Fifty Ways of Looking at the Essay
Essayer. To try, to make an attempt (more colloquially), to have a go at. Michel de Montaigne—a 16th-century French nobleman and sometime bureaucrat and politician—called his otherwise unclassifiable prose pieces “Essays” and in so doing both coined the name for an entire genre and offered an initial, basic theory of its qualities. Montaigne was not, of course, the first writer to produce meditative ruminations in prose. A rich classical tradition, in the works of Plutarch, Horace, Cicero among others, provided examples of non-fiction writing for Montaigne and many other European writers both in and after his time. And certainly, non-European cultures produced countless prose masterpieces in a host of genres—history, philosophy, ethics—long before Montaigne came on the scene.
Montaigne’s writing, though, exemplifies throughout a way of looking at the world that many readers find wonderfully engaging and entirely unlike anything that came before: skeptical of absolute truths but deeply curious about the world, modest but compelled to ruminate on the self, wryly humorous but serious about the vagaries of human existence.
It’s this tone that has characterized the essay ever since—in contrast to, as many of the pieces here contend, the argumentative paper or scholarly article or philosophical treatise or magazine or newspaper piece. Or, as editors Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French write in their introduction to the collection “Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay”:
“The most striking and significant consensus can be seen in the tendency of essayists from every period and culture to define the essay by contrasting it with conventionalized and systematized forms of writing, such as rhetorical, scholarly, or journalistic discourse. In keeping with this contrast, the often invoke images and metaphors suggestive of the essay’s naturalness, openness, or looseness as opposed to the methodical quality of conventional nonfiction. Likewise, they typically conceive of the essay as a mode of trying out ideas, of exploration, rather than persuasion, of reflection rather than conviction.”
Indeed, the distinction between programmatic writing and the essay recurs over and over again in the collection—in Joseph Addison’s opposition of “Method” and “Irregularity”, in Samuel Johnson’s contrast between “regular, orderly performances” and “irregular, indigested piece[s]”, in Aldous Huxley’s dismissal of “the algebraic style” in favor of “the living reality of our immediate experience”, and so on.
Given the essentially non-argumentative quality of the essay and its eschewal of rigorous analysis for a more impressionistic approach to its subject matter, it may seem an exercise in futility to devote a volume to excerpts from essays that attempt to classify the essay and describe, more or less exactly, how it works. Indeed, the collection never really addresses this problem and Klaus and Stuckey-French’s desire to establish “a methodology for understanding the essay” sounds a curiously dogmatic note given the celebration of the amorphousness of the essay that elsewhere marks the volume.
Still, the essay has proven so durable and significant a genre, the time seems long overdue for a sustained consideration of its qualities—and who better to undertake the task than essayists themselves? The collection begins, of course, with Montaigne, who describes something of his approach in “Of Practice”, “Of Repentance”, and “Of Vanity”, and ends with Jeff Porter’s “Essay on the Radio Essay”. Porter’s piece, composed for the collection, concludes a set of essays that consider the migration of the essay from the page to radio, video, and the internet.
Thus, Essayists on the Essay spans 400 and more years, though the majority of its 50 installments derive from the 20th century. Most were written in English, but the foregrounding of the Anglo-American tradition—perhaps to be expected from an American academic press—is not egregious. The collection includes, for example, significant essays by South American writers.
The nature of the collection—it might best be described as a sampler—virtually guarantees that readers will appreciate some pieces more than others but the collection deserves credit for representing the diversity of tone, style, and approach among essayists. It will also prompt the reader to ask if, for example, E.B. White’s artfully colloquial observations can really be said to be the same thing as Theodor Adorno’s densely theoretical ruminations (indeed, the latter example, along with several other installments in the volume, seem an odd fit given the insistence throughout that the essay is marked by its naturalness and accessbility).
Still, if the collection does not accomplish its avowed purpose, it does at least display the versatility and accomplishment of a loosely-defined but still essential genre to good effect. And what could be more essayistic than that?