“Essays are conversations in monologue.”
A tart little insight, not without sting. The worst essays are all monologue, unadulterated by attention to the world and thought for the reader. There was a time when everyone thought he could write a sonnet. Now everyone thinks he can stir in a little confession and rant, sprinkle on the orthodoxy du jour, add a dash of epiphany and call it an essay. The irony is that almost any act of prose, in the right hands, is potentially an essay – book review, travelogue, love letter, sports report, blog post, even the dreaded op-ed piece. What’s required is a quality defined for me in the negative not long ago by Dave Lull. Referring to a ponderously opinionated blogger, Dave dismissed him as not having “an interesting mind.” There’s a quality that defies quantifying. We instantly recognize an interesting mind when we encounter one, but could never in advance describe it. Despite most of the form’s fashionable practitioners today, it takes more than opinions, narcissism and purple prose to write a good essay.
The author of the observation at the top is Greg Morrison, about whom I know nothing except that he has written a thoughtful review of a collection of essays by Agnes Repplier (1855-1950). She is a writer who suffers the ambiguous fate of remaining ever ripe for rediscovery, defying all the contemporary pigeonholes into which literature is crammed. Morrison follows the assertion above with this:
“[Essays are] likely to reach from the mental equivalents of the junk drawer in the kitchen, the hallway table where today’s mail has been dumped—everyday thoughts, commonplaces and their inversions. If her conversation sometimes appears strewn with knick-knacks of the nineteenth century, so much the worse for our illiteracy. And after all, in two hundred years, what will a reviewer find to care about in all our era’s thinkpieces and listicles?"
The best essayists often begin with the contents of “the junk drawer in the kitchen,” with humble particulars, not high-mindedly gaseous theories. Think of Hazlitt, Lamb and Chesterton. Think of Guy Davenport on his family hunting for Indian arrowheads, Cynthia Ozick on her father’s drugstore, Joseph Epstein on anything. Several years ago I read two of Repplier’s essay collections and wrote about them here. She seems to me a recognizably American type – independent, autodidactic, a little cranky, admirably conservative in all the best senses. Here, in “The Mission of Humour” (Americans and Others, 1912), she characterizes a man with no sense of humor:
“He gets along very well without it. He is not aware that anything is lacking. He is not mourning his lot. What loss there is, his friends and neighbours bear. A man destitute of humour is apt to be a formidable person, not subject to sudden deviations from his chosen path, and incapable of frittering away his elementary forces by pottering over both sides of a question. He is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always – if possible – to be avoided.”
The prose is rhythmical and plain, neither fusty nor coarsely demotic. She knows when to write a short sentence and when to stretch out. Her timing is superb. She is learned but never pedantic. Here, from the title essay in A Happy Half-Century, and Other Essays (1908), is another reason I sense a kinship with this forgotten American writer:
“There are few of us who do not occasionally wish we had been born in other days, in days for which we have some secret affinity, and which shine for us with a mellow light in the deceitful pages of history . . . For myself, I confess that the last twenty-five years of the eighteenth century and the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth make up my chosen period, and that my motive for so choosing is contemptible. It was not a time distinguished – in England, at least – for wit or wisdom, for public virtues or for private charm; but it was a time when literary reputations were so cheaply gained that nobody needed to despair of one.”
Now that’s an interesting mind, one accustomed to savoring and confounding. In her preface to the same volume, Repplier writes (like any true essayist): “I have filled my canvas with trivial things, with intimate details, with what now seem the insignificant aspects of life. But the insignificant aspects of life concern us mightily while we live; and it is by their health that we understand the insignificant people who are sometimes reckoned of importance.”