Biography of Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1731-1774)
Many details of Oliver Goldsmith's life are not exactly known, partially because in working with his official biographer, he seems to have lied quite a bit (on details including his birth year and lineage). This in a way tells us as much about Goldsmith's life and character as any other fact.
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 died and so he was forced to rely on a wealthy uncle for support. Goldsmith never bothered to hide his Irish origins, even keeping his brogue despite the fact that it would have been viewed as low-class once he was settled in London amongst the esteemed company he would later keep. His relationship with his mother was always a complicated one, and he later grew estranged from her.
He was always an intelligent boy, and he earned a Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College, Dublin in 1750. 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 later would practice medicine and in fact referred to himself as Dr. Goldsmith throughout his career.
For many years, he traveled until finally 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 the writing of history books and literary journals (including the well-known magazine The Bee), Goldsmith also lived a free-wheeling life of gambling and generous extravagance that kept him in debt.
It was in this time period that Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the most famous men of letters in England, 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 remain his most loved works, and were both popular in their day.
Goldsmith died suddenly on April 4, 1774, after suffering with kidney disease that he refused to treat properly. It was an early death but not entirely unexpected considering his style of life.
In 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 the canonical writers of his time, a quality that helps very much to understand his famous play.