John D’Agata’s latest book, The Lifespan of a Fact, has caused quite a fuss. The questions at the center of this ruckus have resurfaced regularly during the hundreds of years the essay has been a central fact of the literary life: questions of purpose, aesthetics, subjectivity, form, “the contract with the reader,” and “truthiness” — surprising how useful this neologism remains, how much more it gets at than the only slightly older “facticity,” first used in 1945. What is the essay’s job? What is the essay form? What is the essay’s province? Such questions are often asked without any preparation for, or even desire for, an answer, and thus can be asked again and again. Even the “lyric essay” christened by D’Agata and Deborah Tall, as they would readily admit, is a recent invention in name only.
A superb new anthology, straightforwardly titled Essayists on the Essay, edited by Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, traces the talk about the essay from the sixteenth century on, and if the pieces they include have a common theme, it is perhaps that the essay is a hybrid, one that is neither fiction nor nonfiction as we usually think of them, but something else altogether. The essay, it seems, honors the law of genre only in the breach.
Klaus and Stuckey-French present fifty pieces, from Montaigne and Francis Bacon to the present. The usual suspects are all here: Johnson, Hazlitt, Emerson, Pater, Woolf, Ortega y Gasset, White, Hardwick, Lopate, Sontag. The last decade is represented by a dozen authors, including D’Agata and Monson. But the real value of the volume for lovers of the essay (besides its pithy headnotes) lies in its recovery of dozens of forgotten and lesser-sung essayists from the last couple centuries. Gerould, Imbert, Picón-Salas, Arciniegas, Ouelette, Díaz-Plaja, Zaid: these tend to be names known only to specialists, if at all. The story that is serially told is one of the constant roiling of a form that may sometimes be interested in fact, but always in literary art.
Reprinted below is a teaser excerpt, this one from William Dean Howells. As Klaus and Stuckey-French note, Howells was consistently concerned with issues of social justice and with “the role of the writer in the new world of mass culture.” In this piece, Howells finds himself worrying that the essay had begun, as he complains, “to confuse itself with the article.” Originally published in his regular Harper’s Magazine column, “Editor’s Easy Chair,” in October, 1902.
— Tom Lutz
THE OLD-FASHIONED ESSAY, as we had it in Montaigne, and almost as we had it in Bacon, obeyed a law as subjective as that of the gypsy music which the Hungarian bands made so popular with us ten or fifteen years ago. Wandering airs of thought strayed through it, owning no allegiance stricter than that which bound the wild chords to a central motive. Often there was apparently no central motive in the essay; it seemed to begin, where it would, and end where it liked. The ...