As a literary form, the essay was once thought to be doomed as the novel is said to be in its perennially announced demise. The familiar essay, in particular, brought to its classic perfection by Charles (“Elia”) Lamb in the early 19th century, still finds some continuity today in our many personalized newspaper columns and even in the irreducible TV essays of—would you believe?—Andy Rooney. On a more substantial level, however, most contemporary essays are called articles. We are a pragmatic people, and we’d prefer not to be caught indulging anything as literary and useless as an essay; yet John McPhee’s frequent contributions to The New Yorker are among the exemplary essays of our time. In an age dominated by the visual arts, we need—more than ever—people who can sit down and attempt to tell us what’s to be made of it all.
The so-called literary essay has obviously failed to die on schedule. In fact, the literary essay is perhaps the chief staple we have in preserving the integrity of the language itself Television, of course, is nearly illiterate in its slovenly use of the spoken word, and the careful listener can document this generalization almost at will. Also, there is the agreeable canard that the best use of English today may be found in the sports pages of our newspapers—a contention based mainly on the assumption that it is easily understood by people who move their lips when they read. On the contrary, the best expository writing in English today is to be found in periodicals that do not put an all but irrelevant value on both a sense of style and liveliness of interests.
Question: Why does the nonfictional prose of some of our most notable novelists often seem so much more attractive than their frequently dismal or severely disjointed narratives? John Updike is utterly boring—that is, as a novelist—but charming and even important as a writer of literary essays. You can have all but the earliest novels of Updike for one generous block of his essays like Hugging the Shore (1983). Is there really any good reason for reading the novels of Gore Vidal, for example, when you may have the delightfully outrageous wrongheadedness of the essays? It is curious, by the way, that poets generally write better prose than novelists and short-story writers and therefore make better essayists. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Auden are notable in this regard.
Publishers still manage to survive the cost of producing books of literary essays. There are plenty of them coming out all the time. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has recently published Volume One of a projected series, The Essays of Virginia Woolf (1904-12), which will complement the equally formidable edition which comprises the Letters and Diaries. Virginia Woolf the essayist is preferable to the more notable and celebrated novelist. Despite the calculated nihilism she inherited from her father, Leslie Stephen, Woolf herself remains one of the great literary essayists in the language. Many of her best essays are still available in the two Common Readers, but nearly half the materials in the new series will be collected for the first time.
Oxford University Press has just brought out G.K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, edited by D.J. Conlon. Here, then, are the views of more than 50 essayists on perhaps the most prodigious essayist in English since Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt. Among the contributors are such notables as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, V.S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess, W.H. Auden, Malcolm Muggeridge, as well as Chesterton’s great contemporaries Hilaire Belloc and, only slightly later, Ronald Knox. Perhaps the first thing you have to say about Chesterton is that so many of his books have stayed in print. Though his output was enormous (some 115 volumes), he practiced a trade, journalism, which does not ordinarily guarantee such longevity. And yet there is something very persistent in Chesterton. As an essayist, he had the knack of a clear and direct line of communication with the reader, whereas, curiously enough, Belloc’s superior style and greater learning did not assure the latter a similar place in the number of books still in print.
The more formal literary essay is on display in Richard Poirier’s latest, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (Random House), which may be placed in the middle ground, say, between the eternally politicizing New York Review of Books and the appalling turgidity of the Yale critics’ school of deconstructionism. There’s a touch of the tedious in Poirier too, but it is more a hindrance than a roadblock. The trouble with books like Poirier’s is the insistence on a rigidly given theme to which all subsequent ideas must gravitate. In this case, it is the theme of Emersonian skepticism and its effect upon what Poirier calls—turgidly again—the “cultural-literary inheritance,” etc. Whatever they may be, it doesn’t always work out in Poirier’s equations. He will say rather haughtily, for example, that Emersonians have little or no interest in the novels of Catholic violence by Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. Moreover, he calls this “theatrical spirituality,” without for a moment acknowledging Emerson’s pathetic incapacity to recognize the presence of evil in the world. Poirier, of course, doesn’t like the three writers he names any more than Emerson would, mainly because they are novelists who have perceived the element of transgression as a key component in the matter of our human drama itself When, indeed, Poirier later praises Norman Mailer as one whose “writings are laced with Emersonian doctrines,” the game is given completely away.
So it is time to put before the beleaguered reader the example par excellence of the civil, rational, and humane form of the literary essay in our time. I mean, in this particular instance, Guy Davenport’s 20 new essays collected in Every Force Evolves a Form (North Point Press), which may be considered an extention of the 40 essays in The Geography of the Imagination (1981) issued by the same publisher. There is nothing wimpish about Davenport; he has strong opinions, to be sure, but on the whole they seem both eminently lucid and refreshingly sane. His writing is an antidote to the fashionable premise that nothing may be profound that has not first been made obscure. I don’t know of a single academician today who would dare to write, for example, in praise of E.E. Gummings; but Davenport does it splendidly and without affectation. He is equally at home with the paintings of Henri Rousseau and the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut. Davenport may be at his best as a writer of obiter dicta: Also,
It is my opinion that The New York Review of Books, that bastion of gratuitous meanness, has done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union.
The settling of history’s dust is always full of surprises: Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Melville.
The universe is harmonic, or it wouldn’t work.
Every writer asks us to agree to a tacit understanding of how he understands the story he is telling us.
We have not had literary commentary like this since the late Randall Jarrell, and what makes Davenport all the more valuable to us is the keen awareness he has of historic principles and the continuity of the Christian tradition, And yet he manages to do this in a wholly unobtrusive but startling manner, as if tightrope walking with ease and confidence above the fetid morass of 20th-century nihilism. Also working in the humane tradition of the literary essay, however cynically, is V.S. Pritchett in books like the recent A Man of Letters (1985), in which he covers a wide range of interests in groups of British, American, and European writers.
Of singular interest in the field of the literary essay, in our time, is Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One (1986). One of Brodsky’s merits is his interest in subjects that are not generally familiar to American and English readers. Why do we not know Osip Mandelstam better than we do, especially since we possess a wonderful account of the great Russian poet from his wife, Nadezhda? It is refreshing to note the enthusiasms of any literary essayist these days, but Brodsky himself takes the risk of excess in his long and revealing analysis of a well-known poem by W.H. Auden. But such excesses give life to the literary essay, even when they are the outrages that one may read in Anthony Burgess’ But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? (1986). In the end, a good essayist takes the intelligent reader into account as one who receives—and who may even accept—the strong and lively opinions of others. A real essayist does not ask us to agree with him but only to give him a friendly hearing.