When the financial pages mention me, even briefly, I notice I am dismissed as a "columnist." This is because of my weekly appearance in this space with wit and wisdom, persiflage and piffle, and because nobody stops to think how wrong that is. It's not unlike Moliere's gentleman who had been speaking prose all his life and didn't know it. I have been an essayist all these years, and nobody says so. The only relief I get from being a columnist is when the society pages label me a humorist, just because of a slip of the tongue when I was a boy that caused laughter in Sunday School.
The dictionary says an essay is a literary composition, and with that settled we know we're in the rarer atmosphere of culture. True, anybody can be a humorist by wearing a trick mustache and a lampshade, but again, it was Moliere who said making gentlemen laugh is a strange business. Bill Nye, who was a humorist, said the humorist always turns out to be the sad little man sitting by himself over in the corner.
I believe the first columnist to be so identified was Newton Newkirk, which was not his name. Publisher Grozier of the Boston Post brought Newt from the Middle West and gave him the center column of the editorial page to fill every day. A column is that part of a newspaper page from top to bottom between two column rules, which at that time was 13 picas wide. The column was titled All Sorts, and set the style for many columnists to follow, such as F. P. A., Don Rose, Don Marquis, and even Walter Winchell. A good part of Newt's material was lifted from reader mail:
A fellow from Kennebunk, Me.
Was sweet on a beautiful Je.
But he tossed her away
When he found with dismay
That she'd lifted his watch
and his che.
"Sorts" was the printers' term for the individual pieces of type in the compositor's case that would be handset to make reading matter, and the title All Sorts suggested a potpourri rather than an essay. Newt very seldom devoted the whole column to a single topic. He was never an essayist.
The essay was used by ancient writers (Plutarch and Seneca, for example), but not by that name. The essay is usually "expository," whatever that means, personal, and informal in style and method. The essay should be short enough to be taken in one sitting, but has been used for longer writings such as some of John Locke's. It likes prose, but Alexander Pope did his in verse. And don't get mixed up with the thesis, dissertation, treatise, exegesis, and the president's State of the Union address.
An essay can be rambling and unsystematic, but you can tell one when you see it. The word derives from French and means a trial, an attempt, a tentative effort, and was first used by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne in 1571 for his own incomparable efforts as the essayist who set the style. Soon Sir Francis Bacon introduced the essay into English literature, and the list has become long indeed. Addison and Steele influenced Abraham Lincoln, and so on, but Lincoln entered politics and was never heard from again.
After Bacon, some essayists were Dryden, Goldsmith, Swift, and Dr. Johnson. After a lapse, Charles Lamb revived the essay. A welter of English magazines published oodles of essays, many of them literary criticism. American essayists have abounded. Washington Irving, Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hank Thoreau, Bill Howells, H. L. Mencken, and many a memorable other whose name I forget. Funny essays came from Eugene Field, Robert Benchley, Bill Nye, James Thurber, and the Canadian Stephen Leacock. Not all essayists were columnists, but it helped.
The most frequent question is, "Where in the world do you get all your ideas?" Teachers tell me they assign a "theme" and then the scholars can't think of anything to write about. The essay is designed to handle that. In an essay you write about anything at all. If the world goes blank, try the universe. If nothing happened today, then write about nothing. As long as the world turns, essay topics flit, so just hold out your hand. The difficulty is to settle on the one to do now.
When somebody asks how long it takes to write an essay, I just ask, "About what?" I can't answer that until I know, and usually my questioner can't think of anything to write about. But it varies. I don't look at the clock; I just fill three sheets of paper and about one-third of the fourth. That's a bit over 1,000 words, but I don't count them. I'm a slow counter, anyway. If a column is short, a good editor can stretch it and always keeps "fillers" on hand. A filler is three or four lines that say the wheat crop of the Channel Isles dropped 2 percent last year. Most readers think a filler is part of the essay.
To students who have ambitions to become authors, I have some useful advice. I tell them to learn to read and spell, and perfect some skill they can turn to in sour-pickle time, like counterfeiting, selling insurance, applying aluminum siding, or trading baseball cards. Then you start an essay by saying something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Then you select 1,000 words and arrange them so they sound like a weather report.
This completes the essay except for the closing sentence. Now you conclude, "And that is why it was the best of times and the worst of times." Which, naturally enough, is why I get dismissed as a columnist.
In 1995 the wheat crop of the Channel Islands declined by 2 percent.