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Discerning the Infinite in Common Things

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. lxxvi-lxxix | 10.1353/sew.2013.0097

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Essayists on the Essay is beautifully laid out, margins and font uncluttered and the flatware of print elegant. The contents are appetizers. Many selections are short; and, because they concentrate on defining the essay, they lack the sweet and sour of variety. Of course a reader can make an evening out of excerpts as he can a meal of appetizers: spring rolls, scallion pancakes, jelly fish, fried and steamed dumplings, and, if his appetite isn't satiated, cold noodles with hot sesame peanut sauce. If pressed for time or interest, a reader could be well served at the drive-through, ordering Phillip Lopate's introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay and from Essayists on the Essay the excerpt from A. C. Benson's "The Art of the Essayist."

In Dreamthorp, a book that people interested in the personal essay should read in its entirety, Alexander Smith states that a good [End Page lxxvi] essayist needs "an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things." Arthur Benson seconds the idea, saying the essayist needs a "far-ranging curiosity." "He must recognize the fact," Benson continues, "that most people's convictions are not the result of reason, but a mass of associations, traditions, things half-understood, phrases, examples, loyalties, whims. He must care more about the inconsistency of humanity than about its dignity; and he must study more what people actually do think about than what they ought to think about." Benson's essayist is genteel and at home in the world. He is perspicacious and comfortable. Financially he is at least middle class and has the leisure to observe and grow wise. In religious terms he is the gentleman sinner, a character loathed by hatchet-toting literary Pentecostals. The aim of such an essayist is not to reform but simply to "make people interested in life and in themselves." Benson's sensible, and to me congenial, modesty is an appealing relief from academic boosterism and hyperbole. "The great secret which the true essayist whispers in our ears is that the worth of experience is not measured by what is called success, but rather resides in a fullness of life," Benson writes, adding "that success tends rather to obscure and to diminish experience, and that we may miss the point of life by being too important."

Anthologies are the terrain of theme-hunters. Several contributors here maintain that the personal essay frees them from the restraints of systematic writing and thinking. At the beginning of the seventeenth century William Cornwallis the Younger stated that the essay was "a manner of writing well befitting undigested motions," and in the eighteenth century in the Spectator Joseph Addison described his writings, saying that while some were written "with Regularity and Method" others ran "out into the Wildness of those Compositions which go by the Names of Essays." Today apologists contrast personal essays with specialized writing, usually criticizing dry-as-dust academic straw men. Style sheets do not a prison make nor footnotes a cage, and much academic writing is thoughtful and entertaining. Praising the personal essay for its spontaneity or wildness bestows an underserved romantic authenticity upon the form.

If the essay partakes of romantic freedom and poetics at all, those poetics are tamed, smacking more of Capability Brown's curried expanses of ground and groves of trees than of unpruned natural gardens. Personal essays are various; and, if their paragraphs are rarely long hedges of Baconian aphorisms, aphorisms abound as do literary alleys, topiaries, parterres, and geometrical temples. Writers work hard to create the illusion of spontaneity much as landscape architects once created palladian villas. No essayist escapes the limitations of language. Their wild "motions" are run to ground and leashed to words. Writers revise and shape; and to praise the page for its freedom and spontaneity, not its appearance of freedom and spontaneity, is naïve, and maybe wistful. Perhaps people—especially closeted teachers who study the essay—want to believe that some literary form is free and democratic, much as they hunger to believe "the impossible [End Page lxxvii] dream," that beyond the classroom somebody, someday, might be able to live a wondrous life unhinged from the commas and...

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