Trying to Photograph a Hummingbird: Essays upon Essays

By Robert MintoJuly 27, 2021

Trying to Photograph a Hummingbird: Essays upon Essays

On Essays: Montaigne to the Present by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy

IN 1929, HILAIRE BELLOC published an essay called “An Essay upon Essays upon Essays.” His title is a kind of platonic ideal: surely no other form of literature is fonder of self-consideration than the essay. It is also notoriously hard to define. The teeming tradition of essays upon essays might be expected to present a pitiful spectacle, like a vampire with no reflection addicted to gazing into a mirror. And yet, to be honest, there’s nothing I like more than the glorious masturbatory energy of an essay upon essays. In On Essays: Montaigne to the Present, we get 17 of them.

On Essays is a collection of academic articles, mostly by professors of literature, edited by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy. The articles mostly follow a common structure: they begin by describing a specific essayist or group of essayists, and then they ascend to general claims about the form. Inevitably, in a collection like this, the problem of definition keeps coming up. What is an essay? On Essays doesn’t give just one answer. Various contributors try out various definitions, or subdivide the form into more definable parts (such as the voiced essay, the familiar essay, the lyric essay, or the hybrid essay), or nudge at its limitations by exploring what it means for nontextual media to be essays, or suggest that there is no such thing as an essay but only a manner or mode of “essayism” that can be layered into other kinds of writing, such as the novel. To me, the most surprising and intriguing approach to the problem of definition was Warren Boutcher’s article “The Montaignian Essay and Authored Miscellanies from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century.” Boutcher suggests that the essay is actually the cadet branch of a larger, older genre. Here is his thesis:

[W]hat has perhaps been lost in contemporary criticism is a sense of how the essay was still embedded in [William] Hazlitt’s time in a much broader European tradition of various and miscellaneous writing that long preceded [Michel de] Montaigne, that included him, and that continued long after him. It was defined as a tradition by the fact that it did not contain anything that could be classified according to the generic and professional norms defined by classical poetics, rhetoric, and philosophy, norms that in changing forms persisted through to the mid-nineteenth century. So the tradition comprehended all genres and writings that were not of the order of epic poetry or oratory or philosophy, such as the miscellany, the commentary, the rhapsody, the silva, the farrago, other types of reference works such as encyclopedias, and writings that were sui generis.

To bear out this claim, Boutcher takes the reader on a guided tour of the library of Isaac D’Israeli (father of the prime minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli). D’Israeli collected miscellanies. He owned volumes with delightfully arcane and obsolete names: florilegia, table-talk, treasuries of wit, emblem books, pandects, theaters of example, enchiridions, poetical miscellanies, hypomnemata. Montaigne’s Essais bears a striking resemblance to such miscellanies, with one crucial difference: rather than plucking his topics entirely from classical or religious literature and history, or even from the outward observation of nature, Montaigne derived his topics and observations from his own life and experience. Thus, his originality might consist in discovering a new source of subject matter rather than in pioneering a new form of writing. Is the whole genre we know as the essay better conceived as the inward turn of authored miscellanies? I don’t know, but the notion intrigues me.

At this point I must register a doubt; I must initiate exactly the sort of vain inquiry that should characterize an essay about essays. Should the chapters of On Essays themselves be called “essays”? On the one hand, given the form’s definitional difficulties, perhaps we can slip just about any kind of short prose writing under the gate. On the other hand, most of the contributors agree that, whatever else they are, essays are an unfinished and unmethodical business. But these articles are thesis-driven instances of academic discourse. They unfold in orderly, numbered subheadings. They are both finished and methodical.

It occurred to me that perhaps the collection as a whole has the unmethodical quality of an essay, even if its parts do not. It is vaguely chronological, but within that framework it dwells in odd places and skips over important things and takes strange byways. For instance, the first chapter uses an essay by Virginia Woolf about walking across London as a metaphorical map of the history of the form. While most of the chapters focus on writers, some focus on places or activities associated with essay reading and writing — coffee, smoking, the city. The book even includes a strange chapter that is not about actually existing essays at all, a wonderfully odd piece by Adam Phillips about the absence of essays from the work of many psychoanalysts. Patchwork, digression, oddity of emphasis — perhaps the book is an essay, composed of non-essays.

Karshan and Murphy certainly conceive their editorial work as essayistic. They claim, for example, “the essayistic privilege of not being obliged to an exhaustive treatment of a subject,” and they identify a list of omitted topics on which they exercised this privilege: “[V]isual art; or walking; or poetry; or pedagogy; or race; or gender.”

I appreciate this proleptic defense of their own omissions, but there is one lack in this volume that frustrates me: essayists who wrote or write in a language other than English. Apart from the inevitable presence of the great-grandaddy essayist himself — the Frenchman Montaigne — writers in languages other than English barely get a look in. True, György Lukács and Theodor Adorno are frequently cited as theorists of the essay, and Jorge Luis Borges receives some welcome attention from Michael Wood; but in a book that purports to be about essays in general, there’s either no mention of, or only the briefest allusions to, such important essayists as — just off the top of my head, and in no particular order — Roland Barthes, Natalia Ginzburg, Karl Kraus, José Ortega y Gasset, Siegfried Kracauer, Joseph Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Mann, Émile Chartier, Giacomo Leopardi, Milan Kundera, Dubravka Ugrešić, Paul Valéry, or Arthur Schopenhauer. You can probably make your own list. “English,” claim the editors in their introduction, “is the language in which the form of the essay has been most consistently productive.” Maybe that’s true (though I suspect literary historians of other languages — especially French and German — might have something to say about that), but even if it is, a consideration of the essay from “Montaigne to the present” exclusively concerned with English-language essays is not just incomplete in a charming, essayistic way; it is myopic.

Nonetheless, within its limitations, and from its many specialist angles, On Essays brings breadth of context and patience of research to bear on a genre that’s hard to see clearly. Writing about the essay is like trying to photograph a hummingbird. The articles in this anthology bring to this task the equivalent of a high-powered camera with a fast shutter speed, capturing what essays meant and what ends they served in various crucial places and times.

For instance, Markman Ellis’s article “Time and the Essay: The Spectator and Diurnal Form” draws upon a bit of method acting Ellis undertook to get himself into the frame of mind of an 18th-century reader. “Before writing this chapter,” he explains, “I conducted an experiment by reading one number of The Spectator each day, approximately matching the date of production (publication) with the date of consumption (reading), albeit with an interval of nearly three centuries.” The experiment revealed to him some of the underrated and forgotten pleasures of consuming a daily essay with one’s coffee and crumpet — how such a rhythm of reading allowed Joseph Addison and Richard Steele to delight their subscribers with unexpectedness, but also to weave together thoughts over time. Ultimately, The Spectator was a body of work that aspired systematically to reform the manners of its readership while keeping them entertained from day to day. “Indexical reading changes The Spectator,” Ellis asserts, “and in so doing, exposes that ambivalence in the essay form, between on the one hand the everyday sally of thought, the attempt or endeavour, journalistic and disposable, and on the other, the more enduring philosophical thinking of the tract or treatise in miniature.”

Speaking of the everyday and the enduring, a curious feature of On Essays is that it was planned in 2009 but only published in 2020. As a result, it feels a little prematurely out of date because it contains no mention of certain prominent contemporary debates about the nature and standards of essay-writing. The most contemporary chapter is Ned Stuckey-French’s contribution, which uses the lyric essays of John D’Agata, Jo Ann Beard, Eula Biss, and Claudia Rankine to discuss the essay’s relationship to facts and to political commitment.

The last decade — while On Essays was being slowly put together — has witnessed a big shift in the landscape of essay-writing. The internet, as good for the growth of new publications as a damp cave for mushrooms, accelerated the evolution of the form. The editors of On Essays note this development in their introduction and express the hope that these changes make their book “more timely than we expected.” In what sense is this true? Hasn’t the last decade left even the most contemporary concerns of On Essays a bit behind the times?

For instance, the collection barely touches upon personal essays. The so-called “personal-essay boom” was just getting underway when Karshan and Murphy were conceiving their project in 2009, and before their book was published, The New Yorker had already declared this boom to be over while incisive, controversial critics like Merve Emre were announcing a historical turning point for the personal essay, in essays upon essays like “Two Paths for the Personal Essay.”

But a lack of timeliness is not necessarily a lack of relevance. As I read On Essays, I found myself thinking about the personal essay in relation to the “familiar essay,” a topic considered by Felicity James in a chapter entitled “Charles Lamb, Elia, and Essays in Familiarity.” The familiar essay is a type not quite congruent with the memoiristic and confessional texts we call personal essays, but similar in significant respects. Like the personal essay, the familiar essay concerns its narrator’s own experiences, discussing them in a gossipy and easily digestible manner. But it was this manner, rather than autobiographical subject matter, that set the subgenre apart — also, the narrator might be a fictional character. In Lamb’s case, his narrator was named “Elia” (anagram for “a lie”), and when the essays were gathered in book form, they were entitled Essays of Elia (1823). Lamb delighted readers of the London Magazine in the 1820s with chatty disquisitions on whist and Valentine’s Day, witches and roast pig and chimney sweepers. The overriding impression of his work is one of friendly intimacy.

But not everybody likes friendly intimacy. Felicity James recounts how an essay by Denys Thompson, published in F. R. Leavis’s influential magazine Scrutiny, influenced the decline of Lamb’s reputation — and that of the familiar essay — in the 20th century:

For Thompson, familiarity breeds contempt. The familiar essay is a fawning thing, getting too close for comfort. Complacent, self-satisfied with its own small world, it encourages lazy reading and irrationality. Thompson’s scorn shows us a moment of shift in the history of the essay, away from the personal, subjective, elusive Elian style which had been so dominant through the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

All this is certainly not a perfect preview of our own recent debates about the personal-essay boom, the form’s demand for gendered self-revelation, its subordination to the economic ideal of clickbait, or its sometimes troubling substitution of aestheticized vagueness for moral complexity. Nonetheless, Denys Thompson’s critique of Charles Lamb sounds awfully, well, familiar. Is there a cyclic movement of form and style in the history of the essay? That history, as presented in On Essays, seems so like a distorted mirror of the present that the book truly does feel timely, even if it has been Rip-van-Winkled through a decade of literary evolution.

In their introduction, Karshan and Murphy note that On Essays is the first of several forthcoming academic studies of the subject. Their book marks, perhaps, the beginning of a new age of essayistic mirror-gazing. Personally, I don’t mind at all. As Hilaire Belloc put it in “An Essay upon Essays upon Essays”: “I can read this kind of matter with less disgust than any other in the modern press. Yes, I prefer it even to murders.”


Robert Minto is an essayist and writer of speculative fiction. Find out more at

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Robert Minto is an essayist and storyteller. His complete bibliography and his monthly newsletter about reading can both be found at


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