By G. Douglas Atkins
. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The ﬁrst idea was acceptance, the accept- ance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must ﬁght them with all one’s strength.
—James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
An Essay on the Essay
Embracing tension, the essay lies between literature and philosophy, experience and meaning, fiction and fact, tradition and the individual, timelessness and time, a via media creature (which does not, contrary to appearance, equate with “middle ground” or the moderate). The tension everywhere present in the essay, rooted in the here-and-now through which it works towards timelessness, which it comes to realize as inhering—incarnate—in the here-and-now, is crucial to an individual essay’s success. Take the essays collected in Scott Russell Sanders’s admirable The Force of Spirit. Typically engaging, these essays reflect Sanders’s trademark sympathy, the capaciousness of his imagination, and the genial warmth and generous magnetism that attract more and more readers. Once, I find, you go beyond the initial reading and the necessary sympathy with which that must be conducted, and you begin to allow for critical judgment to emerge, you find something missing. It is absent from the Introduction on. Matters are too easy, Sanders bent on peace and peaceableness, a kind man who has trouble dealing with trouble, a point he underscored in an earlier and much-anthologized essay about his alcoholic late father “Under the Influence.” Here, introducing The Force of Spirit, he avers that the assembled essays “grew from seeds of bewilderment and wonder,” but we are allowed to see very little of either. Sanders briefly mentions climacteric events in his life that shaped his thinking and feeling and that led directly to this writing, including his son’s and daughter’s growing- up, his father-in-law’s series of strokes, his own mother’s death. But we get none of these events represented, only reported on and thus dealt with at best as cause. Sanders goes on to record some of the searching questions with which he was “struggling,” but those questions do not figure in the foreground of the essays that follow. He emphasizes the “bind]ing] back together” that the word “religion” itself connotes, and then describes “the rhythm of my days—a scattering and gathering, scattering and gathering.”
A brief look at Thoreau will clarify matters as well as allow implications to emerge. Often regarded as the quintessential American essayist, in any case, a writer more often mentioned (and revered) than actually read, the author of Walden, itself a collection of essays, famously declared in its second paragraph: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember,” he proceeds, beginning to lecture us, “that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Of course, we actually get very little autobiography in Walden, but the voice we hear—lecturing, even hectoring—reflects, I am emboldened to say, Transcendentalism at its worst and most unattractive, its most ungenerous and unsympathetic. Thoreau shows hardly any compassion for us ordinary mortals, whom he literally and metaphorically rises above. He may not be a Puritan, but he quests for purity, thus his forsaking for two years “the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation” in order to live alone, and apart, at Walden Pond. The problem is, he has so much wrong, exactly backwards in fact. Thus he writes, in a passage that many now carry in their heads and not a few have plastered above their beds: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” This, in the Conclusion, effectively undercuts and vitiates, rather than merely deconstructs, his earlier question “Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion to the heavens above?” For all his notice and mention of the particulars of such nature as he observes, still within easy walking-distance of town, drunk on an imagined sense of wildness, Thoreau seeks to rise above the world, a flyer and escapist like Joyce’s anti-hero Stephen Dedalus; Thoreau too would “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (italics added, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Both are Moderns, both spiders, creating solely out of themselves (to borrow Swift’s distinction, in The Battle of the Books, between Ancients and Moderns).
The well-known essay “Walking” confirms what Walden sometimes blankets. Thoreau represents himself as a “saunterer,” zealously deriving the term from “’a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander” and espousing a commitment, not just as earlier to “Higher Principles” (italics again added), but also to universalism and a home elsewhere: “sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Nothing could be more unessayistic than this flouting of particulars and, particularly, the notion of place in which we are all, as human beings, rooted, willy-nilly.
Thoreau, though, privileges spirit, even as he admitted very earlier in Walden, without lamenting or seeking to correct it, “the narrowness of my experience.” He would not, he says in “Walking,” have us “confine[d] . . . to the public road” (Thoreau’s emphasis). His is a private, inner world, whose home is only in the higher reaches. Having quoted Sir William Habington’s account of “home- cosmography,” at the beginning of the final essay in Walden (that term apt for the essay as form), Thoreau, who made a modest living by surveying, writes in “Walking”: “We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through the actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world” (italics added). It is no news at all when he adds, a bit later in this essay spoken in favor of “wildness,” “I confess that I am partial to these wild fancies, which transcend the order of time and development.” The terms are fraught with unintended revelation: “partial,” “fancies,” “transcend,” all pointing to failure to abide tension and remain in the metaxy. After deploring the fact, shared with Stephen Dedalus, that we “no longer soar,” Thoreau laments that “We hug the earth—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a bit more.” That he accomplishes—if above only his readers, looking down upon us and judging us. Thoreau evidently does not understand this world’s importance—nor that the Platonic pull is a temptation to be resisted. He cannot see that time is a ceaseless, unending purification.Henry David Thoreau already knows—knows far more, or so he assumes, than us readers, whom it is his duty to educate and enlighten. He lacks both humility as well as openness, themselves characteristic of and essential to the essay from Montaigne to E.B. White, Scott Sanders, Sam Pickering, and some others. White’s well-known panegyric on Thoreau, published on the centenary of Walden’s appearance in 1854, “A Slight Sound at Evening,” is not unmitigated praise. White, who clearly admires this “hair-shirt of a man,” just as clearly recognizes his penchant for purity, his decision to go to the Pond as a “retreat,” the fact that Thoreau was torn by, and unable to join successfully, “two powerful and opposing drives—the desire to enjoy the world (and not be derailed by a mosquito wing) and the urge to set the world straight.” White, differently, opts to enjoy the world—and in the process manages to go some distance toward setting the world straight. He does so, unlike Thoreau, by a path indirect, one never bent on purity (see “Coon Tree,” a paean to im-purity and a rebuke of forms of “sanitation”), one that never transcends the world and the joys it furnishes. And all the while, White remains humble, indeed as self-effacing as Thoreau is overbearing and not infrequently mean. If White knows a lot—and he does—he never parades either knowledge or wisdom.
White is rooted, as his essay “What Do Our Hearts Treasure?” alone substantiates. Here he realizes just how much place matters, uprooted for Christmas in Florida at the time of the Vietnam war and amidst the pink stuccoes, the lawn flamingoes, and the artificial poinsettias, along with the pot-bellied Santas sweating in their incarnadine suits. He and his wife miss Maine and the smell and presence of fir and family. It is she, Katherine, gardener-essayist, who teaches him, not via a Thoreavian lecture, but her tears that “something far deeper than Southeast Asia was at work,” upsetting her. Even though “the crying spells ceased,” “it was plain [not “certain”] that was something the matter; it wasn’t Vietnam, it wasn’t the reverse-cycle system. It was some kind of unreality that pervaded our lives.” Reality returns only when a package arrives from Maine, bearing “the look and carr[ying] the smell of authenticity.” The something-deeper has to do indeed with family and the familiar and love and particulars, which White everywhere shows as mattering, indeed as rooting us, in the way politics, for instance, can never do.
E.B. White, I venture to say, relishes the letter, a plain-spoken man, given to common sense and wary of all sorts of systematizing, not least those many versions of Transcendentalism. He is not a particularly religious person, not even much spiritual, but he is no mere materialist either. In fact, he is not “mere” anything at all. Other essayists are more so, although few of them strive with Thoreauvian intensity and determination for a “haven” (White’s word) in a realm above the earth. If Scott Russell Sanders veers toward Thoreau’s idealism, others like Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, and Peter Matthiessen manage to steer clear of Transcendentalism (see, for example, her “God in the Doorway,” which I consider in Reading Essays).
The tension lacking in Thoreau appears in White as a commitment to the physical and material world that does not obviate or forgo the possibility of meaning. It is not merely physical, although it is stubbornly and ineluctably that; the spiritual, or at least meaning, exists, but it does not reside outside or beyond this that we know in our blood and along our bones. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Metaphysical Poets,” it is not enough to look into, thence to know, the human heart, for “that is not looking deep enough; Racine and Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts”—this from the most cerebral of poets!
Life is too short and precious for following the will-of-the- wisps “forged” by the mind or for spending too much time in cold corridors and the self-reflecting mirrors of that most untrustworthy and unreliable instrument, where only idea(l)s abound, graceless.
For all the time he spent outside, surveying, measuring, and observing—Gulliver confined—Thoreau preferred the vast inner world. Having just abjured his readers to spend four hours a day walking, he writes: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.” There he dwells, among the “higher principles,” his coldness reflecting the greater hell awaiting him, already separated and apart, from the warmth of necessary touch.
It would be a mistake, and a serious one, to conclude that tension thus marks Thoreau’s thinking and writing. Oppositions certainly exist, as we are seeing: outside/inside, particular/general, body/soul, to name only three. Rather than tension, reflected here is what Pierre Bourdieu lamented: pairs of oppositions, “conceived as insurmountable antinomies, absolute alternatives, in terms of all or nothing,” which thus “structure thought . . . [and] also imprison it in a series of false dilemmas.” Eliot for one spent his life writing against such confinement, purity, and part-iality, opposing “the thoroughgoing,” aware, with Antoine Compagnon, that “the truth always lies somewhere in between.”
Although Thoreau beseeches us to attend to the large and monumental things, and many, in like manner, would have you “not sweat the small stuff,” E.B. White knows that that is where you begin. It is, after all, what caused beloved Katherine’s crying spells that dreadful Christmas spent in Florida. It is, in fact, the starting- point for the essay, as the early writer in the form Abraham Cowley would teach us. Writing in 1668, Cowley affirms in his ironically titled “Of Greatness” that smallness is what counts, is in fact what he prefers in various aspects of his life: after quoting Horace to the effect that “’The gods have done well in making me a humble and small-spirited fellow,” Cowley proceeds, in the manner familiar in essayists, embracing the beautiful rather than the (Romantic) sublime:
I confess I love littleness almost in all things. A little convenient estate, a little cheerful house, a little
company, and a very little feast; and, if I were to fall in love again (which is a very great passion, and therefore, I hope, I have done with it), it would be, I think, with prettiness, rather than with majestical beauty.
White follows suit, like G.K. Chesterton (e.g., in “A Piece of Chalk”) and Hilaire Belloc (e.g., in “The Mowing of a Field”), beginning, perhaps paradigmatically in “Death of a Pig,” with the small, the common-place, and the ordinary (see Patrick Madden’s fine recent book Quotidiana), thence moving outward to the large implications incarnate in them.
Embodiment represents the essay’s manner. A person embodies the particular essay’s values; often this is the voice we hear speaking to us—rejecting that voice, say Thoreau’s—we reject the essay and its values. Zora Neale Hurston springs to mind in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” along with Belloc in the aforementioned “The Mowing of a Field.” In these, particularly striking instances perhaps but still characteristic of the essay as form, ideas function not apart from persons but, rather, as reflected by and in them; ideas reach their fulfillment in persons. Accordingly, Hurston shows not bitterness towards Whites but anger contained and difference in action; Belloc himself incarnates the respect, patience, and craft that his essay is all about. E.B. White does the same supremely well in “Death of a Pig.” Whether he was the first to do so matters little here, but Alexander Pope shows the way in his poem-as-essay, criticism- as-poem-as-essay, An Essay on Criticism, in which he emerges as the ideal critic. The terms of praise apply almost equally to the essayist as to the critic. Part-iality ruins the former perhaps as much as the latter, leading, if not always to “the thoroughgoing,” the “earnest,” and even purity, to the neglect of both other parts and the whole, precisely what Pope’s poem demonstrates (a point I argued long ago in an article on its structure). In another essay in verse, An Essay on Man, Pope proclaims himself “Slave to no Sect,” a point he takes great pains to represent throughout the Imitations of Horace.
Pope’s verses in An Essay on Criticism are made of the tension that he elsewhere endorses and embraces: e.g., “The lights and shades” of the mind instance “well accorded strife,” which “Gives all the strength and colour of our life” and “ . . . jarring int’rests of themselves create/ Th’according music of a well-mix’d State.” He successfully, sometimes melodramatically, associates what too readily and too often get separated and divided. He not only “avoids” easy, misleading, structuring, and imprisoning oppositions, but his verse itself embodies the notion that “the truth always lies somewhere in between.”
The tension that Pope generally calls “difference,” when carefully considered, leads to the recognition expressed clearly in An Essay on Man: he who thinks rightly “takes no private road,/ But looks thro’ Nature, up to Nature’s God.” It is not one or theother, contrary to Thoreau: either Nature or God. Nor is it enough to say that it is both. What Pope recognizes is the way in which you proceed in, through, and by means of Nature “up to Nature’s God.”
An Essay on Criticism
Writing of Geoffrey Hartman in The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory, his colleague at Yale Paul H. Fry calls “the roundabout course of his allusiveness . . . the course of interpretive discovery.” Having described his own preference for “a personable but philologically keen, densely allusive criticism that takes more and more diverse cues from its text than is customary,” Fry calls on to say that Hartman’s criticism, which “exemplifies . . . the staging of distraction,” “is the most realistic record we have of what literate reading is like.” Having studied, admired, and written about Hartman’s criticism, and having studied, admired, and written about the essay for much longer, I am inclined to think that the precise, apt, and elegant terms “the course of interpretive discovery” apply to all critical writing—or, rather, I wish to argue, Fry’s words define an essayistic criticism long established and now needed perhaps more than ever before. In fact, “the course of interpretive discovery” beautifully and effectively describes both the mode of criticism and that of the essay and so point to the inescapable, ineluctable, and welcome relation of the essay and criticism.
It is, of course, true that the essay is historically and traditionally the form that criticism has taken. Think of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesie, Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (which alerts us that essays need not be written in prose), the work of the English Romantics, that of such Victorians as Arnold, then Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and on to Edmund Wilson and Allen Tate, and, most recently, William H. Gass, Hugh Kenner, James Wood, and a number of mainly British critics. The numbers have dwindled since the founding of university presses and of the Modern Language Association in the late nineteenth century. In the academization of literary studies, the professional and “definite” article has replaced the essay as the manner and form of critical writing. A few years ago, the essayist and then-editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, observed, lamenting, that the last place you would be likely to find an essay is in the pages of the PMLA.
Things have changed a bit, with the “return of/to the essay,” its blinkered and belated recognition as “the fourth genre,” and the attraction has been enjoying of writers and readers like. The academy still, however, reveres the article, regards the essay with suspicion, and recommends—or requires, really—that the young and fledgling pledge themselves to the practice and inculcation of merely logical form, thesis statements, the “marshalling” of evidence, the avoidance at nearly all costs of the first-person and any autobiographical reference, all the while proceeding without regard to elegance of expression, grace, or art.
Earlier, in describing the essay as form, I have drawn attention to its “in-betweenness,” reflected, inter alia, in an abiding tension present from Montaigne’s so-called founding of the form at the end of the sixteenth century in France: between one thing and another, “hanging somewhere on a line between two sturdy poles, what I think and what I am” (Edward Hoagland), the essay is “almost literature” and “almost philosophy,” averred Eduardo Nicol: it walks a tightrope between fact and fiction, experience and meaning, process and product. It also always insists on embodied truth.
Neither quite one thing nor absolutely another, the essay bears traces of both one thing and another (to borrow terms from Derrida and deconstruction). Bred by reading and mentored by writing, the essay may best be viewed as a site rather than a thing, or genre: a place where apparent opposites meet and may cross. Is it literature, or journalism? An example and an instance of creative writing or of (what is called) composition, perhaps advanced composition? As a student and a professor of the essay, I was—I am now retired––afforded a place in our creative-writing program, in which I rested—if at all—rather uncomfortably (I was a site—and no doubt a sight). I taught reading the essay and writing the essay, doing the one by also doing the other, refusing to separate writing and reading. Therein, taught by the form, may lie great promise for some sanity in literary studies, too long given to either/or choices and neat and uncomplicated pigeonholing.
To return, briefly, to the essay as in-between site: When Eduardo Nicol points to the form as being “almost literature” and almost philosophy,” he signals more than one crucial distinction, perhaps inadvertently. We may read his description as a variation on and indeed difference from, say, a Derridean sense of “both/and” (itself in apparent opposition to our familiar tendency to think, in the West, of more or less simple and relatively uncomplicated either/or choices). Key, I would suggest, is this: Borrowing a term from T.S. Eliot, which I have already used, I would say that the essay avoids the “thorough-going,” hence its historical skepticism, hence too its essential critical spirit. In its manner, in fact, the essay appears open, inviting, welcoming, even irenic, but it is a mistake to assume therefore that the essay lacks backbone, strong, courage, conviction, or determination. Truth to tell, the essay insists on its non-insistent manner. With essays, paradox abounds.
The temptation appears to be to kill off the essay, and not merely ignore or dismiss it. I do not mean to overdramatize here, but it is surely the case that the academy sacrificed the essay in its grand march towards professionalization and specialization: the essayist, said Virginia Woolf, is mainly “an amateur who has a done a little reading up,” and he or she has always cared about form as well as content, attentive to how he wrote while recognizing that the (Gnostic) desire for what cannot be separated from how. Get rid of concern with dress, expression, and form, and you can concentrate, unimpeded, on “content,” which is, after all, the point—it is always about the point (and the part), abstracted from the whole.
An amateur, the essayist is also a layperson as well as “a common reader,” with little use for the narrow or the recondite, the arcane or specialized knowledge. He or she is a Lord Munodi in a world given by his contemporaries to whoring after speculation, technical knowledge, and the theoretical: “every thing about him” may not be, as in Swift’s mouthpiece’s demesne, “magnificent, regular, and polite,” but he knows better than the erstwhile “Projector” Lemuel Gulliver, fatally attracted to Laputa, “the floating island,” as “the most delicious spot of ground in the world.” Swift is the virtual essayist, standing behind Gulliver and letting him expose himself—as when he praises the hair-brained “scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever . . . as a great advantage in point of health as well as brevity.” This invention, this “project,” might have succeeded absent essayistic understanding: if, that is, “the women in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate had not threatened to raise a rebellion, unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people.”
Laputan culture silences, sacrifices, and “scapegoats” the women as it does the admirable Lord Munodi. We all, though, or so it seems, have trouble with those who refuse to simplify and reduce, who insist on the necessity of tension, as did T.S. Eliot, who believed that “man lives in a world where tension rather than unity gives significance to his life”: “our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonized: the temporal and spiritual would never be identified. . . There would always be a tension.” Moreover, writes Eliot, we seem instinctively almost “to yearn for a ‘totalitarianism’ in which man would abandon the very agonies that ma[k]e him fully human”:
Totalitarianism appeals to the desire to return to the womb.
The contrast between religion and culture imposes a
strain: we escape from this strain by attempting to revert to an identity of religion and culture which prevailed at a more primitive stage; as when we indulge in alcohol as
an anodyne, we consciously seek unconsciousness”
Unconsciousness is precisely, I am suggesting, what we do not wish to awake from, or be awakened from, as by essayists who exist in and embrace the tension that threatens our slumber and our (false) sense that security is possible. As long as clear differences and distinctions exist, as long, in fact, as we feel confident in the presence and prestige of either/or choices, we can drift, with reminders or hints of both/and the arch-enemy, the snake in the garden of our content.
Professionalization, such as that ushered in by the MLA and the ascendancy of universities especially as weaned on the Germanic models, necessarily entails the drawing of distinctions, the making of difference, and the creation of sectarianism. With definition, or the quest of it, follows the article (and the monograph, that is, the article writ large). The professional knows, or at least claims and pretends to, however narrow his or her scope and range; indeed, the restriction, and the definition, precisely allows him to know. Pope saw this world aborning, at the mid-point of the eighteenth century, his forecast as compelling and accurate as his exposure, his insight rather like his friend Swift’s a few years earlier—the speaker is the renowned Westminster Headmaster Dr. Richard Busby:
“Since Man from beast by Words is known, Words are Man’s province, Words we teach alone. When Reason doubtful, like the Samian letter, Points him two ways, the narrower is the better.
Plac’d at the door of Learning, youth to guide, We never suffer it to stand too wide.
To ask, to guess, to know, as they commence, As fancy opens the quick springs of Sense, We ply the Memory, we load the brain,
Bind rebel Wit, and double chain on chain, Confine the thought, to exercise the breath; And keep them in the pale of Words till death. Whate’er the talents, or howe’er design’d,
We hang one jingling padlock on the mind. . . (Dunciad 4.149-62)
The learned Dr. Richard Bentley chimes in, echoing Busby and honoring the Goddess Dulness:
The critic Eye, that microscope of Wit, Sees hairs and pores, examines bit by bit: How parts relate to parts, or they to whole, The body’s harmony, the beaming soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burman, Wasse shall see, When Man’s whole frame is obvious to a Flea. (233-38)
Eventually Dulness herself caps the presentations, summarizing her essential direction and determined goals:
“O! would the Sons of Men once think their Eyes And Reason giv’n them but to study Flies!
See Nature in some partial narrow shape, And let the Author of the Whole escape: Learn but to trifle; or, who most observe,
To wonder at their Maker, not to serve.” (453-58)
If the ascendancy of professionalization, specialization, and academization very nearly rang the death knell on the essay, now, I suspect, at least some modern and postmodern versions, modifications, and adaptations of this venerable form are designed to quell its implicit message. Human being cannot stand too much truth, sayeth Eliot, and I contend that, when it began to appear that the essay was not dead, had not been killed off, but, on the contrary, was beginning a renaissance, anxious souls, unable to abide life lived in tension and frightened by both/and thinking, decided to parry the essay’s essential thrust by turning the form into something different, something rarely recognizable by familiar standards but nevertheless called by the familiar term.
The tension that marks, and indeed characterizes, the essay as form creates further, significant effects. Consider beyond what I said earlier: The essay repudiates, indeed gives the lie to, the notion not so long ago bruited about of “the death of the author.” As a matter of fact, with essays there is no need to adduce an implied or implicit author or even, usually, a narrator, for the speaking voice we hear and respond to is the author. The essay simply will not tolerate a “disconnect” between the real, historical, biographical person writing and the voice we hear, although that voice is certained shaped, made for the occasion, a point well established in White’s essays and affirmed in recent work by Carl Klaus.
Essays assume a real, live reader—a person every bit as real and live as the essayist. The reader may be “gentle,” but he or she may not purely imagined, fictive, or implied—no more a creation of the writer than the speaker is a creation of the reader. In that sense, a directness obtains, the reader present. Indeed, in essays the (Derridean sense of a) desire for presence is actively present and effective: Readers want closeness, and writers of essays accommodate. And yet—the essay is, as I argue in Tracing the Essay, very much an indirect form. “By indirections find directions out,” Polonius urged in Hamlet, and essayists largely, perhaps characteristically, subscribe to the old fool’s directions. The form’s notorious irony, first attributed to it by the theorist Georg Lukacs in 1910, constitutes a telling case in point: It pretends to be about the small and insignificant, perhaps the shallow—a “second-class citizen,” said E.B. White with magisterial irony—all the while really having to do with “the Ultimate.” It reaches the large, the general, the universal, that is to say, via its vaunted attention to and emphasis of the small, the concrete, and the particular. The extra-ordinary appears—pace Cynthia Ozick, writing otherwise brilliantly in “The Riddle of the Ordinary”—precisely inside and within the ordinary. As a result, indirectness exists alongside—although not always in peaceful coexistence with—a desire for presence and the directness that is its confrere.
What I have been at pains to describe, and account for, may be suggested by the term independent spirit. It is so important that the distinguished publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux chose those words as the title for the Irish writer Hubert Butler’s posthumous collection of essays (see, for example, “The Writer as Independent Spirit,” written in 1966, following his participation in the International PEN Club Congress). Butler is noteworthy, although little known in this country. Fiercely anti-sectarian, Butler was attracted, to “Mitteleuropa,” as Joseph Brodsky wrote in a tribute:
A man of immense learning, he was interested in this borderline zone, with its fusion of Latin and Slavic cultures, presumably because he sensed in their interplay the future of European civilization. Born where he was, he couldn’t help being concerned with the fate of Christendom, whose natural son he was.
What Butler everywhere opposed was dishonesty: in Brodsky’s words “he was a dishonesty hunter.” Butler was possessed, indeed, of the essential qualities of the essayist, apparent in Hugh Bredin’s remarks in Fortnight and blurbed on the jacket of Independent Spirit:
He has all the essayist’s gifts: a clear, strong prose, a fascination with everyday affairs and their significance sub specie aeternatis, a readiness to generalize, the ability to digress without wandering from the point, to inform without pedantry and enlighten without condescension, to give pleasure simply
by sharing his thoughts.
And, I would add, to remain—in Pope’s words—“Slave to no sect,” where the emphasis falls here, first, on “Slave” and then on “sect.”
To refer to an undeniable “independent spirit” may not take us far enough in our attempt to describe the essay and account for its peculiar qualities and effects. We need to add—or, perhaps, to substitute—critical–ness ( I try to avoid the term “spirit,” which, I find, threatens to countermand the essay’s fundamental––and anti- Gnostic––rootedness). For, in truth, the essay is inherently critical, a point already implicit in my foregoing words. Whether we think of Hilaire Belloc, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Rodriquez, to take but a few familiar names, to which we might here add Dryden and Pope and Johnson, the essayist’s voice exists in uneasy relation—and tension—with the world that he or she observes so closely and on which he trains his intense scrutiny.
In some ways, of course, conservative, the essayist rarely if ever appears self-satisfied—that is a characteristic of Swift’s satirized speaker in A Tale of a Tub, a complex and technically sophisticated text that shows awareness of essays’ capacity for writing “upon Nothing.” Perhaps “preservative” functions better, more accurately, than “conservative,” for the essayist cannot bring herself to support the present or the established power or authority in any “thorough-going” fashion—here the notoriously anticlerical Restoration poet, dramatist, and critic John Dryden’s great verse- essay Religio Laici or A Laymans Faith is a telling and important case in point: a defence of the Established Church, and (therefore) the King, that nevertheless redefines the via media as a site between acceptance and assertion, tradition and the individual, clergy and laity. Essentially, the essay deconstructs the (easy, latitudinarian, and Romantic) notion of familiar opposition between writer and society, culture, or world. It does not quite accept nor merely set itself in crude, rude, and uncomplicated difference, and therefore opposition. Rather, it establishes a relation, and relation ineluctably and invariably involves a certain tension: neither clear identity nor absolute difference either. Perhaps better: almost acceptance, but not quite, and at the same time almost opposition—thus difference, and thus a position that I would submit is essentially critical.
Like the essay, critical commentary follows “the course of interpretive discovery”—at least, when it is understood, properly, as critical inquiry. The essay is as much about the way—the course—of the writer’s thinking as it is with any conclusion reached; in similar fashion, criticism may be about the way—that is, both the course and the manner—of reading rather than any conclusion attained. Commentary wedded to and dependent upon theory runs the risk, certainly, proceeding in a priori fashion, of vitiating the essentially critical nature of criticism: It knows, already, before and apart from reading, from encountering the text at that site we call reading. The essay’s “opposite,” as William H. Gass affirms, “the definite article,” does not allow for discovery, closed as it is to serendipity and bent upon convincing its readers of its conclusion, already known, announced, developed, and then merely repeated at the end.
An inherent narrative thus attaches to the critical enterprise: the story of reading. Like the essay, moreover, reading very rarely follows a strictly linear path; that path is, instead, mazy, meandering, liable to starts, stops, misdirection, indirection, fraught with interruptions, dangers, temptations, and subject always to the reader’s own willfulness. Something as little as a gnat’s wing may throw everything off; a slight misstep may doom the entire enterprise—and produce a reading wildly aberrant. Reading deserves all the respect of a solemn ritual and should be entered upon, if not with solemnity, at least with the kind of observance, preparation, and self-control exacted by authority of other acts of communion, for reading is communion.
Poet, novelist, and critic Allen Tate helpfully called criticism “the passionate discourse of an amateur” (he was evidently recalling
R.P. Blackmur’s definition as “the formal discourse of an amateur”). The mention of “amateur” bears no more surprise than the term “passionate”; both terms call attention to crucial qualities of the critical enterprise that we tend to forget—or ignore. In a sense, “passionate” is redundant, for an amateur, unlike the professional wedded to the dispassionate and merely logical article (or monograph), is passionate. The (amateur) critic cares—is, indeed, by a definition one who loves.
As Tate says, in the foreword to his friend Andrew Lytle’s essay collection The Hero with the Private Parts, the discourse he, and Blackmur, have in mind is “a kind . . . which even the exclusively critical writer can never make into an exact science. By ‘amateur,’” he supposes, Blackmur surely meant the man or woman “devoted to the object of his attention—literature, in this case—the man whose developing awareness and possession of the imaginative object becomes in the end self-knowledge.” The point also applies, of course, to the essayist—and note, here, Tate’s word “developing.” No better illustration of such criticism exists than Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesie, an imaginative representation of literature’s importance that makes of commentary nothing short of creation.
Dryden’s brilliant essay sets the stage—as well as standard— for all subsequent criticism written in English in another way, as well. Designed as conversation among four well-informed gentlemen and framed by the specific setting within earshot of the war with the Dutch, who are sailing up the Thames as the fictive figures leisurely sail not far away, passionately discussing a set of concerns having to do with the drama, the Essay of Dramatick Poesie establishes, by implied comparison, the importance of the critical enterprise. Comparison, indeed, constitutes the mode of discourse: Not only do the four speakers—Neander, Crites, Eugenius, and Lisideius––engage in comparison of, for instance, ancients and moderns and the French and the English, but their commentary that thus takes the form of comparison of the drama both parallels and draws attention to the four embodied representatives whose positions the reader compares in turn. When T.S. Eliot defined the tools of criticism as comparison and analysis (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), he affirmed what he had learned from the first major critic to write in English, his mentor, on whom he so often wrote.
Eliot, in fact, makes many, if not most, of his essays out of comparison, for instance, the famous discussion of the “dissociation of sensibility” via juxtaposition of Donne with Tennyson in “The Metaphysical Poets.” In the equally important though less familiar essay on Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot makes his most effective, and dramatic, points by way of comparison of Andrewes and the same John Donne. In like manner, Eliot offers crucial readings of Montaigne through comparison with Blaise Pascal.
Four Quartets, Eliot’s greatest poem, works by means of the implicit invitation to the reader to compare resonant passages and both similar and seemingly contradictory positions. We may, then, speak justifiably and with confidence of the comparative basis of criticism.
Such comparison, I argue, requires lateral reading—a far cry from the allegedly “in depth” reading taught in the schools and smacking of the symbol-mongering that so often turns students off to the pleasures of poetry, especially. In order to make sense of a work like Four Quartets, you have to read laterally, listening for echoes, attentive to resonance and thus both similarity and difference, which leads us, willy-nilly, into comparing. Essays, in particular, open themselves up to lateral reading, perhaps even require it—they rarely seem to repay “deep reading,” being texts whose meanings lie not before the surface but on it. Lateral reading, whatever the text or genre, contrasts with the mining of texts for meaning and then its excavation. Reading laterally, you may well find yourself reading like a writer, mirroring the primary author’s essential strategies and procedures, locating his or her interests, and perhaps stumbling upon his intentions and her text’s apparent meanings.
Teaching Joyce’s great novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Honors freshmen in a class just before I retired, I felt with both great intensity and powerful force the validity of lateral reading. It came as, throwing out my careful outline of the day’s lecture-discussion, I began with what I called a rather innocent- looking passage in the second chapter:
[Stephen] returned to Mercedes [in The Count of Monte Cristo] and, as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along
the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made even feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes, that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how: but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or
in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment, he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.
The passage invites the reader to linger over its words (including “brooded,” “image,” “different,” “unsubstantial,” “darkness,” “transfigured,” “impalpable,” and “inexperience,” which are charged with meaning, rather like poetry, to invoke Ezra Pound’s well-known definition. Of course, you feel the charge when you know the rest of the novel, particularly when, moving laterally, instead of vertically, you compare such words to Stephen-no-longer-hero and you relate the quoted sentences to the upcoming non-encounter with the girl on the tram, his abject passivity (as when meeting the prostitute), the later (and parallel) so-called epiphantic beach scene, Stephen’s understanding of himself as “priest of eternal imagination,” and the penultimate diary entry at novel’s end when, in Luciferian perversion and pride worthy of Gulliver, Stephen arrogantly and blindly declares his desire cum expectation “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”).
Lateral reading, as I describe it, enacts “the course of interpretive discovery.” It results, like Geoffrey Hartman’s criticism, in brooding, deep and intense, and that brooding is at once abetted by and productive of the discovery of echoes and resonances, the critical ear very much engaged and active. Hartman’s “densely allusive criticism,” said Paul Fry, “takes more and more diverse cues from its text than is customary,” and so does lateral reading.
The article does not lend itself readily to comparison, or lateral reading. Its own manner a priori—from a declared thesis through logical evidence to a definite conclusion known from the beginning—the article, the essay’s “opposite,” avers William H. Gass, is assertive; if it has any doubts, it hides them, no skepticism permitted or acknowledgment of self-doubt. “Discourse” seems, indeed, the right word to describe its mode of being.
The essay, on the other hand, is conversational in manner, if not always in fact. Generosity lies at the heart of writing so understood. “Concorde” names the issue precisely: “concordia discors,” Pope had called it two centuries before. He comes as close as anyone I know to defining the ideal critic, the ideal critical essayist, when he describes that worthy endeavor as “Gen’rous Converse,” this in An Essay on Criticism. “Converse” seems to me a better term than “discourse,” for the latter lacks the former’s acknowledgment of necessary dialogue. Pope recognizes and enacts the equally necessary tentativeness, while concentrating on—and embodying via his brilliant couplets—“two and two,” differences and even oppositions, assisting each other, dancing together: “Which betokenth concorde.” Here is Pope: But where’s the Man, who Counsel can bestow, Still pleas’d to teach, and yet not proud to know? Unbiass’d, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d, well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere; Modestly bold, and Humanly severe?
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show, And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe?
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin’d;
A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind; Gen’rous Converse; a Soul exempt from Pride; And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side?
Pope himself does it all, or very nearly everything: an essay on criticism performed in verse, bringing together wit and judgment, depicted (as if in anticipation of Eliot), as “meant each other’s Aid, like Man and Wife” (83), criticism done up as essay, an essay that is criticism, criticism become literature (or almost?), literature that is both critical and about criticism. It is time that we not merely acknowledged Pope’s insight but returned to such understanding of criticism and the essay as he offers, and his predecessor John Dryden as well. Criticism seems, always, to do with the relation of the individual and tradition. Said Eliot, writing about the poet, for whom I would invite you to substitute the critical essayist in the following passage: “In a peculiar sense,” he or she will be aware . . . that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead. . . . It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. And we not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value—a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity. We say: it appears to conform, and is perhaps individual, and may conform; but we are hardly likely to find that it is one and not the other.
We are thus invited, and indeed we are enabled, to compare—not least, criticism and the essay.
Douglas Atkins is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, from which he retired in 2013 after 44 years of teaching, 18 of them as also Coordinator of Graduate Studies. He is the author of 24 books (so far), on a wide variety of literary, critical, and theoretical subjects, and co-editor of three others. Among his books are several on the essay, including Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Rivitalized Critical Writing (a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of the Year), Tracing the Essay: From Experience to Truth, Reading Essays: An Invitation, On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies, T.S. Eliot and the Essay: From “The Sacred Wood” to “Four Quartets,” and E.B. White: The Essayist as First-Class Writer. Among his many awards are three for outstanding teaching and the Kenyon Review Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction Prose. Post-retirement, he continues to write on T.S. Eliot in particular and literature and religion in general. He is in the process of moving from Lawrence, Kansas, “back home” to Greenville, South Carolina.