He is the most congenial of writers. The Frenchman is us, if only we were smarter, friendlier, more stoical, learned and articulate. His cognate in the Anglophone world is Dr. Johnson. Like the Englishman, he never pretends to be more than himself. The mature Montaigne is without pretensions, or at least his pretensions are roughly the size of our own. Danny Heitman, author of the quoted passage at the top, celebrates the inventor (and namer) of the least likely literary form, the essay. As Heitman writes: “Someone writing randomly about what he’s thinking for hundreds of pages sounds pretty dull, but Montaigne pulls it off.”
I was amused by Heitman’s diplomatic reference to our own Ralph Waldo Emerson as “an often earnest New Englander with a Brahmin’s sense of propriety.” In “Reading Montaigne,” Joseph Epstein, of course, credits the Frenchman with the invention of the essay. In “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery” (A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014), Epstein goes on to describe the personal essay as “a happy accident of literature” and Montaigne as its “first great practitioner.” Then he shifts his attention to Emerson, and things get amusing:
“My own introduction to the personal essay—one, I suspect, shared by many in my generation—was by way of the bloated, vatic, never less than pompous Ralph Waldo Emerson and the sometimes rather precious Charles Lamb. Few things are more efficient at killing the taste for a certain kind of literature than being force-fed it in school at an early age. Although I have come to have a higher opinion of Lamb and an even lower one of Emerson, having to read them at an early age all but effectively killed the essay for me.”
Amen. I still, on rare occasions, enjoy Emerson as a phrase-maker. His essays, which are largely incoherent as wholes, glitter with shiny bits. Emerson understands almost nothing of the world. He is a moral simpleton. But he insisted on thinking, and that always got him in trouble.