Henry James’s introduction to The Vicar of Wakefield, 1900
IT is a sign of the wonderful fortune of The Vicar of Wakefield that the properest occasions for speaking of it continue to present themselves. Everything has been said about it, and said again and again, but the book has long since diffused an indulgence that extends even to commentators. In the degree of its fortune, indeed, it seems almost single of its kind. Stretch the indulgence as we may, Goldsmith's story still fails, somehow, on its face, to account for its great position and its remarkable career. Read as one of the masterpieces by a person not acquainted with our literature, it might easily give an impression that this literature is not immense. It has been reproduced, at all events, in a thousand editions, and the end is not yet. All the arts of book-making and of editing, all the graces of typography and of illustration, have been lavished upon its text. Painters, playwrights, and musicians have again and again
drawn upon it, and there is not a happy turn in it, not a facetious figure nor a vivid image, that has not become familiar and famous. We point our phrases with its good things, and the fact that everybody knows them seems only to make them better.