STATE OF THE LITERARY ESSAYnby Thomas P. McDonnellnAs a literary form, the essay was once thought to bendoomed as the novel is said to be in its perenniallynannounced demise. The familiar essay, in particular,nbrought to its classic perfection by Charles (“Elia”) Lamb innthe early 19th century, still finds some continuity today innour many personalized newspaper columns and even in thenirreducible TV essays of—would you believe?—AndynRooney. On a more substantial level, however, mostncontemporary essays are called articles. We are a pragmaticnpeople, and we’d prefer not to be caught indulging anythingnas literary and useless as an essay; yet John McPhee’snfrequent contributions to The New Yorker are among thenexemplary essays of our time. In an age dominated by thenvisual arts, we need—more than ever—people who can sitndown and attempt to tell us what’s to be made of it all.nThe so-called literary essay has obviously failed to die onnschedule. In fact, the literary essay is perhaps the chiefnstaple we have in preserving the integrity of the languagenitself Television, of course, is nearly illiterate in its slovenlynuse of the spoken word, and the careful listener canndocument this generalization almost at will. Also, there isnthe agreeable canard that the best use of English today maynbe found in the sports pages of our newspapers—a contentionnbased mainly on the assumption that it is easilynunderstood by people who move their lips when they read.nOn the contrary, the best expository writing in Englishntoday is to be found in periodicals that do not put an all butnirrelevant value on both a sense of style and liveliness ofninterests.nQuestion: Why does the nonfictional prose of some ofnour most notable novelists often seem so much morenattractive than their frequently dismal or severely disjointednnarratives? John Updike is utterly boring—that is, as annovelist—but charming and even important as a writer ofnliterary essays. You can have all but the earliest novels ofnUpdike for one generous block of his essays like Hugging thenS/iore (1983). Is there really any good reason for reading thennovels of Gore Vidal, for example, when you may have thendelightfully outrageous wrongheadedness of the essays? It isncurious, by the way, that poets generally write better prosenthan novelists and short-story writers and therefore makenbetter essayists. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Auden are notablenin this regard.nPublishers still manage to survive the cost of producingnbooks of literary essays. There are plenty of them comingnout all the time. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has recentlynpublished Volume One of a projected series. The Essays ofnVirginia Woolf (1904-12), which will complement thenequally formidable edition which comprises the Letters andnDiaries. Virginia Woolf the essayist is preferable to the morennotable and celebrated novelist. Despite the calculatednnihilism she inherited from her father, Leslie Stephen,nThomas McDonnell is a free-lance writer living nearnBoston.nWoolf herself remains one of the great literary essayists innthe language. Many of her best essays are still available innthe two Common Readers, but nearly half the materials innthe new series will be collected for the first time.nOxford University Press has just brought out G.K.nChesterton: A Half Century of Views, edited by D.J.nConlon. Here, then, are the views of more than 50 essayistsnon perhaps the most prodigious essayist in English sincenSamuel Johnson and William Hazlitt. Among the contributorsnare such notables as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh,nGraham Greene, Kingsley Amis, V.S. Pritchett, AnthonynBurgess, W.H. Auden, Malcolm Muggeridge, as well asnChesterton’s great contemporaries Hilaire Belloc and, onlynslightly later, Ronald Knox. Perhaps the first thing you havento say about Chesterton is that so many of his books havenstayed in print. Though his output was enormous (somen115 volumes), he practiced a trade, journalism, which doesnnot ordinarily guarantee such longevity. And yet there isnsomething very persistent in Chesterton. As an essayist, henhad the knack of a clear and direct line of communicationnwith the reader, whereas, curiously enough, Belloc’s superiornstyle and greater learning did not assure the latter ansimilar place in the number of books still in print.nThe more formal literary essay is on display in RichardnPoirier’s latest. The Renewal of Literature: EmersoniannReflections (Random House), which may be placed in thenmiddle ground, say, between the eternally politicizing NewnYor^ Review of Books and the appalling turgidity of the Yalencritics’ school of deconstructionism. There’s a touch of thentedious in Poirier too, but it is more a hindrance than anroadblock. The trouble with books like Poirier’s is theninsistence on a rigidly given theme to which all subsequentnideas must gravitate. In this case, it is the theme ofnEmersonian skepticism and its effect upon what Poirierncalls—turgidly again—the “cultural-literary inheritance,”nnnOCTOBER 1987 I 19n