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 author was bound to give it a name, but it did not hold him bound otherwise. It could not very well take for title a first line, or part of a first line, like those poems, now rarely written, which opened with some such phrase as, When those bright eyes; or, Had I the wings; or, If yon sweet star. If it could, that would have been the right way of naming most of the essays which have loitered down to us from antiquity, as well as those which help to date the revival of polite learning. Such a custom would have befitted nearly all the papers in the Spectator and the Tatler and the Rambler, and the other periodicals illustrating the heyday of the English essay. These, indeed, preserved an essential liberty by setting out from no subject more severely ascertained than that which lurked in some quotation from the classics, and unless there was an allegory or an apologue in hand, gadded about at their pleasure, and stopped as far from it as they chose. That gave them their charm, and kept them lyrical, far from the dread perhaps of turning out a sermon, when the only duty they had was to turn out a song.
Just how or why the essay should have departed from this elder ideal, and begun to have a conscience about having a beginning, a middle and an ending, like a drama, or a firstly, secondly, and thirdly, like a homily, it would not be easy to say, though we feel pretty sure that it was not from any occasion of Charles Lamb’s, or Leigh Hunt’s, or William Hazlitt’s, or their compeers, in bearing down to our day the graceful tradition which seems now to have been lost. We suspect that the change may have happened through the greater length to which the essay has run in modern times. You may sing a song for a certain period, but if you keep on you have an opera, which you are bound to give obvious form. At any rate, the moment came when the essay began to confuse itself with the article, and to assume an obligation of constancy to premises and conclusions, with the effect of so depraving the general taste that the article is now desired more and more, and the essay less and less. It is doubtful, the corruption has gone so far, whether there is enough of the lyrical sense left in the reader to appreciate the right essay; whether the right essay would now be suffered; whether if any writer indulged its wilding nature, he would not be suspected of an inability to cultivate the growths that perceptibly nourish, not to say fatten, the intellect. We have forgotten, in this matter, that there are senses to which errant odors and flying flavors minister, as grosser succulences satisfy hunger. There is a lyrical sense, as well as a dramatic, an epical, an ethical sense, and it was that in which the old-fashioned essay delighted.