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  • from Patrick Madden
  • Patrick Madden (bio)

Essay Collections Old and New.

For a decade now, I've been reviewing books in Fourth Genre, always aiming to praise the most insightful and beautiful collections of essays—works that are driven by thinking, that collect events and ideas associatively, that mediate experience by meditating. I've sought the long-ranging influence of Montaigne's sixteenth-century experiment in self-knowledge, and I've found it, again and again, in wonderful books by wonderful writers, typically unknown to the larger world, yet toiling away without fame or fanfare—rewarded, perhaps, only by the increase in knowledge and humility brought about by the essays they have wrought. Here, then, in brief review, are six essay collections, three recent and three not-so (and in the public domain). All are, as you'd expect, wonderful and worthwhile.

Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country
Alexander Smith
London: Strahan & Co., 1863. 296 Pages.

This collection locates the Scottish poet in the fictional town of Dreamthorp, leading a seemingly "staid and humdrum" life, keeping "eye and ear open; tak[ing] note of man, woman, and child, find[ing] many a pregnant text imbedded in the commonplace of village life; and out of what I see and hear, weav[ing] my own essays" in beautiful, resplendent fashion. His theoretical "On the Writing of Essays" is not to be missed by any serious student of the form. [End Page 187]

Essays in Idleness
Agnes Repplier
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893. 224 Pages.

In this one of her many essay collections, Repplier offers her wisdom on "Wit and Humor," "Ennui," "Leisure," and other subjects, but is especially valuable for her take on writing and revision: "While the impatient thinker, eager only to impart his views, regards [laws of language] as a restriction, the true artist finds in them an opportunity, and rejoices . . . to work within conditions and limits."

Louise Imogen Guiney
Boston: Copeland And Day, 1897. 334 Pages.

A patrin is a trail of leaves left by gypsies, a sign to those who come after, as is an essay, Guiney tells us. Most striking among Guiney's 20 essays is "On a Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket," a largely narrative piece pervaded by distanced wisdom. Though she's lost her Christmas money, she's "transported with admiration and unholy sympathy" for the art of the thief, continuing home in conversation with Marcus Aurelius, welcoming "everything that happens as necessary and familiar."

Awkward: A Detour
Mary Cappello
New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2007. 224 Pages, Paper, $16.95.

In the spirit of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Cappello makes an exhaustive, essayistic study of awkwardness, through heights of essential reverie and depths of captivating meditation, chasing the trait through 10 gerunds ("breathing," "touching," "breaching," etc.) and 77 adjectives ("spasmodic," "untoward," "cumbersome," etc.), hitting bone with erudition and association, personal stories, and layered research. "Once you learn the thing you didn't know," she offers, "you're forced to see yourself for who you had all along ignorantly been." You never knew you wanted to know so much about awkwardness. [End Page 188]

The Wet Collection
Joni Tevis
Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2007. 169 Hages, Clotp, $20.

Tevis's metaphor is the wet collection, a natural history museum's jars of miscellaneous parts, brought together for study and meaning. The essays inside ponder odd jobs, historical footnotes, fantastic miniatures, gymnastics, dams, the legacy of Bigfoot. Her project, built of exquisite sentences, rescued imaginings, seems guided by her claim, "Only what's broken can be fully used. Nothing too humble; nothing too good."

Words of the Grey Wind
Chris Arthur
Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2009. 250 Pages, Paper, £12.99.

After happening upon 1989's Best American Essays anthology, Chris Arthur turned to writing his own essays, which labor he's been faithfully pursuing for the past two decades, unassumingly publishing in dozens of literary journals and four books. This collection includes his greatest hits, 13 glowingly lovely essays, incisive explorations of everyday things, carrying on the spirit of Montaigne...


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pp. 187-189
Launched on MUSE
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