Oliver Goldsmith’s essays reflect two significant literary transitions of the late eighteenth century. The larger or more general of these was the beginning of the gradual evolution of Romanticism from the Neoclassicism of the previous one hundred years. Oppressed by the heavy “rule of reason” and ideas of taste and polish, readers of this transitional period gradually began to respond more to the imaginative and the emotional in literature. This transition serves as a backdrop for a related evolution that played an essential role in the development of the modern short story. At this time the well-established periodical essay began a glacially slow movement away from its predominant emphasis on a formal exposition of ideas; contemporary essayists, none more prominent than Goldsmith, began to indulge more their taste for the personal approach and for narrative. The result was increased experimentation with characterization, story line, setting, and imagery; concurrent with these developments, style, theme, tone, and structural patterning received particular attention. Varying degrees and types of emphasis on these elements pushed the essay form in many diverse directions. Of all the contemporary essayists, Oliver Goldsmith best reflects these developments.
The Citizen of the World
Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World vividly illustrates the variety of experimentation in the contemporary periodical essay and is of great importance in the history of the Asian tale. With its vigorous appeal to the imagination and emotions, the Asian tale marked a major step toward Romanticism. More important, its popularity at a time of significant literary experimentation led to an interesting mixture of two literary traditions, the essay-sketch and the tale, which serves as a bedrock for the development of the modern short story.
Goldsmith incorporated the current enthusiasm for Asian motifs in his collection of essays. He used the device of the frame tale, associated with...