“The essay-writer is a chartered libertine, and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with. Jacques, in As You Like It, had the makings of a charming essayist. It is not the essayist’s duty to inform, to build pathways through metaphysical morasses, to cancel abuses, any more than it is the duty of the poet to do these things.”
“The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark. When men try to write a tragedy, they do not call the tragedy a try-on….an essay, by its very name as well as its very nature, really is a try-on and really is an experiment. A man does not really write an essay. He does really essay to write an essay.”
“An essayist is an amateur, in two primary senses of the word. He is, first, distinctly not an expert; and he is, second, a lover. Unlike the critic, or even the novelist or poet, there is nothing professional about the essayist. He comes to the world dazzled by it. The riches it offers him are inexhaustible. Subjects on which he may scribble away are everywhere. The essayist need not be an optimist, but a depressed essayist—and I can provide names of some now at work on request—is badly miscast.”
In case you failed the blindfold test, only the first writer is somewhat obscure, though surely a minor master of the form, and worthy of greater renown: Alexander Smith (1829-1867), a Scottish poet of the charmingly named Spasmodic School who also produced a splendid collection of essays, Dreamthorp: a Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863). The one excerpted here is “On the Writing of Essays,” in which, a little archly, he calls the essayist “a kind of poet in prose, and if questioned harshly as to his uses, he might be unable to render a better apology for his existence than a flower might.”
The second writer, the one who explicitly insists on the form’s Montaignean origins, is perhaps its most prolific practitioner: G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who published “The Essay” in 1932. An industrious journalist and dedicated pro, he produced thousands of essays, often rooted in his pet themes: the wonder of the commonplace, the interleaving of the serious and humorous, and the liberating nature of form (“The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame”). In “The Essay” he says: “The perfect essay has never been written; for the simple reason that the essay has never really been written.”
The third sample is by a contemporary master, Joseph Epstein, from the introduction to his new collection, A Literary Education and Other Essays (Axios, 2014). Like Smith and Chesterton, Epstein revels in the freedom of the essay, its absence of prescribed form itself a new sort of form, at least in the right hands. This sense of liberation should not be confused with the Bakunin-esque impulse to blow up things. An essay calls for sensibility, a mingling of brains, learning, memory, maturity, discipline and a point of view. An essayist needs something worthwhile to write about, a seemingly tautological reality routinely ignored. Bitching does not make an essay, nor do great big hugs.
Don’t be put off by reviewers who dismiss Epstein as “curmudgeonly” or “negative.” They’re not reading the essays I’m reading. Epstein is no headhunter. To celebrate you need to be able to recognize what’s worth celebrating. A lover unable to make a fist is no lover. Most of the books produced during any period of history are, at best, mediocre, and many are irredeemably awful. Epstein understands this and is not shy about calling crap precisely what it is – crap. In a 1978 piece about the odious Paul Goodman, he describes Growing Up Absurd as “the purest psychobabble overlaid by sociological barbarism,” and Goodman’s novel The Empire City as “ambitious if not very readable.” If you’ve read the books, you already know this, but Epstein’s essay earns our respect because he details his own enthusiastic review of a Goodman volume in 1968: “If truth-in-advertising laws were enforced in the publishing business, I should be, if not in jail, then under heavy fine, for the fact is I no longer believe anything of the kind about Paul Goodman.” How many writers would admit their youthful indiscretions so matter-of-factly?
No, though good as a take-down artist, Epstein is even better at singing praises. Old Epstein hands will not be disappointed when he breaks out his roll call of favorites, whether in passing or as the ostensible focus – Willa Cather, Henry James, Santayana, Beerbohm, Valéry, Mencken, Larkin, Proust, the Duc de Saint-Simon and Dreiser (“probably America’s greatest novelist of the past century”), among others. The new collection is not strictly literary, and is less unified in theme than his earlier volume published by Axios, Essays in Biography (2012). Epstein says A Literary Education represents his “interests and preoccupations”: “education, language, the arts, magazines, intellectuals, the culture.” And he manages to turn what might have been boilerplate reviews or “articles” into Chestertonian experiments; that is, essays. He writes in the introduction:
“…the essayist ought to be skeptical if not gloomy in outlook. He should distrust large ideas, and especially idea systems. He should view all theories as mistaken until proven true, which over the centuries not all that many have. Life for the essayist is so much richer, so much more various, than any theory or even idea can hope to describe. The best essayists, in my reading, are the laughing skeptics.”