- Assaying the Essay
The Great Age of the English Essay is an anthology containing a "gallery" of representative essays, beginning with the writings of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, including essays written by, among others, Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding, and Oliver Goldsmith, and ending with the romantic writers Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. Denise Gigante's selections are well-chosen and mullable pieces to enrich evenings, silencing the mindless cacophony of Desperate Housewives and Dancing with the Stars.
The essay is so malleable that it is impossible to define, sliding easily into other genres such as memoir and travel and nature writing. Among this last Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire are collections of essays, often disparate but troweled together to produce the illusion of well-made books. Gigante successfully escapes the problem of definition by using the bucket word English much as an essayist might call a piece "February"—a title so broad that he can stuff almost anything into his paragraphs, even January and March. Great Age does not, however, work as well. Not only are the essays of Addison and those of Hazlitt spanning two literary periods very different, the thought and architecture of one classical, the other gothic, but great itself is chancy. I think Hazlitt the best [End Page 333] English—and American—essayist. Nevertheless the essay flourished in the early twentieth century with G. K. Chesterton, Agnes Repplier, Max Beerbohm, A. A. Milne, and especially Robert Lynd, who are my favorites. If an anthologist uses an umbrella phrase like twentieth century in the title of a collection, then he can also include E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, A. J. Liebling, and M. F. K. Fisher. I don't want to spin the quarrel of the ancients and moderns anew, but in truth the essay may be the dominant literary form of the present. Not only have Joan Didion, Phillip Lopate, Scott Russell Sanders, Joseph Epstein, and Gore Vidal written a library of fine essays, but scores of writers, lesser or better known for their work in other genres, have produced memorable volumes of essays.
The coffeehouse shaped Addison's and Steele's essays, influencing their form and content. Today's essayists, for example, are less involved in politics, certainly less in the political "know." They are usually private, not public people; on the page they are frequently solitaries who meander between hedgerows on the peripheries of vascular contemporary doings. Of course exceptions are widespread—the blogger at Starbucks, for example, his prose often bilious and caffeinated. Indeed the Internet has turned vast numbers of the once silent into clamorous essayists, some of them very good, blogs being the present's transitory equivalent of the Spectator, the Rambler, the Bee, and the Connoisseur.
One reads an essay differently than one reads, say, a novel in which story often comes close to being all. Idea pervades the essay, something that can quickly exhaust readers. Early essayists understood that holding the attention of readers was difficult, and they seasoned their writings with fictional characters, something else that makes defining the essay difficult. Steele created Tom Wildfire, and Addison described the antics of Will Honeycomb and Sir Roger de Coverley. For my part I have peppered my writings with a host of country characters from Carthage, Tennessee—preachers, buffoons, and sentimentalists who enable me to change tone and pace and awaken readers bored by descriptions of flowers and grocery stores—the trivia of my life, and indeed, I suspect, the trivia of nearly everyone's life.
"Our general taste in England," Addison wrote in the Spectator, "is for epigram, turns of wit, and forced conceits, which have no manner of influence, either for bettering or enlarging the mind of him who reads them." Form determines content, and the congenial shortness of the essay makes the genre more hospitable to wit and epigram than to high seriousness and relentless didacticism. Moreover I suspect that readers of essays are generally more sophisticated than...