Lost course in the banquet of literature
SAID literary critic Douglas Bush, ``We think of the essay as one of the late courses in the banquet of literature.'' But we do not have to search far through journals, newspapers, libraries, or bookstores to conclude that the literary essay has become more a lost than a late course. General nonfiction, in the tradition of Montaigne, Addison, Steele, Johnson, Lamb, Chesterton, Repplier, Woolf, Highet, Krutch, M. F. K. Fisher, and E. B. White, to name only a sampling, is almost as out of fashion as the postprandial wing chair by the open hearth. Granted, some fine essays do get printed (often by writers whose reputations were made elsewhere), and some fine prose thrives disguised as memoir, natural history, literary history, literary criticism, social commentary, or travel writing. But the personal essay, the literary excursion over the wide range of human experience, receives about as much attention today as the one-horse shay. Journals of ``creative'' writing solicit primarily poems and short stories, while schools rarely offer courses in the essay as literature, rarely devote courses to individual essayists. And, as Paul Fussell says, ``If you want to raise a laugh in a publisher's office, enter with a manuscript collection of essays on all sorts of subjects.''
But having just taught unfashionable undergraduate and graduate courses in major essayists to students who were almost universally amazed at their pleasure in reading them, I have been doing some further thinking ``on essays,'' and have become even more dismayed at that laughter in the publisher's office.
Ironically, one of the main appeals of the essay is the so-readily derided ``all sorts of subjects'' that essayists so willingly take on. Their interests are infinite. Montaigne, father of the essay, wrote with equal passion of children, books, education, writing, politics, inconsistency, physiognomy, vanity, friendship, aging, and the condition of his own digestion. William Hazlitt wrote of poetry and painting, juggling and journeying, beauty and boxing, while M. F. K. Fisher, who at first appears to be writing mostly of food, explains that she too is doing much more:
``So it happens that when I write about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one.''
In his preface to ``Tremendous Trifles,'' G. K. Chesterton exhorts, ``Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud.'' And Alexander Smith describes the essayist's distinguishing trait as ``an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things.''
This eclectic spirit is also suggested in their titles: Robert Lynd's ``Life's Little Oddities,'' E. V. Lucas's ``Wanderings and Diversions,'' Gilbert Highet's ``People, Places and Books,'' Agnes Repplier's ``Essays in Idleness,'' and most revealing, Hilaire Belloc's series of titles: ``On Something,'' ``On Anything,'' ``On Everything,'' ``On.'' As Joseph Wood Krutch so humorously puts it, ``One of the most gratifying privileges of the essayist is that of expressing opinions on subjects he doesn't know much about.'' One of the most gratifying privileges for the reader is listening in on these opinions.
And the writers are as various as their subjects, for they are ultimately autobiographers, their own main characters. They give subjects the significance they see. Consistent with Montaigne's ``I am myself the matter of my book,'' essayists are individual, even quirky, interpreters of facts, closer to lyric poets than to reporters or scholars. Their prejudices and passions color their accounts; they compose not with charcoal but with a rich palette. Addison's social prescriptions, Steele's softer sentiments, Goldsmith's satiric narratives, Johnson's moral pronouncements, Lamb's emotional reveries, Stevenson's worldly adventures, Benchley's laughable absurdities, Thurber's ironic eccentricities, Woolf's literary evocations, and White's urbane pastoralisms are told by individuals, each one unlike the other.
It is White who explained that ``there are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson's ice creams.''
And discovering each essayist's ``small personal voice,'' as Doris Lessing described it, is one of the delights.
But individual as they may be, they are alike in their rejection of group-think and mass response. Like Thoreau, each one of them would rather sit alone on a pumpkin than be crowded on a velvet cushion. Edward Abbey writes of Abbey's road and no one else's, and White serves up ``One Man's Meat,'' not a smorgasbord by or for Everyman. Their response is studiously unconventional, as was Montaigne's when he challenged the most common commonplaces: ``There is no book to be found . . . whose difficulties are cleared up by interpretation,'' or ``Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.'' G. K. Chesterton loved to turn the clich'e back upon itself. In nonsense he detects the ``genial ring of common sense,'' and in running after his hat on a windy day he sees an opportunity, not an annoyance, for ``an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.''
Independence, even contrariness, is typical, as in the stance suggested by Mary McCarthy's title ``On the Contrary,'' and even more boldly in Krutch's paired volumes, ``If You Don't Mind My Saying So,'' followed by ``And Even if You do.''
This contrariness shows up in many aspects of their work, but nowhere more obviously than in their preference for the old-fangled. In fact, a whole category of essays might be labeled ``future shock.'' In a discussion of altering old laws, Montaigne himself announced, ``For my part, I have a great aversion from novelty.'' Robert Louis Stevenson makes an untimely plea for gas lamps rather than ``star-rise by electricity.'' Thoreau questions the wisdom of the Atlantic cable (given the questionable value of what we have to say in person to one another). Hilaire Belloc prefers the charm of crooked streets to the tedium of straight ones, and E. B. White laments the atomic age, ``These nuclear springtimes have a pervasive sadness about them.''
In our reckless progress, the progress that may stir guilt if we deny computer literacy to a one-year-old, essayists' reluctance to join the race is a relief. They know they may be forced to join, but they won't do it without a long reflection. We stop with them and think about what they resist and what they want to keep.
Often conservative, they cherish the tested joys of life, the simple lasting delights: resting comfortably idle, eating good food, listening to children's chatter, sharing late-night conversations, hiking from inn to inn, tracking a hummingbird's flight, considering an insect's bad reputation, evaluating the significance of an uncle, a horse, or a bed-knob. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, ``Atlas was just a gentleman with a protracted nightmare,'' essayists are professional cultivators of idleness, readily taking time from the world's occupations to occupy themselves.
E. B. White recounts the antics of a neighboring raccoon and concludes, ``A man is lucky indeed who lives where both sunset and coonset are visible from the same window,'' and M. F. K. Fisher describes seizing the moment, ``And when again will I be alive to it as I am this very minute, sitting here on a green hillside above the sea, or here in this dim, murmuring, richly odorous restaurant, or here in this fisherman's caf'e on the wharf?''
Such joy is often the main subject, a fact evident in J. B. Priestley's ``Delights,'' where he covers 114 of them, ranging from reading detective stories in bed to making stew, to enjoying writing and discovering Vermeer. For readers, the joy is in the sharing, as it was for Virginia Woolf while reading Thoreau, who ``seemed to hug his happiness.''
This is not to say that essayists never write of the unhuggable, of the horrors that keep us from finding life totally endearing, but that they seem more often to turn to the consolations than to the cares. Whatever happiness is there, they hug.
And they pay scrupulous attention to the writing that best expresses it: the rightness of the perfect word, the rhythm of a well-turned sentence, cumulative effect of a full paragraph, the sustained energy of a well-paced composition. Like poets, they work as much on the ``how'' as on the ``what,'' developing their craft into an art. As Thoreau advises about writing, ``Don't suppose that you can tell it precisely the first dozen times you try, but at 'em again . . . .'' And as E. B. White concludes in a discussion of Thoreau's own writing, ``It is probably no harder to eat a woodchuck than to construct a sentence that lasts a hundred years.'' Essays are among the most attractive of the belles-lettres.
But perhaps this very attractiveness has been a problem for the essay, one of the many reasons that modern publishers laugh at a miscellany. Perhaps the ``lettres'' of the 19th-century sort came to seem too ``belles'' for a 20th century so cruelly made unbeautiful. Perhaps also the conservative fireside comfort, the misty pipe dreams of some essayists, seemed too dreamy for the age of anxiety. Perhaps simple delight went soft like an overripe avocado or an Edwardian witticism.
Certainly competition from the novel, the lyric poem, and the short story drew attention away from the essay, as did the quick currency of the journalistic piece, and ironically, the perpetual craving for information, for practical guides to losing weight, training dogs, making conversations, and yes, ``how-to'' pieces on eating, hiking, reading, writing, bird watching, and simply enjoying life. This is the age of the specialist. Method has become our subject.
Ironically, too, essayists seem to hold the form in lesser esteem than it deserves. Montaigne saw his pieces as mere attempts, essays at understanding himself and his world: ``If I were certain, I would make decisions, not essays.'' In his ``Dictionary,'' Samuel Johnson defined the essay as an ``irregular, undigested piece,'' and White confides that the essayist, ``unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen.''
Whatever its present social status, however, a literary form described by one critic as ``the highest expression of the civilized intellect,'' a form that takes itself as seriously as the novel, the poem, or the play, that has a long history of delight, and that teaches all the important ``how-to's'' without the tedium of trying, has much to recommend it for another coming out. Or, as Douglas Bush might have put it, the essay deserves a more prominent place on the literary banquet table.