This was a brief introductory comment to a prize-giving dinner for student essayists at Hunter College.
I would imagine that all of you have heard of the Pen Club, the premier international organization for writers. It was founded in 1921 by Mrs. Dawson-Scott (whoever she was), with its first president John Galsworthy, author of “The Forsyte Saga” of (gulp) television fame. Its importance may by now be somewhat diminished, but its activities on behalf of writers silenced or jailed remain paramount.
I always used to assume that the name PEN referred to that by now obsolescent tool with which so many works used to be written in bygone days. But not so: PEN is an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors (actually mostly rewriters) and novelists. You may miss from the roster historians, autobiographers, memorialists and biographers, omitted partly because they could not be acronymized (HAMB just wouldn’t do), but more significantly (I would guess) because they could be considered essayists of an extended sort. And if the essay could subsume so many different disciplines in the eyes of the experts, and deal with them freely, that surely makes it as noteworthy as a genre can be.
Take the word “essay.” It means, of course, attempt, most obviously so in the French “essai.” An attempt at what? It should be noted that to most people “attempt” means ultimate failure, as it did to Dr. Johnson, though the word does not mandate it. It is usually a relatively short piece of prose—although Alexander Pope did it in verse—even if Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” is book-length. It can be on any subject whatsoever.
The literary origins of the essay are rather more elusive than the sources of the Nile, for it existed much before it assumed that name. J. A, Cuddon, in his invaluable “Literary Terms and Literary Theory.” cites the “Characters” of Theophrastus (3rd Century B.C.), Seneca’s “Epistle to Lucilius” (1st Century A.D.) and the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century A.D.). But without the name, attribution is a trifle inconclusive.
For the more modern, personal essay, so named, we get Francis Bacon’s “Essays, or Counsels, Civill and Morall,” the first of whose three volumes appeared in 1597, preceded by Montaigne’s “Essais” of 1580. Bacon’s essays were not without their stiff, ex cathedra formality; Montaigne’s floated freely over a variety of topics. These two are the real progenitors of the essay, though Bacon was right to observe, “The word is late, but the thing is auncient [sic].” With only slight exaggeration, we can call Bacon the father, and Montaigne the mother, of the genre.
I cannot begin to cite the numerous writers who have availed themselves of this rare free form in all of literature, with no structural restriction about ramblings over one or several subjects. When the poet Stephane Mallarme famously declared “Everything in the world exists to end up as a book,” that book would most likely qualify as some sort of essay. After all, some famous essays are in dialogue, hence dramatic form—most famously in English Oscar Wilde’s “Intentions”—and many are in the language and imaginativeness of poetry, such is the inclusiveness of the essay. Few, to be sure, have dared to put this somewhat academic or esoteric word into the title of their collections—most notably, again in English, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Matthew Arnold.
Let me give you my idea of the essay, on the assumption that the essayist is talking both to himself or herself and to the world. It means seeing and analyzing everyday things, bringing what is inside you, thoughts and feelings, into the open, to the clear cognizance of people including you yourself. Quite rightly when asked what she thought of a certain movie, Pauline Kael answered she didn’t know until she had written the review.
So much for insight. But then style. Take Pope’s, “True art is nature to advantage dressed,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” (Actually, it could also be never thought before.) Which presupposes careful choice of words, angle of vision, imagery, cadence, and, if at all appropriate and possible, wit. Thus the essay is to be viewed as an expanded poem or a condensed book.
The title should not be constricting, but neither should it be like that perpetrated by the German writer Urs Widmer (born 1938), “The Books of Yesteryear, or Proof That the Head Cold Is the Father of All Literature, An Essay,” which, upon perusal, has nothing to do with any of the above. Avoid such deviousness, unless you want to be a surrealist, which at this late date I wouldn’t advise.
I conclude with a couple of excerpts from two of my favorite essayists: the poet Philip Larkin and the critic Dwight Macdonald .
[Larkin in “Books” in the collection “Required Writing”] I have always been a compulsive reader . . . and this has meant that books have crept in somehow. Only the other day I found myself eyeing a patch of wall in my flat and thinking I could get some more shelves in there. I keep novels and detective stories in my bedroom, so that visitors shan’t be tempted to borrow them; the sitting-room houses the higher forms of literature . . . while the hall I reserve for thoroughly worthy items, calculated to speed the departing guest. None of them can be called remarkable. At best they are items bought on publication which now qualify as “modern first editions.” At worst they are picked from a bad bunch on a station bookstall. . . .
It may be that a writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization. Of course the symbol changes; the fine book, its materials, its craftsmanship, its design, was eloquent of a civilization founded on means, leisure and taste; today the symbol is the paperback, hurled in hundreds of thousands against the undeveloped areas (Asia, Africa, the young), spreading what we think is best in our thought and imagination. If our values are to maintain a place in the world, these are the troops that will win it for them, but victory is not a foregone conclusion.
[Dwight Macdonald “On Selling Out” in the collection “Discriminations”] It is not easy to sell out if you have anything to sell. Cf. Henry James’ “The Next Time.” A story about a distinguished nonselling novelist who tries to escape penury by writing a potboiler—and produces one more unpopular masterpiece. Or cf. the late Delmore Schwartz’s attempts to raise some cash by writing one of those short short stories (1,000 words, $1,000) a national magazine used to feature; he tried twice; no go either time, he just couldn’t get down to the level convincingly. (It takes a whole heart to sell out.) Or cf. the late Edgar Allan Poe, a calculating, unprincipled money-writer, always hard up, always with an eye to the main chance, always laboring to come up with something that would “go” and make him rich or at least solvent. That he always failed is another matter, having to do with his own neuroses; his will to sell out was intact to the end. He turned his hand to all the popular genres of the day: the Gothic tale of horror, after Hoffmann and Blackwood’s, the sentimental ladies’-book poem (“Helen, thy beauty is to me . . .”), the romantic threnody on the death of a female Loved One (“Once upon a midnight dreary . . .”). And, in desperation, he invented some new genres that became popular: the detective story and science fiction. But he was helpless in the grip of his genius: despite the worst intentions, Poe transmuted these clichés into his on idiom so that they became literature and not commodities. Poor fellow, the classic failure of classic American letters, his life a cautionary tale—Poe couldn’t even sell out.
It would seem that the first condition for selling out is that one has nothing to sell out in the first place. . . . For ambitious youth my advice is: sell out if you can, since if you can you don’t have anything of value and you might as well cash in on it.
These are samples of my preferred tone for the essay: winged, witty, ironic. But you are free to pick another.