I fell asleep Thursday night rereading Terry Teachout’s essays about Willa Cather, Aaron Copland and Whit Stillman, among others, and I purposely choose the word “essay.” Terry’s pieces were originally written and published as reviews or articles in magazines and newspapers, but his sensibility – that idiosyncratic melding of learning, experience and emotion that make up a writer -- lent them more substance than their origins might imply. The poet W.S. Di Piero notes that “‘essay’ has embedded in it ‘assay,’ ‘weighing,’ ‘testing,’ ‘proofing,’ ‘trying out.’ ‘attempting.’”
In “The Essayists” (1881) Leslie Stephen refers to a certain sort of familiar essay as “a gentle and continuous maundering about things in general.” Of all forms, the essay is closest to conversation. Terry, like any first-rate critical essayist, conveys the sense that he is confiding in us. He leans in close and shares what he knows, trusting we will understand. There’s no stridency, bullying, showing off or avant-garde affectation. Terry started out as a journalist and never repudiated the tradition that included such forebears as Hazlitt, Mencken, Neville Cardus, Virgil Thomson, Edwin Denby, Kenneth Tynan and Hilton Kramer. Stephen says of Hazlitt that he “speaks of his old enjoyments as a traveller might speak of the gush of fresh water which saved him from dying of thirst in the wilderness.”
I first became aware of Terry, linking the name with the writing, in this celebratory 1995 Wall Street Journal essay on the jazz pianist Roger Kellaway. In it he writes: “Whatever the context, his airy, sparkling playing is instantly recognizable.” We might, incidentally, say the same of Terry’s best essays.
In “Notes on Prose and Poetry,” the poet W.S Di Piero writes: “Essaying is always an act of criticism. Autobiography, too, is a criticism of life, criticism as an ongoing assessment of value. If I’m writing about literary things or the visual arts, I’m also arguing with aesthetic fact, with texts or images, or with other poets and critics. It’s explanatory and demonstrative and exemplifying. Great essaying critics like Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Pater, and Erich Auerbach, have a sense of personal destiny, theirs, folded into the shapely immediacy of their prose. And they wrote with the destiny of the race in view. They instruct incidentally (and greatly), but they aren’t really interested in instructing.”
[“The Essayists” (1881) is collected in Leslie Stephen’s Men, Books, and Mountains (ed. S.O.A. Ullmann, Hogarth Press, 1956). The Di Piero piece is collected in Fat: New and Uncollected Prose, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020.]