibbon was haunted by those terrified Byzantine eyes in the Ravenna mosaic of the little circus girl growing old under her top-heavy crown. Gibbon was a strange lover — the man who proposed only once to a woman and then, too chubby to rise in his tight breeches, had to be helped from his knees by her. An apocryphal legend, but with its own truth.

It is of course to Gibbon’s letters to Suzanne Curchod that you turn first, hoping for something new. Here they are again, just as they were before, set pieces of evasion. This Abelard, “a man naturally cold, or at best tepid,” preferred to wait till old age and write the History of His Calamities in the guise of the terrible romance of the martyrdom of Boethius — the noblest pages of the Decline and Fall, and one of the greatest short narratives in any language. There are plenty of secrets in that big book; there are none at all in these twelve hundred pages of letters. Not a secret. Not a single leak. Not just Suzanne — it is romantic to think she was of crucial importance — there is nothing at all. All the right eighteenth-century opinions on all the right subjects at all the right times. Letters composed by a committee from the Manchester Guardian, or, if you prefer, the Nation. No wonder the college professors all love the eighteenth century, those untroubled days when nobody peeked, nobody spilled the beans. Nobody except Blake and Burns and ten thousand other witnesses from Cowper to Sade. Nobody ever let on. Nobody burned the Bastille.

So, to talk like a book reviewer, here at last is the personal Gibbon, as complete as he is ever likely to be — three volumes of consummate care and scholarship. Here is plenty of documentation for “Main Forces in Eighteenth-Century Thought and Life.” Here is some charming, witty, often even wise observation, in a prose no less noble for being intimate. Here is all the editorial information and apparatus anybody could desire. As for Gibbon, he is somewhere else — on the throne, in the brothels of the Levant with Theodora, in the tower with Boethius. Miss Norton has worked to do what she could, but, as she says, speaking of certain letters to a fellow scholar, “Had Gibbon continued the pursuit of pure scholarship, he would no doubt have become more correct and more fastidious, and the present letters indicate that he might have become an accomplished Latinist with an individual style.”



This review of The Letters of Edward Gibbon (ed. J.E. Norton, Macmillan, 1956) originally appeared in The Nation (30 June 1956) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1956. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Rexroth essay on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Other Rexroth Essays