Book Review: Essayists On The Essay

Essayists On The Essay: Montaigne To Our Time, edited by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French

As an essayist, I find it somewhat striking that I have long written essays without stopping to think about what other essayists have said about them.  Although like many young people I had to write a lot of papers that were given the name of essays even though they were not essays in the way that essayists consider it, unlike many people I kept on writing them for fun as a way of expressing the way my mind worked and the subjects that caught my fancy when I was no longer required to do so for academic purposes.  For whatever reason, the tensions and contradictions of the essay have long appealed to me, and as a somewhat self-absorbed person who was fascinated by the workings of my own mind and somehow of the (often mistaken) belief that other people were interested in it as well, the essay has long been something I have practiced, like the people in this book.  If you too are someone who appreciates writing essays, then you will likely appreciate the rather meta achievement of this book in providing collections of essays written by essayists on the essay as a genre.

It should be noted that this particular collection of books has a wide variety of excellent and generally (although not universally) accomplished essayists.  The essays begin with selections from the work of Michel de Montaigne, who is considered to be the father of the essay and responsible for its development in early modern Western civilization, along with essays by William Cornwallis and Francis Bacon from the early seventeenth century.  Moving on to eighteenth century essayists we have Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson represented for their writings.  The nineteenth century has more essayists included, namely William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Smith, Walter Pater, and Agnes Repplier.  Consistent with the presentist bias of most literary collections, though, it is little surprise that the vast majority of essayists included are from the twentieth century:  William Dean Howells, Josè Ortega y Gasset, A.C. Benson, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Musil, G.K. Chesteron, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Walter Murdoch, Enrique Anderson Imbert, Max Bense, Mariano Picón-Slas, Germán Arciniegas, Theodor Adorno, Aldous Huxley, Michael Hamburger, Fernand Ouellette, Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, Edward Hoagland, E.B. White, William H. Gass, Jean Starobinski, Andrè Belleau, Elizabeth Hardwick, Gabriel Zaid, Scott Russell Sanders, Phillip Lopate, Gerald Early, Susan Sontag, Nancy Mairs, Rachel Blau Duplessis, and Cynthia Ozick.  The editors even try their hand at some of the essayists of the current century:  Vivian Gornick, John D’Agata, Paul Graham, Ander Monson, John Bresland, and Jeff Porter.  Alas, none of my essays were included.

Despite the attempts by the author to cast a wide variety of essayists in order to avoid a selection that was too narrowly focused on distinguished European and European-American male writers (which would not have bothered me, but would certainly have made this collection less diverse for those who care about such matters), there are a lot of similarities that run through these essays.  Essayists often feel it necessary to defend themselves or defend their genre despite it being somewhat rough around the edges and filled with the inner workings of the author’s thinking, and some focus on the need for authenticity and others fret about essayists being self-absorbed and there are continual worries that the essay is dead or dying and that it has been co-opted by the less free article and its commercial and political demands.  Yet the essay continues to live on, and although there are discussions of video essays and radio essays as ways that the essay is moving into genres outside of merely textual ones, it is surprising how few people write about blogs and the relationship of blogging to the early periodicals of the eighteenth century as being similarly low barrier of entry areas for writers to explore their chosen topics without the commercial pressure that writers often face.  Few ever sought to be rich writing the essay, but in being themselves, many essayists have found themselves quite like other essayists of a diverse tribe of people.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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