“An essay is a thing which someone does himself; and the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality.”
I was hooked by the time I hit the semi-colon but few readers are likely to share my enthusiasm. Perhaps the sentiment is too quintessentially English, too quaint or proudly imbued with amateur status. It’s not incisive but recalls my decades of newspaper training to become a dedicated generalist. Some reporters relish beats, and I briefly served time covering law and medicine, but there’s even a name for the non-specific journalistic specialty I most enjoyed: “general-assignment reporting.”
The job description suggests competence, a Boy-Scout preparedness to make the best of one’s materials, no excuses accepted. For many, an essay (or op-ed piece, or blog post) is an occasion of homiletic solemnity. I recall a blogger who was offended that I “happened upon” a book and that I habitually trusted in such serendipity. I was being distressingly unsystematic, as though writing were a branch of applied mathematics.
The author quoted above, immensely popular and prolific in his time but unknown to me before this week, is the English essayist and poet Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925). Like many productive people he appears to have been notably unhappy, proving that misery can be an effective goad to good work. The “charm of personality” he mentions is in the writing, not necessarily the writer. A few sentences later, Benson says of crafting a good essay:
“The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules.”
Gusto is a quality cherished by writers as various as Hazlitt, Marianne Moore and A.J. Liebling. It suggests enthusiasm, imaginative dexterity and a capacity for enjoyment. Benson lauds Charles Lamb because he “treated romantically the homeliest stuff of life, and showed how the simplest and commonest experiences were rich in emotion and humour.” Besides intelligence, wit and good manners, what’s missing from many blogs is writing suffused with pleasure in life and in its own creation. Think of Liebling overheard chuckling at his typewriter. The impulse to say something becomes tiresome unless accompanied by the means to say it well. Speaking of which (how’s that for an unsystematic transition?), here’s a passage I happened upon from a letter Coleridge sent his friend John Thelwell on Oct. 14, 1797:
“I can at times feel strongly the beauties, you describe, in themselves, & for themselves -- but more frequently all things appear little -- all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child's play ---the universe itself -- what but an immense heap of little things? -- I can contemplate nothing but parts, & parts are all little --!”
I know Coleridge, characteristically, is making a more grandiose point but doesn’t writing, for most of us, result in nothing more substantial than “an immense heap of little things?”