“More than anything, I like essays. Books of essays don’t sell very well – that’s what I’m told – but I buy them. I feel most things said in books nowadays could have been said better in a few thousand words. I’ve always been a magazine junkie for that reason. Favorite essay collections: John Simon’s The Sheep from the Goats, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Victorian Minds, Anthony Daniels’ several collections, and I do love E. P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, Marxist though Thompson was.”
That’s from an interview with Barton Swaim, author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics (2015), his account of working as pen-for-hire for former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. I have the book on order, and have no interest in politics, but Swaim seems unusually sensitive to the misuses of language, and so is worth reading. For a young man, he reads and writes intelligently. His enthusiasm for brevity – call it a taste for concision, not attention deficit disorder – is bracing. Bulk is too often mistaken for worth, and quantity for quality, whether in novels or news. “Said better in a few thousand words” -- or less, I would add. It’s good to hear of Swaim’s fondness for essays. We’re enduring one of the form’s periodic bad spells, in which (with a few precious exceptions) the essay has been subverted by narcissism, polemic and sledge-hammer politics, but it remains resilient. Think of a good essay (which is surely rarer even than a good novel) in the most general terms as an interesting sensibility expressed with discipline and imagination. Those are all rare qualities, but the same was true when Hazlitt and Mencken were working.
Swaim’s favorites among essay collections are interesting and unexpected. Simon’s 1989 volume, subtitled Selected Literary Essays of John Simon, is more amusing than a book with such a subtitle has a right to be. In his introduction, Simon winningly echoes Johnson on the common reader when he describes his desired audience: “It is the kind of reader who is neither uneducated nor academic, but somewhere in that not inconsiderable in between. Such a reader already knows something about books and writers, and wants to know more about them.”
Victorian Minds was the first of Himmelfarb’s books I read, in the nineteen-seventies, and I don’t remember much about it. Instead, I recommend her study of Daniel Deronda, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009). Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, of course, is one of the best in the business. Swaim’s inclusion of Thompson is rather baffling. I read The Making of the English Working Class (1963) a long time ago, but it’s a little late in the game to start reading books written by commies again. Swaim continues in the interview:
“I almost always find biographies and autobiographies inspiring, even if they’re so-so. The British do political and literary biographies particularly well. I’m not sure why that is – maybe because they have better raw material than we do – but there’s just no equivalent for, say, Robert Blake’s Disraeli or Jasper Ridley’s Lord Palmerston. And no presidential memoir is as good as the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography.”
I hope Swaim will read Gen. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, though I haven’t yet read the Thatcher volume. I would suggest he read the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler (1900-1991). In his foreword to Butler’s In the Land of Nod (Lilliput Press, 1996), Neal Ascherson writes:
“Hubert Butler was what in Central Europe they call a feuilleton writer. The word has misleading echoes of leafy lightness and even weightlessness. But for a century and a half it has meant a special kind of intellectual journalism, witty and often angry, elegant but piercing, and revealing great learning lightly borne, interested in the `epiphanies’ which make currents of social and political change visible through the lens of some small accident or absurdity.”