Thursday, June 26, 2014

`An Affair of Quiet Words'

How an essay gets written: A visit to Brad Bigelow at The Neglected Books Page turned up a writer new to me. I don’t normally read thrillers but something about The Major (1964) by David Hughes sounded interesting. My university library has a copy. Among the other books by Hughes in its collection is J.B. Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958), and I borrowed it as well. Long ago I read several books by Priestley (1894-1984), including Literature and Western Man (1960) and The Image Men (1968), and the alignment of Hughes, Hart-Davis and Priestley seemed promising. My hunch paid off in the third chapter of Hughes’ monograph, “An Essayist and Critic.” Describing Priestley at Cambridge in 1922, he writes: 

“…to write an essay for pleasure was unthinkable. It was a dead form, reminding one curiously of a time-wasting grace of the leisured classes in writing, rather like dressing for dinner alone or spending an hour at the mirror enjoying an immaculate shave. These are not, as they may seem, idle analogies; for it is in such timeless moments, when hands are thoughtlessly occupied in some habitual exercise like dressing or shaving, that the minute germ of an idea which is blown up into an essay arrives in the writer’s mind.” 

One admires the casual authority of Hughes’ voice, his historical sense and his gift for phrase-making – “a time-wasting grace of the leisured classes.” Of all literary forms, the essay is my favorite. It’s also the most under-utilized, in part because of its vulnerably hybrid nature. An essay can start as a book review, a biography, a childhood memory or a lesson in geography, but it can also invite didacticism, always toxic to readerly enjoyment. Orwell, for instance, is at his best when writing about Boys’ Weeklies” or postcards, not politics. Hughes continues:
 “But today we no longer have access to the state of mind in which such useless but diverting conceptions appear in the unanchored intelligence [another nice phrase]. Our conceptions must be vast or hasty or topical; to ride the storm of the uneasy mind we are in, an idea must be sensational, it must walk on the water or fly faster than sound. A poet manqué does not write essays: he joins the staff of an advertising agency, where one word is an expensive item, or he talks about the films he is going to make.” 

The best essays mingle leisureliness and concision. They seem to lope when, in fact, they pirouette. The strictly topical can be death to an essay, though a light touch helps. So does a sense of humor. Good essays, even the most impersonal, are suffused with the essayist’s sensibility. No one else could have written them. See if you recognize the accuracy of Hughes’s next observation: 

“A good talker, delivering a monologue, can be an essayist; he is in tune with himself, but he need not be in touch with his audience. A poet, however privately his bright words seem to flow, is always addressing a god or a muse, something outside himself [ah, the good old days]. An essayist, however, need only talk to himself, though like a conversationalist he is stimulated by the waiting laughter, the ready applause.” 

At this point in his digression, Hughes hasn’t mentioned Priestley, his ostensible subject, for almost two pages. Now he places him, though not by name, in a literary continuum: 

“Certainly the finest essayists in English have always been egocentric. Hazlitt was unshakeable in his opinions; Lamb often gives the impression that he did not particularly wish to hear what others had to say to him. The substance of his essays, after all, was gathered chiefly from when his mind was youthfully open and receptive, and they were written when  he was caged within a fussy, cantankerous middle-age. Chesterton, too, was a man firmly entrenched in his views. These are among the essayists of genius.” 

I quibble with Hughes’ assessment of Lamb. “Cantankerous” isn’t right, and he misses the always-shifting relations of “Charles” and “Elia,” but the three essayists he names represent the peak of the form, if we add Max Beerbohm, George Orwell and V.S. Pritchett. Americans, in general, haven’t excelled in the form, with a few exceptions, most of them recent – H.L. Mencken, Joseph Epstein, Guy Davenport, Cynthia Ozick (and Marilynne Robinson, on occasion, in her less political moods). Blogs hold much promise for reviving and sustaining the essay tradition, but few bloggers possess the necessary chops. Most prefer to wallow in the strictly personal and topical, and seem unable or unwilling to work sub specie aeternitatis. Hughes takes the long view: 

“Always, until now, it was possible for a man of letters to parcel his idle reflections into neat essays and sell them to a periodical. But now they must go to waste or be imagined in a different form. The pressures of our time are too unrelaxing for the essay, which is an affair of quiet words, easily deafened by the urgencies of the present.”

1 comment:

George said...

I would add to the list of the Americans at least John Jay Chapman. He has a fair range: as a literary critic he writes soundly on Emerson, Whitman, and Robert Louis Stevenson; he writes cogently on education ("Learning", "The Pleasures of Greek", "President Eliot"); he writes well on politics broadly considered; and he is absorbing in essays on persons as well known as Julia Ward Howe or William James and as obscure as 19th Century Bostonians can be now.

Wallace Stegner is good across a narrower range. John Lukacs is not primarily an essayist, but he wrote quite a few good essays.