- “I—The First Ever to Do So”
athens: university of georgia press, 2015. 272pages, cloth, $32.95.
What does it mean to write after Montaigne?
The question arises with the title of this new collection, and the essays within it give us 28 answers by some of America’s most talented essayists. Editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden invited contributors to “reimagine” Montaigne by taking up one of his essays and writing an essay in response. New voices rise beneath familiar titles. Vivian Gornick writes “Of Friendship” and reckons with the demise of a once-crucial friendship, much as Montaigne himself grieved the death of his beloved friend, Étienne de La Boétie. In a lighter tone, Bret Lott writes “Of Giving the Lie” but finds himself, over and over, trying to tell the truth. As these and other writers in the collection grapple with Montaigne’s subjects, they also, though not always, confront Montaigne himself. The result is a fine collection of essays that are chatty, playful, whimsical, wry, feisty, sincere, and often profound.
Who, for example, wouldn’t leap into an essay that starts, “The very second I laid eyes on a placenta, I wanted to put it in my mouth”? That’s the opening to Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s “Of Cannibals.” Here’s another [End Page 189] great opening, this one by Robin Hemley: “Our children haunt us until we die, then it is our turn to haunt them.” I can imagine Montaigne enjoying both of those sallies, the first for its honesty, the second for its elegant pith. The collection, like Montaigne’s own work, is full of passages that crackle with insight, and, like any collection, it has a few knockouts. Lia Purpura’s “Of Prayers” about the aftermath of a murder-suicide and Elena Passarello’s guide to interviewing the artist formerly known as Prince, which she cagily puts under Montaigne’s title “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes,” eclipse their inspirations.
In fact, if the editors truly wanted essays “after Montaigne,” then the problem with this collection is that it’s too good. At least that might be the complaint of William Cornwallis, the first English essayist to see himself as coming after Montaigne. (Francis Bacon is the first to publish a book entitled Essays in 1597, but his work implicitly argues against Montaigne’s example.) Cornwallis declares explicitly in his Essayes of 1600 and 1601 that he writes in that genre that Montaigne invented. So it’s worth taking a moment to look at the tradition he sets in motion, if only because of the bizarre claim Cornwallis makes that Montaigne’s Essais aren’t really essays:
I hold neither Plutarche’s, nor none of these ancient short manner of writings, nor Montaigne’s, nor such of this latter time to bee justly tearmed Essayes; for though they be short, yet they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall.
Cornwallis thinks Montaigne’s work, like Plutarch’s, is too strong and well built to be called essays. Essays aren’t like that.
So what are essays like? And is Montaigne, their inventor, not an essay-ist? Cornwallis conjures the first of the many Montaignes that his followers will envision: Pascal, Hazlitt, Emerson, Nietzsche, Saramago—to name a few—reimagine their own Montaigne. For Cornwallis, Montaigne is a moralist. In “Of Censuring,” he writes:
[Montaigne] speaks freely, and yet wisely: Censures, and determines many things Judicially, and yet forceth you not to attention with a hem and a spitting Exordium: In a word hee hath made Morall Philosophy speake couragiously, and in steede of her gowne, given her an Armour. [End Page 190]
From this vision of Montaigne comes Cornwallis’s vision for the essay. It’s a genre that lets the writer do the moral work of becoming better. By writing essays, the essayist cultivates a self capable not of writing well but of doing well. “For,” as Cornwallis says in “Of Essaies and Books,” “it is easier to thinke well than to do well.” In this view, it’s...