Biography of Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith, one of the most popular 18th century English writers, lived a fascinating life of contradictions, between his unquestionable brilliance and self-destructive tendencies.

Many details of Goldsmith's life are not precisely known, partially because he seems to have frequently lied to his official biographer, about details as innocuous as his birth year or as significant as his lineage. And yet this fact tells us as much about Goldsmith's life and character as any other detail.

Goldsmith was born sometime between 1728 and 1731 to a poor Irish family. He was one of seven children, and his father was a county vicar. When Goldsmith was still young, his father's death forced him to rely on a wealthy uncle for support. In his early days, he was frequently bullied because of facial disfigurement caused by smallpox. Goldsmith never bothered to hide his Irish origins, even maintaining his brogue despite the fact that it would have been considered low-class once he later settled in London amongst more esteemed company. His relationship with his mother was always a complicated one, and he later grew estranged from her.

He was always noted for his intelligence, and earned a Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College, Dublin in 1750. While there, he participated in a student riot and was publicly admonished for his role. Despite a strong acumen for literary work, Goldsmith was unable to settle on a career for a long time, flittering between the church, law, and education. In 1752, he began to study medicine in Edinburgh. Though there is no evidence that he ever completed his course of study, he did later practice medicine, and in fact referred to himself as Dr. Goldsmith throughout his career.

Goldsmith traveled for many years, until settling in London in 1756. It was here that he finally turned to literature, and his career took off. Though he made a lucrative living through writing history books and literary journals, Goldsmith also lived a free-wheeling life of gambling and generous extravagance that kept him in debt. Amongst his literary output in this period are contributions to Tobias Smollett's Critical Review, and An Inquiry to the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759). His writing also appeared in The Busy Body, The British Magazine, and The Lady's Magazine. A year later, his "Chinese letters" were published in the Public Ledger; these were fictionalized letters in the style of Voltaire that presumed to be written by a Chinese mandarin visiting England.

It was during this time period that Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of England's most famous men of letters, became a great admirer of Goldsmith's work. He invited Goldsmith to join his exclusive Turk's Head Club, and through Johnson's patronage, Goldsmith began to publish his first master works, including the novel The Vicar of Wakefield. This novel, along with his masterful comic play She Stoops to Conquer, found great success, and remain his best-loved works. Vicar was particularly important since his advance earnings kept him out of a debtor's prison. During this period, Goldsmith also published his letters and The Life of Richard Nash.

He continued to write throughout the 1760's, overseeing several editions of The Vicar of Wakefield during that time. Goldsmith died suddenly on April 4, 1774, after suffering from a kidney disease that he refused to treat properly. It was an early death, but not entirely unexpected considering his lifestyle. His work The Haunch of Venison was published posthumously in 1776.

During his life, Goldsmith was equally known for his brilliance and for his insecurity. Always willing to act foolishly, he could come off as extremely generous and gregarious, or as conceited and pretentious. Some biographers see in him a constant contradiction between the high-class post he earned through talent and the low-class heritage he refused to totally eschew. In short, Oliver Goldsmith is one of the most contradictory of his day's canonical writers, a quality that helps very much to understand the complications inherent in his work.

Study Guides on Works by Oliver Goldsmith

She Stoops to Conquer was first produced in London in 1773, and was a massive success. It was reputed to have created an applause that was yet unseen in the London theatre, and almost immediately entered the repertory of respectable companies....

The Vicar of Wakefield, published between 1761 and 1762, is Oliver Goldsmith's most famous work and one of the most beloved and widely-read 18th century English novels. It is also considered a model example of the sentimental novel, one of the...