In Defense of the Essay

It is an article of the most unshakable faith that the personal, familiar, Montaignian–call it what you will–essay is minor stuff, a second-rate employment undertaken by bankrupt novelists and other failures. In literary rankings its place lay well below the novella and scarcely above the book review. “Essays, reviews, imitations, caricatures are all minor stuff,” wrote the New York Times critic in a recent review of a Max Beerbohm biography. In this conviction he has more support than a sports bra. Indeed, the personal essay’s most esteemed and acclaimed practitioners have to a man voiced misgivings about their trade. E.B. White called the essay a second-rate form. Cynthia Ozick, certainly one of the best contemporary essayists, may not specifically refer to the essay as second rate, but she certainly prefers to write fiction. “I don’t think I ever undertake to write non-fiction without some external prodding,” she told the Atlantic. Joseph Epstein will allow only that an excellent essay counts for more than a less-than-excellent higher form of literature, thereby damning the essay with faint praise. In his collection Plausible Prejudices the former American Scholar editor writes that “because essays do not have the prestige of other genres, no one sets out to be an essayist.”

A less odious, but no less frequent adjective applied to the personal essay is the term “undervalued.” Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essay series, is no doubt correct when he says the essay is an undervalued genre that has resulted in a “sharply skewed canon, [and] the neglect of many important works.” In particular, master works such as T.S. Eliot’s Selected Essays, H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, and A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science come readily to mind. I suspect all but a handful of professors of literature dismiss these texts as lacking the creativity required of a first-rate genre.

In his introduction to the Norton Anthology of the Personal Essay, Mr. Epstein makes reference to the rise and fall of genres, which occur no less frequently than the rise and fall of empires. Time was when drama was tops, only to be outdone by the poem. Now the novel is king. Unless one counts film. Or, God help us, television. This much seems certain: if the essay has been exiled to the kitchen table of literature, this has not always been the case. No sensible person writes off the essays of Montaigne, Lamb, DeQuincey, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James as second-rate stuff. Dull, perhaps. Tiresome. But tiresome in the first-rate manner. “There are no second-rate genres,” said Joyce Carol Oates, “only second-rate practitioners.” If that is indeed the case, it is either today’s writers who are second-rate or something unfortunate has happened to the essay to precipitate its decline. Or both.

As late as mid-twentieth century one senses the essay donned respectable clothing, all done up in the fine silk prose of Orwell, Santayana, Russell, Chesterton, Belloc, Pound, Eliot, Yeats, William Carlos Williams, the latter few writing nearly as much in the essay form as in verse. Indeed their corpses had scarcely cooled when the professors began to bemoan the essay’s deterioration, as noted in David Daiches’ 1951 book A Century of the Essay, in which he blamed the decline on magazine specialization, noting that essays that appeal to intelligent persons of large general curiosity–notably the essays of Arnold and Thoreau–became increasingly rare as human knowledge was fragmented by “highly-focused serious prose discussions.” Similarly, Cynthia Ozick blamed the ubiquitous short article for displacing the personal essay. No doubt, the New Journalism, as popularized by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer, played its part too.
Arguably our best contemporary essayists–Ozick, William H. Gass, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and, to a large extent, Joseph Epstein—have shunned the personal essay in favor of the essay of literary criticism.

The present lack of respect for the personal essay is not entirely undeserved; too many modern essays are thin, watery things written by self-absorbed sentimentalists, who inflict upon the reader a subgenre that Carl H. Klaus has termed “the malady essay.” Literary journals are infested with such rot, to the extent that they have replaced not only the Montaignian essay (a philosophical mediation upon a particular subject or theme), but the charming Beerbohmian or Orwellian essay in which the author begins with a small observation and ultimately reaches a larger understanding. Editors seem to favor essays that depict illness, sickness, disease, infection, and death over all other kinds. Not surprisingly the malady essay mirrors our whiny, I-feel-your-pain, tell-all, victimization culture. They may be therapeutic for the author-victim, but they are painful for the reader and certain death for the essay as a form. Editors who print malady essays assume we want to know the essayist in an intimate, overly personal way, genital warts and all, a role that has heretofore been assigned to the biography or confessional, not the personal essay. When Montaigne wrote “Of Drunkeness” he did not recount the many times he woke up in the Parisian gutter beside some fat whore. Au contraire. The Montaigne essay is an act of discovery, a meditation, containing not only what the essayist thinks, but what the greatest minds throughout history have thought on a particular subject.

Similarly, we pick up Mark Twain’s essays not because we hope to read about the many tragic deaths in his unfortunate family–since we can all relate to death. Rather we read Mark because he is an expert at exposing sham, pretension, and hypocrisy, and because he was the greatest American humorist of the 19th century. (The one exception, his essay “Death of Jean”–the doleful reminiscence and grieving of a mournful father– was meant as the last chapter of his autobiography, and not as a stand-alone essay. Such pieces as these are written more as a form of release for the author than as a pleasant diversion for the reader. Why editors print them, except out of sympathy, is a mystery on the order of the extinction of the dinosaurs.)

Unlike today’s malady essayists, the great personal essayist Max Beerbohm was an intensely private man working in a supposedly narcissistic trade, who knew how to write in the first-person without drawing constant attention to himself and his various difficulties, which may or may not have included two unconsummated marriages. According to his admirer Joseph Epstein: “His tact was consummate; and one has never grown less tired of a man who wrote so much in the first person, for he knew the difference, as he once told his wife, between ‘offering himself humbly for the inspection of others’ and pushing himself forward through egotism.” Advice too many malady essayists have failed to heed.

A few years ago in the online magazine Slate, the eminent literary critics A.O. Scott and Sarah Kerr undertook to diagnose the current health of the essay. Kerr found the personal essay “operating well beneath his full capacity. He’s not as robust or playful as he used to be…lately he’s been clinging to known routines…[but] nothing that some exercise and a change of scenery couldn’t cure.” Drs. Kerr and Scott accused essayists Epstein, Anne Fadiman and Wendy Lesser of an unhealthy fixation on the past, an “idolatrous valuation of the past,” and “a reluctance to break new ground.” Both Scott and Kerr seemed to be holding to the curious belief that–as with fiction–the personal essay must constantly reinvent itself through experimentation with form and punctuation. This hasn’t worked for fiction, and it doubtlessly won’t work with the essay. The essayist, in fact, profits immeasurably from looking over her shoulder at what the past masters have written and thought and applying it to today. That’s what Mr. Epstein does so successfully, and that is why he is often called the heir to Montaigne. Scott and Kerr seem to suggest this is a bad thing.

Elsewhere Mr. Scott admits that Epstein, Fadiman and Lesser’s essays “annoyed the hell out of [him].” Presumably then Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Emerson would annoy the hell out of him too, were they writing today. That is, unless they changed their style, dropped all those references to dead white males and the occasional punctuation mark. The cause of Mr. Scott’s annoyance seems to stem from his belief that the essay should be “a democratic form, requiring no particular learning or credentials to practice.” In other words, a second-rate genre practiced by second-rate writers. Epstein, Fadiman and Lesser, he goes on to say, are “big snobs…They’re not like you and me at all–they’re better: better read, more sensitive, more discerning…Reading Fadiman and Lesser back to back was rather like watching a PBS fundraiser drive…all they can talk about is how much better their programming is than anything else, how threatened is our vulgar culture, how only viewers like you can keep it alive. And I find myself thanking God for the Fox network.”

So it is that literary critics–doubtless the snootiest pretenders inhabiting this crust–make themselves feel less snobbish when they accuse personal essayists of being the real snobs. I find this game of “Who’s the snob?” silly, to say the least.

For his final trick, Mr. Scott has at Epstein and Fadiman for assuming “the love of books, and of certain types of books, is a sign of cultural, and therefore moral, superiority.” I wonder which is the greater crime for Mr. Scott, being culturally superior or believing oneself culturally superior. For such critics the only acceptable essay seems to be the dreary death and dying essay. No chance of feeling superior there–at least until the essayist begins to claim that her hemorrhoids are larger and more painful than yours.

Christopher Orlet is a columnist for Vocabula Review.

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