by Jeff Porter
The essay occupies an odd place in the history of literature. One moment, the essay is a marginal form, barely alive on the fringes of poetry and fiction, the next, the trendiest thing in town. Recently, its fortunes have been on the rise. Wherever you look, the essay turns up: in graphic memoirs, in blogs, on the radio, in poetry. Its proponents range from Ira Glass and David Sedaris to Andrew Sullivan and Julie Powell, not to mention filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Harun Farocki. No other genre is as infinitely adaptable as the essay.
In its directness and intimacy, the essay is the ideal literary form for the twenty-first century. Overwhelmed by an endless flux of information, we inwardly crave the momentary stay against confusion promised by the essay. We relish, as Scott Russell Sanders wrote, “the spectacle of a single consciousness” confronting the chaos of cultural overload to which we awake each day.1 The trademark of the essay is its intimacy, the human voice addressing an imagined audience. We also relish the opportunity to lose ourselves in the wandering thoughts of the writer. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sully of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” What Johnson saw as disorder we see as an experiment in form and sensibility. We eagerly embrace the essay’s nonlinear quality, losing ourselves in its unpredictable twists and turns and moody swings. Yet getting lost in an essay is not the same as getting lost in a novel. Novels have plots; the essay is famous for rambling, its paratactic structure favoring breaks and digressions over continuity—the kind of disjointedness criticized by Johnson. What Johnson didn’t like appeals to us now. It is the mindful-ness of the essayist, no matter how digressive, that offers us a refuge from the hullabaloo of the world, the discursive slippage from one thought to another.
Most readers know that the word “essay” comes from the French essai. The verb form, essayer, means to attempt, to experiment, to try out. The standard definition of the genre holds that an essay is essentially a way of trying on a thought or an idea like a hat. The fitting room in a French clothing store, by the way, is called a salon d’essayage. On an artsier note, the Club d’Essai was the name of an experimental sound studio directed by the inventor of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, in Paris after the war.
In a way, all thought is experimental and remains so until it can be fixed in a sentence. We are all essayists for a brief moment. As O.B. Hardison, Jr. has noted, Roland Barthes suggests that the essay may have even preceded the concept of genre, owing to its ability to emulate the genesis of thinking.2 If there is something that is fundamental about the essay to the play of the human mind, as Montaigne insisted also, one wonders why it took so long for the form to evolve. Why wasn’t there a Bronze Age essay, for instance, something written by the hero in retirement (surely Nestor would have had something to say after the burning of Troy) or perhaps set down by the stay-at-home wife, the caretaker of the oikos, a meditation on crushing olives or weaving while waiting the warrior’s return? Given the wanderings of Odysseus, his irrepressible digressiveness and curiosity, not to mention his fondness for the personal anecdote, the Odyssey might have been that Ur-essay. It could at least have contained essay-like intervals—“On Cyclopes” or “Of Listening”—enlivened by shrewd reflections on the credulity of men and the cleverness of fish.
All the confusion concerning the essay’s literary status could have been avoided long ago had Homer composed “On Lying,” or better yet “On Dying.” A few centuries later, Aristotle would have wrapped his mind around the form in his theory of literature and that would have been that. Let us imagine such a moment: Aristotle on the essay, the final chapter of the Poetics. All literature, according to Aristotle, is mimetic, if only because humans are instinctively imitative, the one difference between us and other animals. Tragedy is an imitation of noble action, he said, and aspires to a certain magnitude. Likewise with the epic, only there the scale is much larger. Comedy and satire, on the other hand, mimic the deeds of low-life types.
It’s not difficult to imagine the place of the essay in this scheme. Like tragedy or satire, the essay is certainly an imitation, although not of action but of thought. The essay is an imitation of thinking, or more precisely, it is “thought thinking.” But the kind of thought that occurs in the essay isn’t an abstract conceptual exercise; instead, as an imitation of thinking, the essay requires an actor who can perform that role. As readers, we relish the spectacle of the firstperson narrator laboring over the minutiae of existence, struggling to divest himself, as Theodor W. Adorno put it, of the traditional idea of truth.3
The work is a tragedy, Aristotle said, only if it arouses pity and fear, and that’s usually the result of some unthinkable deed, such as murdering a husband or fathering a sister. What does the essay, as an imitation of thought, arouse? Amusement, perhaps, but rarely terror. The essay is not a catastrophic but a convivial genre, one that aspires toward a direct relationship with the implied reader. If catharsis is the end of tragedy, the essay’s payoff is recognition, which is different from knowledge or mere understanding in that it arises from felt or shared experience. To recognize something is to be affected by what we already know but didn’t realize, an insight that leads us back to what is both familiar and strange. In that respect, the essay may sometimes include what Freud called the “uncanny.”4 The uncanny, as Nicholas Royle explains, is a “crisis of the proper,” involving a “peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar.”5 How else should we regard E.B. White’s oftanthologized essay, “Once More to the Lake,” and the recognition in its surprise ending?6 That essay may look like a hokey tribute to a boy’s pastoral childhood (“Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible,” 535), but White’s lake turns out to be haunted by his narrator’s doppelgänger, who springs on him unawares like a phantom in a gothic tale. At first 10 White’s persona, cast in the classic role of the unreliable narrator, doesn’t recognize the resemblance between himself and his double, but when he does it’s too late. In the uncanny spectral face of his other self he sees an image of his own death. The delivery of this punch line depends on the cunning way in which White sets up his own narrator, how he is taken in by his own eloquence. The narrator’s surprise may lie not only in glimpsing mortality but in realizing that he has been had by the writer. What commands the reader’s attention in the end isn’t the honesty or sincerity or lyricism expressed by White’s narrator—but rather his false consciousness.7
As “Once More to the Lake” suggests, essays are more dramatic than we might suspect. If this surprises us, that’s partly a side effect of the essay’s uncertain literary status. The drama inherent in the form depends on how the writer’s stand-in (the persona or narrator) gropes a way toward knowing. That groping is always interesting because it’s usually so self-conscious and doubtful. Recall Joan Didion’s getting lost in Haight-Ashbury, how she confesses to the reader that, petite and diffident, she is not up to the task at hand, making sense of the 1960s. Bronze-age warriors, it should be said, were not ordinarily tormented by doubt. Even the most suspicious of heroes, Odysseus, rarely questioned his own actions. By definition the Homeric hero cannot afford to hesitate—the battlefield requires certitude and the sudden thrust of swords—and that is perhaps why, after all, the Odyssey is not an essay. Self-assured types, as Phillip Lopate reminds us, do not make good essayists.8 What we expect from the modern essay-writer is a tendency to doubt and hesitate. This is partly the legacy of Montaigne.
The “father” of the essay, as he is often called (actually, as he calls himself ), was a wellto-do aristocrat who retired from his legal and administrative duties near Bordeaux in 1571 at the age of thirty-eight and devoted the remainder of his days to reading and writing. Montaigne’s essays were quirky, ironic, provocative, and stylistically engaging. As Montaigne once explained, he saw his writing primarily as a reflection of the human mind caught in the act of thinking, as if the essay, unlike other prose forms, were capable of turning the mind inside out.
His use of the first-person je was a radical and deliberate choice that parted ways with other forms of early modern prose dominated by theological and philosophical writing. Against the tradition of scholasticism, Montaigne’s style looked transgressive. There was something hideous about it, he thought, as though it were an amalgam of ill-fitting parts. Yet the mock apologies he repeatedly offers to readers for speaking in his own idiosyncratic voice, allowing his thoughts to ramble on the page, suggest that any guilt Montaigne might have felt for deviating from the norm was imaginary at best, a running joke shared by the writer and his readers at the expense of the more sober discourses.
Montaigne’s experiments with subjectivity were inspired by the realization that the subject is a wobbly and unsteady thing. “I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself,” he wrote in “Of Cripples.” “We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.”9
So inconstant was this self that it seemed to suffer from “a natural drunkenness.” This is why, Montaigne explains, he sought a different style of writing. “If my mind could gain a firm footing,” he confessed in “Of Repentance,” “I would not make essays, I would make decisions; 11 but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial” (610–11). The self-deprecating humor on display here is not much different from that of Socrates, whose example Montaigne cites frequently. What Montaigne borrowed from the master of ignorance was a good eye for human inadequacy. With it he assumed a pose of eccentricity and marginality, a clever turn that justified his selfdramatization.
As a literary construct, Montaigne’s narrative je was immensely important in the history of prose because it opened up a space outside of mainstream writing for a non-institutional voice. Montaigne may have felt anxious about turning his gaze inward, nervous about the uncertainty he flirted with, but he was convinced that the knowledge gained about the errant nature of human thought not only would have philosophical worth, but would also raise questions about the kind of authoritarian practices tied to the endless religious quarrels of late- sixteenth-century France.
Montaigne’s writing was in fact unusually autobiographical for an age under the sway of doctrinal thought. Like his near-death experience from a riding accident recounted in “Of Practice,” some of his personal anecdotes were even memoir-like. “I went riding alone one day about a league from my house,” he writes, when a large work horse galloping much too fast “came down like a colossus,” sending both the rider and his horse head over heels. Montaigne describes his near-tragic fall as though he were both in the moment and removed at the same time: “There lay the horse bowled over and stunned, and ten or twelve paces beyond, dead, stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned, my sword, which I had had in my hand, more than ten paces away, my belt in pieces, having no more motion of feeling than a log” (268– 69). Montaigne is less interested in suffering than in the strange state of his mind as he lies halfway between life and death. The awful commotion of the reckless rider coming up from behind, the terrible tumbling of animals and men, the lacerations, the pain, the numbness—we are immersed in the chaos of the moment. He may swoon, as he says, but this does not prevent him from describing the scene as though he were not just a first-person victim sprawled on the ground, but a fully aware bystander. That he should have survived his fall and yet have had so little control over his fate leaves Montaigne amazed at the self-contradictory nature of knowledge. There is no lesson to be drawn from this anecdote, at least in the conventional sense, unless it is seen as a sign of the skeptical energy of his Essais—as if to say, “here is a man whose experience (not to mention his identity) cannot be mastered.”
Montaigne’s project occupied much of his time during the last two decades of his life. He carefully revised the first two books of essays published in 1580 and began writing new ones. In 1588, a second edition of his essays appeared, and by the time of his death in 1592 the book had grown significantly. As he wrote in the preface to the first edition of his Essais, “I am myself the matter of my book. You would be unreason- able to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject”(2). That coy disclaimer fooled almost no one. By Renaissance standards, in fact, Montaigne had produced a blockbuster. The popularity of the Essais soon spread across borders, the first English translation appearing in 1603. We know that Shakespeare had a copy of Florio’s edition of the Essais, which he read with great interest. According to some, Hamlet (the most essayistic of Shakespeare’s characters) would not be Hamlet without the intervention of Montaigne.
A French writer may have invented the essay under the influence of the ancients, but English writers succeeded in canonizing the genre in a variety of guises. Montaigne’s act, 12 though, was not an easy one to follow. Francis Bacon never even tried. His book of Essayes (1597), written in a tight-lipped, aphoristic style, offers few glimpses behind the curtain.10 It’s not that Bacon refused to perform, but that his feat is more syntactical than psychological. Much of his literary energy is concentrated in the turn of his sentences: “Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes” (“Of Adversity”).11 For Bacon, the sentence is an imitation of a “magisterial” mind that exists as a model of proportion and restraint, of reasonableness. Bacon’s aphoristic sentence is the perfect image of the orderly and the stable for an Elizabethan moment that was anything but:
Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they fly best by twilight” (“Of Suspicion,” 405). Bacon doesn’t give much of himself away in the process, as if the dignity of right thinking were an anonymous act. Bacon’s Essayes were inspired by Montaigne’s but certainly do not resemble them. They reflect a mind that imposes its will on the matter of language with unequivocal confidence in the power to know. If anything, Bacon’s aphorisms drew upon the tradition of the maxim, and conjured up an intellectual supremacy grounded in the authority of human learning. It was the voice of wisdom, as Bacon’s readers broadly recognized, but full of wit and clarity: “Long and curious speeches are as fit for dispatch, as a robe or mantle with a long train is for race (“Of Dispatch,” 389).
It wasn’t long, however, before other English writers did follow Montaigne’s more whimsical lead. While the periodical essayists of the eighteenth century (Joseph Addison and Richard Steele) found Montaigne too digressive for their tastes, nineteenth-century writers such as Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb were intrigued by his expression of subjectivity. The great merit of Montaigne, according to Hazlitt, was that he was the first modern writer “to say as an author what he felt as a man” (“On the Periodical Essayists”).12 That Montaigne could write whatever passed through his mind seemed immensely important, and his commitment to self-portraiture (“C’est moy que je peins”—It is myself that I paint) was taken to heart by nineteenth-century writers, in whose work the performative nature of the essay reaches its peak.
Though instinctively quarrelsome, Hazlitt, we are told, was nervous and shy in social situations, but hardly so in his essays, where he invented an “other self,” to borrow a phrase from Lamb. What made Hazlitt so interesting as an essayist was this brazen persona. In one of his most entertaining essays, “On the Pleasure of Hating,” Hazlitt gives voice to the perverse idea that animosity lies at the root of existence, and he does so with terrific vehemence.13 Like so much of Hazlitt’s writing, this essay is a bravura performance. It begins as Hazlitt watches a spider crawling across the floor of his study and wonders how frightened the insect must be by the author’s vast size. Although it is in his power to crush the tiny thing, he lets the spider escape. He feels (in principle) no ill-will toward it. Still, he despises spiders, loathes them “with a sort of mystic horror” (190). This small episode introduces Hazlitt’s startling idea that hatred is part of the natural order of things, and that without it “we should lose the very spring of thought and action. . . . Hatred alone is immortal” (190). But in Hazlitt’s dialectical view, hatred is also a disaster. Like a “poisonous mineral” it distorts and corrupts the human mind, stripping all good things of their apparent value. “Love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves,” Hazlitt writes in a crescendo of loathing (192). 13
Channeling his inner Hamlet, Hazlitt is swept up in a wave of pessimism that moves the essay toward the bleak conclusion that man can do no more than surrender “to the innate perversity and dastard spirit of his own nature which leaves no room for farther hope or disappointment” (197). The playful thought experiment that began the essay turns into a dark fantasy that leads the author into deep water, where he must resist his own all-consuming despair. It is as if the essayist, as actor, were no longer putting on a show but had become overwhelmed by the implications of his subject, by the reality of his thoughts. Hazlitt’s inner struggle is not a life-changing crisis, however, and his recovery is quick. At the essay’s conclusion, he recoups his combative spirit and, with a wink, ironically targets himself as a fit object of misanthropy, although in a way that preserves the integrity of his perversity. “Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough” (198). Ornery though he might be, Hazlitt achieves his own kind of détente with the world.
Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” bears out Adorno’s idea that “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy.”14 Hazlitt never missed an opportunity to argue against the prevailing philosophy of utilitarianism, or any formality or system, and many of his essays give voice to these contrary and, at times, contentious impulses. Hazlitt took Montaigne’s example seriously: like his model, he would tell the reader what he thought and felt about everything. He would let his mind roam freely, even if that meant falling under his own censure. Like his friend and fellow essayist Charles Lamb, who often criticized his avatar “Elia” as a “stammering buffoon,” Hazlitt was determined to ground the essay’s introspective spirit in the irony of selfcriticism. Thought was agonistic. For Hazlitt, as for Montaigne, the essay was a way of acting out this process.
Aristotle ranked what he called “the spectacle” and what we would describe as place or setting last on his list of importance when outlining the elements of tragedy in The Poetics, since it was the province of the set designer rather than the poet. The presence of scene was not at first greatly significant in the evolution of the essay, and it took time for the idea of place to gain relevance. Earlier essayists concentrated on exploring their own character, and the site of inquiry didn’t always matter. In most cases, the writer’s mind, driven to put itself on display, was the mise en scène of writing, the real spectacle. As Adorno has said, the essay was in fact embarrassed by an “excess of intention.”15 The many avatars adopted by essayists document this surplus: the periodical personae of Addison and Steele (“Isaac Bickerstaff,” “Nestor Ironsides,” “Mr. Spectator”), Charles Lamb’s “Elia,” Emerson’s transparent eyeball, Oliver Goldsmith’s “Lien Chi Altangi,” and Bruce Frederick Cummings’s “W.N.P. Barbellion” all demonstrate that personality trumped place for a long time in the history of the essay.
Except for Henry David Thoreau and the occasional open-air foray, the significance of place in the essay remained unexplored until the twentieth century, when the essayist literally began rambling outdoors, as if the wandering instinct of the genre had finally decided to find real space to move through. The canonical essayists of the last century linger in the reader’s memory less for their displays of wit and personality than for having engaged with unforgettable places: John Muir straddling an ice bridge in an Alaskan blizzard, coaxing a terrified dog across the abyss (“Stickeen”); the cobblestone streets of Virginia Woolf ’s London, lined with flower shops and bookstores (“Street Haunting: A London Adventure”); James Agee’s noisy Knoxville (“A streetcar raising iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous, rousing and raising again 14 its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks”— “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”); Loren Eiseley hunting bones in the sunbaked Badlands; James Baldwin’s Harlem; E.B. White’s faux-pastoral Maine lake; Joan Didion’s southern California (“As it happens, I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot”— “On Morality”); Tom Wolfe’s magic bus; Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek; Gretel Ehrlich’s Wyoming (“During the winter, while I was riding to find a new calf, my jeans froze to the saddle, and in the silence that such cold creates I felt like the first person on earth, or the last”—“The Solace of Open Spaces”).
Introducing scenic elements into the essay allowed writers to contextualize their thought in ways that rivaled the novel. Consider the predicament of the narrator in “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell’s essay about disillusionment with British imperialism in Burma.16 Orwell, who was born in British-occupied Asia, returned there in 1922 to join the imperial police. The narrator is caught between hatred of the Empire he serves and intense dislike of the Burmese people whose opposition makes his job miserable. He is expected to subdue a frenzied elephant that, for a brief moment, has created a fuss in the village. Rifle in hand, the narrator must restore order. The elephant, though, has settled down by the time the mob catches up with it, calmly eating grass. The narrator is still expected to act, however:
They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. (46)
The narrator fires on the elephant, if only to avoid being laughed at. The actual shooting—the kill—is a harrowing spectacle. After the first shot, the animal “sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot” (48). The elephant’s slow, agonizing death is cinematic, vivid, and dramatic—that of the poor Indian man who had been crushed by the beast occurs off camera—but as a ritual slaying that should not have happened it’s a terrible deed that weighs heavily on the narrator.
The idea of Orwell’s essay (the failure of British Rule) is incarnated in a scene whose complexity is described bit by bit. There are the jeering faces of the Burmese, the squalid bamboo huts, the naked children, the dead man sprawling in the mud, the rifle cartridges, the wild-now-tame elephant—all of which is refracted through the narrator’s mind with growing irritation. The narrator must play two roles: he must act out the part of “George Orwell,” as cast by the implied author Eric Blair; he must also play the role of imperial policeman before the “sneering” Burmese. Neither role is very pleasant, but it is his job to be vexed, both by the 15 inhospitable environment of the colonial landscape and also by his failure to impose himself on the scene. He’s trapped, as the idiom goes, between a rock and a hard place.
Orwell’s narrators often find themselves in forbidding scenes that test their capacity to be subjects. What engages us most about their predicaments is the clarity of their self-agonizing awareness, which is grounded in their tenacious attempt to make sense of ill-defined realities. “A story always sounds clear enough at a distance,” says the narrator in “Shooting,” “but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.” If for Montaigne the writerly self was incoherent, for the twentieth-century essayist it was the scene of modernity that had become indecipherable.
Though still marginalized academically, the essay has benefited from the popularity of literary nonfiction in general, which has thrived since the 1960s, thanks in large part to the appeal of New Journalism, that daring mix of ethnography, investigative reportage, cultural criticism, and fiction that rocked magazine culture during the heyday of radical chic and political activism in America. Today’s essayists, who are savvy about the genre’s history and formal possibilities, have pushed the envelope of the essay in any number of ways, from forays in prosepoetry to experimental writing and the essay film. The essay as currently practiced is a place to act out one’s engagement with a world that grows stranger each day. The best essayists do that by returning to the key developments in the essay’s history, taking advantage of its subjective, place-oriented way of dramatizing thought. David Foster Wallace offers an especially compelling example of the advantages of mining the essay’s past. Not only does Wallace, as essayist, play the participant observer in the tradition of Tom Wolfe, but he also foregrounds his rambling consciousness (sometimes in footnotes and sidebars) in the manner of the familiar essay.
No one would call David Foster Wallace a joyful writer, but the jouissance he lets slip when composing an elaborate footnote in his essays is the joy of digression, a pleasure unique to the essay.17 Other traits commonly attributed to the genre include spontaneity and intimacy, stylishness, the exaltation of the fragmentary, the rejection of deductive logic, whimsicality, the avoidance of erudition, a dislike of dogmatism, an interest in neglected subjects, an idiosyncratic voice, playfulness, an emphasis on human fallibility, and a willingness to expose one’s intellectual insecurities. The essay is also likely to reveal a coyness about its truth status. If truth exists in an essay, it is a function of individual experience and consciousness rather than of any system of thought.
How any of the above characteristics are played out in an essay depends on its cognitive style. According to Graham Good, the essay has privileged four types of thinking: traveling, pondering, reading, and remembering. These modes of thought correspond with four principal types of essay: the travel essay, the moral essay, the critical essay, and the autobiographical essay.18 As for the subject matter of the essay, it serves mostly as a pretext for the discussion of topics that tickle the writer’s fancy.
Such are the oft-discussed formal properties of the essay. And yet the poetics of the essay may not at first glance seem obvious. Georg Lukács wrote that the essay was and was not an art form, that it was and was not the soul of criticism.19 This kind of paradoxical language is typical of efforts to theorize a genre that seems so immune to theory. For Lukács, as for Adorno, the 16 essay’s indeterminate state is one of its greatest strengths, because it allows the genre to accomplish its subversive ends. According to formalists such as the New Critics, however, that indeterminacy disqualifies the essay as a literary form. Being neither poetic nor fictive, the language of the essay was in their view not unique or special. It was, in fact, ordinary because its subject matter was quotidian. There is some truth to that notion. The essay does not usually speak in poetic or overtly literary terms (although there is nothing that prevents the essayist from doing so).
As a species of “nonfiction,” the essay is engaged with the “real” and is not invented or made up like a poem or story. The essay places ordinary life at the center of its investigations. Anything and everything can be the stuff of the essay. And yet the essay is, as William Gass wrote, “the opposite of that awful object, ‘the article.’”20 Gass’s point is that the essay’s dependence on reality doesn’t mean that its representational strategies are any less artful than the devices of poetry or fiction. In fact, one of the most interesting conditions of the essay is the tension between its un-invented content and its highly inventive style, structure, and voice. More often than not, the apparent informality of the essay is the result of great craft and care. Italian writers of the sixteenth century had a word for this: sprezzatura,“artless art.” That the essay seems artless is one of its great ruses. As Annie Dillard says, there’s nothing you can’t do with the essay: “no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.”21
The essay’s poetics is a poetics of ordinary, non-literary language. But its ordinary language isn’t really all that ordinary. It only seems so. In actuality, the language of the essay is carefully shaped and highly crafted. Because the essay has been neglected by critics and scholars for so long, its formal and stylistic strategies—not to mention its history—cry out for attention…
Notes and References
1. Scott Russell Sanders, “The Singular First Person,” The Sewanee Review 96 (1988): 658–72, at 659.
2. O.B. Hardison, Jr.,“In Praise of the Essay,” The Wilson Quarterly 14.4 (1990): 54–65, at 54.
3. Theodor W. Adorno,“The Essay as Form,” New German Critique 32 (1984): 151–71, at 159.
4. See Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).
5. Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003), 1.
6. E.B. White,“Once More to the Lake,” The Art of the Personal Essay, ed. Phillip Lopate (New York: Anchor, 1994): 533–38.
7. As Carl L. Klaus notes, E.B White frankly acknowledged the degree of fabrication behind the construction of his persona:“Writing is a form of imposture: I’m not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader” (letter, August 15, 1969); quoted by Klaus, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2010), 2.
8. Lopate,“Introduction,” The Art of the Personal Essay, xxvi.
9. The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1957), 787. Subsequent references are to this text.
10 During his lifetime, between 1597 and 1625, 13 editions of Bacon’s essays appeared (and since then have probably never been out of print). They enjoyed an abiding popularity with Bacon’s contemporaries and grew in number from ten in 1597 to fifty-nine in 1625.
11. Francis Bacon: The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 349. Subsequent references are to this edition.
12. William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings, ed. Alexander Ireland (London: F. Warne and Company, 1889), 144–45.
13. William Hazlitt, “The Pleasure of Hating,” in The Art of the Personal Essay, ed. Phillip Lopate (New York: Anchor, 1994): 189–98. Subsequent references are to this collection.
14. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” 171.
15. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” 159.
16. George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant,” Essays (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002): 42–49.
17. Ross Chambers calls the habit of digression a therapy for brooding, a notion that fits well with the history of the essay. See his Loiterature (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999), 19.
18. Graham Goode, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (London: Routledge, 1988), xi–xii.
19. Georg Lukács, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1974), 1–18.
20. William Gass,“Emerson and the Essay,” Habitations of the Word (New York: Simon, 1985), 9–49, at 25.
21. Annie Dillard, “ To Fashion a Text,” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser (New York: Mariner Books, 1998), 141–62, at 160.
Jeff Porter is the author of Oppenheimer Is Watching Me. His essays have appeared inAntioch Review, Isotope, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, Wilson Quarterly, Contemporary Literature, Blackbird, and other journals. His film and radio work includes The Men Who Dance the Giglio, Writing on Rock: N. Scott Momaday, Dublin USA, Herby Sings the Blues, and The Angel of History. He is an Associate Professor in English at The University of Iowa, where he specializes in contemporary literature and culture, radio, film and new media studies, and literary nonfiction. His current project focuses on the history and theory of radiophonic literature. With Patricia Foster, he is co-editor of Understanding the Essay, forthcoming from Broadview Press. (from english.uiowa.edu)