Roundtable: The History of the Essay
The roundtable discussion this issue transcribes the highlights of a broadcast conversation conducted by Milton J. Rosenberg on the WGN radio program Extension 720 on June 30, 1999. For a discussion of the history of the personal essay, he spoke to three guests. Joseph Epstein, who teaches at Northwestern University, was formerly the editor of The American Scholar, where he wrote under the name "Aristides"; in addition to several collections of his own personal and literary essays, he edited The Best American Essays 1993 and The Norton Book of Personal Essays. Thomas Kaminski, who teaches in the English Department at Loyola University of Chicago, wrote The Early Career of Samuel Johnson. Robert Root, a Professor of English at Central Michigan University, co-edited The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction and had recently published E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. Listeners to the program were invited to submit comments and questions by either telephone or e-mail. Christopher Vallance, the program's producer, who had originally proposed the topic and assembled the participants, recorded the program and provided the tape from which this roundtable was transcribed and edited by Robert Root.
Rosenberg: We are tonight going to be talking about the art of essay. Gentlemen, I challenge any or all of you to give me the etymology of the word "essay."
Kaminski: It's the French word "essayer," is it not? To try, to attempt, and it's Montaigne's term, if I'm not mistaken.
Rosenberg: True, but most French verbs derive from Latin verbs. "Essayer" comes from the Latin "exagium," which comes from "exagere," which means to weigh, to sift and winnow. Montaigne is the first significant modern or premodern essayist, is he not?
Root: He's the father of the essay. As so many people have observed, it all begins with him and the idea of the personal voice, the idea of thinking about your ideas, what you feel, what your experience has been. It evolves over the course of many of his essays. He started out doing something fairly academic, quoting liberally from his reading, and eventually he gets more and more personal.
Rosenberg: So personal that he ends up talking about his toilet habits, among other things, doesn't he?
Epstein: Yes, he does. He had the stone, kidney stones. Imagine what that must have been like in the sixteenth century. But to go back a moment, not only was he the father of the essay, as Bob says, but he's really the Shakespeare of it. I'm not sure anyone's done it better.
Rosenberg: He still hasn't been matched, you think? We need to establish this instantly by reading a few paragraphs. Do we have any Montaigne to quote?
Epstein: Yes, we do. I brought the first paragraphs of the great book, The Essays. In it he introduces the I, which he invented in literature--he invented and mastered at one stroke the tactical, delicate use of it. It starts:
"This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive. If I had written to seek the world's favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked. Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject."And it's signed, "From Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty."
Rosenberg: A veritable French Walt Whitman. Who are the great masters viewed chronologically? Would you say we need to go to the eighteenth century and to London, to Addison and Steele, and later to Johnson?
Kaminski: Not yet. I don't think we need to jump that far. Francis Bacon in English literature is a very important figure. His essays aren't quite like Montaigne's essays. He calls them Essays or Counsels. He sees them as directions that he can give to people and it's interesting to contrast them with Montaigne's because they will often be on a topic that will echo the title of one of Montaigne's essays. Bacon's first essay is "On Truth." But he's not really going to explore his sense of truth, in the same way Montaigne would; he's going to lay out for you what you need to know about the subject.
Rosenberg: He deals with pretty basic subjects. Here's one, "Of Love," which begins:
"The stage is more beholding to Love than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies, but in life it doth much mischief, sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury. You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons (whereof the memory remaineth, either ancient or recent) there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love, which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion."Great people don't get all befogged by the mists of love, says Bacon.
Kaminski: In fact he also has another one, "Of Marriage and Single Life," that begins with the wonderfully perceptive statement, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works and of greatest merit for the public have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public."
Rosenberg: He was of course a famous bachelor, and an important man politically, was he not?
Kaminski: Yes. He was the Chancellor of England and was brought down on accusations of bribery, which he apparently didn't fight when the accusations came in. It's a whole murky history there.
Rosenberg: So that's the way you would trace the lineage. We go from Montaigne to Bacon as another giant of the essay and then whom do we encounter?
Kaminski: There are a number of people in the seventh century who are only read in English classes now, such as Sir Thomas Browne, with his Religio Medici. Sir William Temple, who is not even read in English classes but was an important figure in English politics as well as Jonathan Swift's patron, wrote some interesting essays, including "On Ancient and Modern Learning." These were very influential works in the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, but they're virtually unread these days.
Rosenberg: Addison and Steele do stand out though, don't they? Their journal is The Spectator, is that right?
Root: First The Tatler and later The Spectator. They still read well, and they added variety to the form. Their "Sir Roger de Coverly papers," which used to be printed together as little books in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, are essentially narratives, sometimes satirical, sometimes ironic, sometimes humorous. They also wrote criticism. Addison was adept at literary criticism, dramatic criticism, social criticism. They did some very interesting essays, such as one following a shilling through its life during a single day---
Epstein: All the hands it passes through.
Root: --and they added a lot of variety to the form and really anchored it to journalism because they were selling The Tatler and The Spectator as regular newspapers.
Rosenberg: And then pretty soon we come upon that towering figure in eighteenth-century letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Kaminski: It's my prejudice that Johnson is probably the greatest moral essayist of all time. Johnson as an essayist follows a couple things that you find in Addison and Steele. For instance, the creation of a persona. Johnson does not write personal essays the same way that Montaigne did but instead, in the most important set of his moral essays, uses the persona of "The Rambler," just as the Spectator papers are written by a persona, the Spectator. He is a man who supposedly does not talk very much in public. He simply observes, he watches the world around him, and he only speaks in the club. The essays are things that document what he observes in society or what is said in his club.
Rosenberg: Johnson is famous for strong opinions strongly expressed. Certainly that's the real joy of reading Boswell. Here is Johnson in an essay from The Rambler, I guess, literally dated Saturday 9 June 1759; it's about criticism.
"Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgement as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic."Epstein: Of course, he's the greatest critic in the eighteenth century, without much doubt, I think.
Rosenberg: He certainly writes great appreciations and explications in Lives of the English Poets and of course in Notes on Shakespeare.
Epstein: And one of the first modern biographers. But, you know, of all the people we've talked about so far, I think the one who feels most our contemporary is Montaigne. You say of the others, "This is historically interesting, this is filled with interesting ideas," but Montaigne still feels like one of us.
Kaminski: Because he's so personal.
Rosenberg: What else does he do? What other topics does he cover?
Epstein: The first thing you must know about Montaigne
is that the titles of his essays or chapters frequently have nothing to
do with what he goes on to talk about. He'll take large subjects
like "experience" and talk about whatever occurs to him. He also
has what I think Bacon doesn't have and what I think a personal essayist
often needs--he has the great gift of digression. He spins things
out on a silver thread of digression, and his great good luck is that he
was interesting on everything.
Rosenberg: --even though during all those years he was living, with his gallstones and other physical problems, in a tower in provincial France with very little real contact with the rest of the world anymore.
Epstein: Well, he'd had some earlier. He was the mayor of his city at one time and he'd gone to war, and he was also bookish. But he wasn't a bookish type, it's fair to say. He was just damn well read for his age.
Rosenberg: Since we're playing this chronologically, beyond the giant Johnson, who's the next semi-giant to arise on the horizon?
Kaminski: Charles Lamb, with the Essays of Elia, or William Hazlitt's essays, both writing in the beginning of the nineteenth century, both very interesting essayists--
Root: Friends as well as contemporaries.
Kaminski: Yes. Lamb is one of the people who seemed to merge this idea we talked about from the eighteenth century, this idea of having a persona, a fictional character, and a personal style. When Lamb writes his essays they're spoken as through the voice or persona of this character Elia and yet you get the idea of Lamb the man. Lamb will often use a character that he'll call his cousin Bridget, who is actually a representative of his sister Mary, and the relationship that Elia and Bridget have really--it's generally believed--represents the relationship that Charles Lamb and his sister really had.
Rosenberg: When I was a kid in New York City, back in pre-history sometime, they made me read, two or three times around, his "Dissertation on Roast Pig." Is that a serious essay or is it a kind of a joke?
Root: Lamb is pretty wonderful for playing with language and playing with ideas. He has an essay called "A Chapter on Ears" which begins with the sentence, "I have no ear" and goes on for several lines before he gets around to saying, "I have no ear for music" rather than something physical. There's a great deal of ironic wit in Lamb, a lot of language play. He loves archaic language. He has a tremendously moving essay called "Dream Children" which, because he's a bachelor and his character Elia is a bachelor and there are no children, is really underlining a sense of loss in his life, and yet it's very evocative and very beautiful.
Epstein: One of the extraordinary things about Lamb is that, all the time he's writing these charming, often whimsical essays, he's taking care of a sister who's going mad and is quite mad--
Kaminski: She killed their mother. And this character Bridget who is modeled on his sister is frequently full of melancholy.
Epstein: The reason I bring it up is this. In a way you'd think that the essayist is a man or woman who reveals him- or herself most, but in fact there's a lot of hiding going on behind the first persons in essays. Sometimes I think you can tell more about artists working in poetry or the novel than you can in the essay, even though the essayist is out there with "I . . . I . . . me . . . I . . .I . . . I . . ." I felt that way a little bit with Hazlitt. Hazlitt is a great passion of mine, but there's one book of Hazlitt's, Liber Amoris, about his unsuccessful pursuit of a chambermaid named Sarah Walker. In it Hazlitt makes a terrific jerk of himself. The love goes unrequited; Sarah Walker is clearly much more intelligent about matters of the heart than Hazlitt is; she tells him that he's just a fantast and whomever he winds up with is going to be insufficient, and she's right on the money. But if you don't read that and just read Hazlitt otherwise, Hazlitt seems like one of the boys in the highest and best sense of the word. So there's this weakling behind this strong man who's writing the essays.
Rosenberg: I don't know if we would classify James Thurber as an essayist but I'm somehow remembering a wonderful essay--I think one would call it that rather than merely an imagined short story--in which, at a therapy session the narrator denounces his psychologist, tells him he's a complete fool and leaves the office, then gets down to the lobby of this New York building and remembers he left his raincoat in the office. It's the same kind of self-revealing, self-condemning comic style.
Kaminski: With the Thurber story you also get this problem of where the personal essay and the short story overlap. Just as with confessional poetry, where you wonder if the poet isn't making things up as they go along.
Rosenberg: Couldn't you say that the modern short story is very often written in the essay form?
Root: It's a good question whether some short stories are essays or vice versa. I actually have known writers who refused to tell editors whether what they were submitting was a short story or an essay. If they want fiction, it's fiction; if they want nonfiction, it's nonfiction. And since a lot of modern fiction is written as first person narrative it really is hard to tell. And since a lot of novels are really about the life of the novelist--everyone's first novel is autobiographical--distinctions are blurred.
Rosenberg: There's the postmodernist sense that we have to transcend the limits of particular forms and blend them together. Who's that well-known novelist who recently wrote a fictional memoir of his own life?
Epstein: Paul Theroux. And then there's a historian, Simon Schama, who wrote a history in which he simply invented the details.
Rosenberg: And then there's Truman Capote, who supposedly did the first nonfiction novel with In Cold Blood.
Epstein: And Norman Mailer with his idea of the novel as history.
Root: One of the things that we're sort of raising is the confusion you can have when you try to pin down what an essay is. If we stick to Montaigne, we're pretty safe because he sets the mold and you can find Montaignian elements in a lot of people's work. But then if you add in Addison and Steele with their blend of actual fiction and Charles Lamb with his fictional component, then suddenly it starts going off in new directions. It gets very confusing, this very issue of what an essay is or what other forms of nonfiction creative writing are.
Rosenberg: If we go back for a minute, as we should, to Hazlitt, where does he stand on this dimension?
Kaminski: Well, Hazlitt actually strikes me as a complicated figure in some of his essays. They're literary criticism or art criticism and raise this question of just what the essay is again. Is it necessarily personal response or can it be an objective looking at the world, not just what my personal response is? I can give you the very opening of a wonderful essay by Hazlitt called "On Gusto." It's really about art and a certain kind of complicated perception of what goes on in certain forms of art. It begins:
"Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object. It is not so difficult to explain this term in what relates to expression (of which it may be said to be the highest degree) as in what relates to things without expression, to the natural appearances of objects, as mere colour or form. In one sense, however, there is hardly any object entirely devoid of expression, without some character of power belonging to it, some precise association with pleasure or pain: and it is in giving this truth of character from the truth of feeling, whether in the highest or lowest degree, but always in the highest degree of which the subject is capable, that gusto consists."Now, this is a difficult paragraph, but it's a typically romantic idea too. You get a sense that this is a man whose own aesthetic responses to art are really what's at the core of this essay, but the essay itself is also attempting to establish some sort of objective criteria by which you can go look at art. And then he applies it by telling us, "There is a gusto in the coloring of Titian" and "Michael Angelo's forms are full of gusto." He mentions Claude Lorraine and says, "Claude's landscapes, as perfect as they are, want gusto." So that this is actually something that's applicable, and he goes around looking at great art and expects you, from his definition, to be able to apply it.
Rosenberg: All great personal essayists must take on death, and there's a peculiar essay from Hazlitt called, "On the Fear of Death" which is built on essentially either a misconception or an outright lie, but carried out brilliantly.
Epstein: I'll read a paragraph or so of it. It begins:
"Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern--why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom? When Bickerstaff wrote his Essays, I knew nothing of the subjects of them: nay, much later, and but the other day, as it were, in the beginning of the reign of George III, when Goldsmith, Johnson, Burke used to meet at the Globe, when Garrick was in his glory, and Reynolds was over head and ears with his portraits, and Sterne brought out the volumes of Tristram Shandy year by year, it was without consulting me: I had not the slightest intimation of what was going on: the debates in the House of Commons on the American war, or the firing at Bunker's Hill, disturbed not me: yet I thought this no evil--I neither ate, drank, nor was merry, yet I did not complain: I had not then looked out into this breathing world, yet I was well; and the world did quite as well without me as I did without it! Why then should I make all this outcry about parting with it, and being no worse off than I was before?"Rosenberg: You understand my reaction that it's built on a lie or built upon a conceit that totally confuses him. Which do you think it is?
Epstein: He wants to be around to see the rest of the show. Is that what you're thinking?
Rosenberg: I think most people do, unless we live with the absolute certain conviction, as few of my friends do, that there is an afterlife which will be greater than this one.
Kaminski: Lamb has an essay, I believe it's called "New Year's Eve," which is also on the fear of death, and it's a wonderful essay and very different from that because he is straining against this feeling every New Year's Eve. He says that everyone has two reminders every year that death is coming, that is, your birthday and New Year's Eve, and he is really unhappy about this. I understand Lamb better than I understand Hazlitt on this.
Rosenberg: From Hazlitt, by then we're getting a significant American, are we not? Emerson I suppose would be counted as the first important American essayist. He's writing in the first half of the nineteenth century also.
Root: Emerson is certainly the most influential of the American essayists, although we may get into a major argument here over whether he's the best. He really has a great influence on everybody who follows him. Think of the number of people who were influenced by Emerson. To take one of his major essays, "Nature"--it inspired Thoreau, it inspired Whitman, it inspired John Muir later on--a very important essay, although nowadays somewhat harder to read than all the people that he inspired.
Rosenberg: I haven't asked you for the others we've talked about but what is the basic attitude that is conveyed in the body of the work?--what would you say is the basic attitude, the deepest interior truth which is externalized by Emerson?
Epstein: That's a hellacious question, because he's really on both sides of so many questions.
Rosenberg: Would it be easier for Johnson, say? What was Johnson's big truth?
Kaminski: Actually I think that the truths of revealed religion are the most important truths for him, and then there is what he calls "general nature." That is, all human beings share so much of their nature that the things that distinguish individuals are actually the less important things in many ways and it's a way that brings humanity together and helps break down the distinctions between classes, between individuals.
Rosenberg: Very nicely said. And what was Montaigne's--to go back to the start of our discussion--what was his big truth?
Kaminski: He has what people sometimes refer to as his motto, the statement "What Do I Know?" It's a constant questing for knowledge, in fact a questing for knowledge more than for truth, not knowing what we can know. The interesting thing about Montaigne's supposed skepticism is that in several places he simply suggests that human beings can't achieve definite knowledge of the truth, and so he too relies on divine truth, the necessity of revelation, that people shouldn't think they can understand God.
Epstein: The central line, Milt, is "How do I know whether I'm playing with my cat or my cat is playing with me?"
Rosenberg: With Hazlitt it seems to me that we're really getting a guy who was implicitly political and implicitly radical.
Epstein: Yes, absolutely, he was. But, you know, when you ask that question it occurs to me that the essayists aren't one-idea characters. I think there's something antipathetic in the idea of being an essayist and being interested in one idea.
Rosenberg: They're not hedgehogs.
Epstein: No, they're foxy all over the joint. One of the ways to get an idea going, to get great fame, is to have a simple central idea--Marx: class struggle; Freud: Oedipus complex, and so forth--but if you're an essayist that's not quite what you're after. I think you're after knocking these ideas on their head.
Rosenberg: We said a moment ago that Emerson plays both sides of the street. What street is he playing both sides of?
Kaminski: I could never figure out what street Emerson was on, to be honest with you. He was always a puzzle to me, the bane of my studies.
Rosenberg: Well, the word that comes to mind is transcendentalism.
Epstein: Yes, but what is it he's transcending?
Rosenberg: He's transcending mere Christianity; that's what all those New England transcendentalists were doing.
Epstein: My problem with Emerson as an essayist is that he's at a level of generality that I think isn't essayistic. He's always trying to pump things up to the next level.
Root: I want to follow up on something you were saying earlier. I think the essayist generally accepts the need for exploration. Montaigne is wonderful for making you go along with him and, if at the end of the essay he's at a totally different place than where he started out, that's the nature of his mind.
Rosenberg: Does Emerson read well? Does he have good high style?
Epstein: I haven't read everything of Emerson's but I think he's best in a book called English Traits, which is very specific, and I think he's probably best in his journals. But the great essays for which he's most famous are the ones that leave me coldest--including "The American Scholar," which was always a problem for me when I was editing The American Scholar, because people were always sending me these essays on Emerson. I thought, boy, are they missing the market.
Rosenberg: If we go forward in America, Mark Twain among other things was an essayist, was he not?
Epstein: In some ways maybe one of the best things he does is the essay. He's only written one terrific novel, which is to say Huckleberry Finn, and that he kind of botched at the end anyhow, so I think he is chiefly an essayist and is best at that. I can't think of any English Victorian essayists at the same level--there are great critics, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold--
Root: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Epstein: Yes, he's the closest, you're quite right about that.
Rosenberg: But they all stand out as something other than essayists--Ruskin as a critic, Stevenson as a novelist.
Epstein: And somehow the essay becomes the secondary something else they do.
Root: Stevenson was a wonderful nonfiction writer and well-versed in the essay. You could essentially trace the whole history of the essay on the idea of taking a walk or "going a journey." Hazlitt has a piece called "Going a Journey" and everybody who writes about the subject afterwards, including Stevenson, takes it as a jumping-off place. Thoreau also has a great essay called "Walking". Stevenson's very good at the essay but he's also good at the travel narrative. Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes is just a wonderful piece.
Kaminski: In fact the travel narrative is in some ways sort of the late Victorian form of the essay. Henry James does a lot of pieces like that, writing on Venice, writing on Italy, for instance, wonderful evocations of place while recounting his own experience, a place where he went, a thing that he did, and then all of vibrations that the place gives off. Henry James was a great receptor of vibrations.
Root: I think that during that period we're talking about there was a change of direction in the essay, partly by the rise of journalism. There were a number of complaints around the turn of the century about the informative article taking over, and the essay tends to fall back on being about literature, about people's reading. There are a number of essayists who were very popular, very well read, who are hard to read today. I'm thinking, for example, of people like Agnes Repplier, an American essayist, very prolific, very popular, virtually always writing about what she read, although some other pieces, like her piece on Mrs. Johnson, where she takes a woman's view of Sam's behavior, are pretty on the mark, I think.
Rosenberg: That's so interesting to me, because there is the other kind of essay, and Joe Epstein has done both. Indeed he has volumes in each of the two separate categories, personal essays, which is really what we've been talking about so far, and literary essays, which are essentially analyses and appreciations of particular writers and particular schools or periods of literature. I can't think of anyone who's done writing available to the general public who did that better and did it in a more truth-elaborating way and helped to stir more perceptions and appreciations without his being rarified and scholarly than Edmund Wilson.
Epstein: Absolutely. I think a great many of us were educated at the university of Wilson--the university of Bunny, as he was known, the least bunny-like man in the world. As a popularizer he had a great role in the education of the reading public.
Kaminski: He was one of the great public intellectuals at a time when you had public intellectuals, which is a sort of species that seems to be gone. Now they're all in universities.
Rosenberg: Let's enter the modern era with the writing of E. B. White. Virtually all of his career was with The New Yorker magazine, was it not?
Root: He wrote for it for fifty years. From 1926 to 1976.
Rosenberg: You suggest in your book that he sort of discovers or rediscovers the essay because he's dissatisfied with the shorter pieces in the front of the magazine.
Root: My own feeling is that he almost blundered into the essay. The turning point for me in being interested in E. B. White was "Once More to the Lake," which is probably the single most inescapable twentieth century American essay. If you talk about the essay you can't get away from it, and I think it's just a wonderful essay, a perfect essay.
Rosenberg: Then let's dwell on it for just a little bit. What is inescapable about it?
Root: Simply the fact that, except for possibly "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell, it's the most reprinted essay.
Rosenberg: Joe Epstein has it in The Norton Book of Personal Essays, I believe.
Epstein: Yes, I do. I'm not even a great E. B. White fan, but that essay I had to put in. It's another essay about death.
Rosenberg: Let's hear more about the essay and perhaps read a little from it.
Root: Here's the opening of the essay:
"One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond's Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer--always on August 1st for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week's fishing and to revisit old haunts."And he says he took along his son, and as he and his son are wandering these places that he's gone to since 1904--and White had returned to it many times in his life--he began to get confused about who was the father and who was the son. He kept remembering being the son with his own father at the lake. And these things get mixed up and for a long time in the essay he talks about how nothing seems to have changed very much, and it seems to be a celebration of immutability, things not changing at all, and he repeats that idea until he gets to the end of the essay.
Epstein: That's a great paragraph, I think. Why don't you read that?
Rosenberg: You say in your introduction that this paragraph brought tears to your eyes when you first read it.
Root: Yes, this is the essay that got me into E. B. White. I happened to read this when I was the father of a new-born son visiting a friend who was the father of a new-born son and I was reading this in bed and burst into tears when I got to the ending. When I left the following morning I dog-eared that essay and gave the book to my friend and said, "You have to read this." I think one of the chief reasons that this is such an enduring essay is that it's so true to such a broad experience for so many people. This is the way it ends. He has just given a description of a thunderstorm that came up over the lake:
"After the calm, the rain steadily rustling in the calm lake, the return of light and hope and spirits, and the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain, their bright cries perpetuating the deathless joke about how they were getting simply drenched, and the children screaming with delight at the new sensation of bathing in the rain, and the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella. When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death."He's realizing at that moment that this has really been about mutability all along, that everything's changed--it's not changeless at all. That's just a chilling and wonderful moment.
Rosenberg: That's a riveting image: "my groin felt the chill of death."
Epstein: I think one of the extraordinary touches of genius in that is the idea that we've all had the experience of the cold wet bathing suit and that we're there. It's really quite wonderful.
Root: And that line about the chill of death always gets you. People gasp when you read it because you haven't been expecting this, although all the way through the essay the clues are there that it's been about change and when he finally gets there we say, "Yeah, this is what's been going on all along." In some ways, I think that's part of what happens in essays anyway. Very often the writers write and find out things they didn't know they knew. They discover something and when they get to the end of it they say, "Oh, I'm in a different place than I was when I started out." And part of the pleasure of reading an essay is being able to go along with them on that journey.
Rosenberg: I remember E. B. White in the New Yorker turning quite political. He had some major causes of the time.
Epstein: He had a great idee fixe. He was a world government man, by the end of World War II. I once wrote about White and I said that this was a wonderful idea and the only thing against it is reality and human nature. But he was really hooked on it and he was always writing editorials on it and I think Harold Ross let him because he valued him so much.
Root: There's a big change in the whole magazine during the time White's there. When he started out, in the twenties and thirties, it was a humor magazine, and he and James Thurber were modeling a lot of what they did on Robert Benchley and Stephen Leacock and Clarence Day, whom they all admired greatly. He and Thurber both played with the idea of the little man finding himself in a fix, but White never quite made as much comedy out of it. It was a little bit more personal, a little bit more muted. At the beginning of World War II he wrote a column called "One Man's Meat" for Harper's Magazine and "Once More to the Lake" comes from that column and that's where he began to do things that were a little more expanded; usually for The New Yorker he was doing a paragraph or five short paragraphs for the Notes and Comment page. Notes and Comment got more editorial after the war.
Rosenberg: The New Yorker must have one of the main loci for serious essays, personal essays, comic essays, in our time, but other magazines have done that. Surely The American Scholar when you edited it must have done the same.
Epstein: I tried to do that but I think The New Yorker was the main one. I always thought there was a certain tension in the magazine between Thurber and White, who brought a kind of small town sensibility to the magazine, and Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling, who were kind of more urban, and I myself preferred the urban, being a city guy.
Root: When The New Yorker started was, the very title hearkened back to the idea of the Tatler, the Spectator, the Rambler, the Idler, to the idea that there is a kind of person out there, a sophisticated person wandering around, observing his culture, his society, and reporting on it. "The Talk of the Town" section had little news item in it and everything was signed, "The New Yorkers." It was all anonymous.
Rosenberg: Of course the New Yorker has that symbolic figure representing the magazine, the Regency fop.
Root: Eustace Tilley, a figure from the time of Lamb and Hazlitt.
Rosenberg: I want to turn to the current writing of Joseph Epstein and sample some of the contributions in his thirteenth book, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, a book of familiar essays. One I particularly enjoyed was "A Nice Little Knack for Name-Dropping." Would you read a portion of that?
Epstein: I'll read from the opening paragraph:
"I was a name-dropper before I knew what name-dropping is. What name-dropping is, to put it in a quick formulation, is using the magic that adheres to the names of celebrated people to establish one's superiority while at the same time making the next person feel the drabness of his or her own life. Name-dropping is a division of snobbery, and one of the snob's missions is to encourage a feeling, however vague, of hopelessness in others. A small but quite genuine art, name-dropping, an art that requires the right, consummately light touch, for the least heavy-handedness in this line, as in so many of the fine arts, can destroy everything."Rosenberg: It's so curious, Bob Woodward said just the same thing to me the other night. Then you go on to develop in this essay a tale from your youth about name-dropping at Riverview Park.
Epstein: Yes. When I was a boy of sixteen we went out to try to pick up girls. It was a venture that almost never was greeted with success, I have to tell you. But my specialty was going up to strange and attractive girls at Riverview Park, asking them what high school they went to, and when they would tell me I would automatically say, "Ah, then you must know my cousin," and I would name the basketball or football star at that school. It was a brilliant ploy which, as I say, had no successful ending. I realized then this magic in names. "You must know Ronnie Youngbloom," I would say. It's pretty difficult, if you've got a good name in tow, not to say I had dinner with so and so. My current ploy is, I apologize for name-dropping and then go ahead and do it anyway.
Rosenberg: It's a subtler form. The lead essay, "Narcissus Leaves the Pool," is you confronting, if not death, then the inevitabilities of the aging process.
Epstein: I think this book, more than any other book of these essays I've published, does tend to have the theme of getting older. There's Once More Around the Block, there's The Middle of My Tether, I don't know what's left to me. I think if I write another book of such essays it will be given the title Enough Already! with an exclamation mark at the end. But in this book--I wrote it in my late fifties and early sixties, most of the essays--I'm 62 now--and the ugly customer, as Hazlitt calls it, looms, the grave yawns--
Rosenberg: Or the distinguished thing.
Epstein: Or the distinguished thing, as Henry James has it. In any case, let me read the very beginning of it.
"Emerging from the shower, I stand naked in front of my bathroom mirror. This, let the truth be told, is not an altogether enrapturing sight. (Had he grown well into middle age, Narcissus himself would surely have spent a lot less time gazing into the pool.) Contemplating myself, I feel a brief wave of pity for my wife who, night after night, has to sleep next to this body; I, more fortunate soul, have only to sleep in it. The bathroom has good light and a mirror extending nearly its full length; there is a soft rug, muted wallpaper, and ample blocks and slabs of cool, cream-colored marble. To paraphrase Bishop Heber on Ceylon, this bathroom is a place where every prospect pleases and only I am vile. I note that my body seems slightly out of proportion to my head, which is a size 7 3/8. My shoulders are not wide--they are, more precisely, sloped--and my posture, a good deal less that perfect, has caused a slight humpiness where my neck runs into my back. Only the muscles in my calves and forearms could pass for youthful. My stomach is flat just now, but any weight I gain usually goes, like the blows of the late, punishing welterweight Carmen Basilio, straight to the midsection. The skin at my throat has begun to sag. I have old-guy elbows whose skin is dry, wrinkle, and reddish. If I life my arms out to the side, the skin here, too, is loose, anticipating old age. My buttocks, I do believe, have begun to droop--not an inspiriting sight, drooping buttocks. The hair has long since disappeared from my shins, transferred perhaps to the backs of my shoulders, where I have only recently begun to notice it. My ankles, owing to what must be hundreds of broken capillaries, are purplish and descend into small, rather duckishly wide feet."I think knowing who played basketball for Amundsen is not going to help me very much in the years left to me.
Rosenberg: I must say, quite apart from the fine colloquial and easy style, I have to compliment you on the excellence of your observation, though I've not seen you whole in a bathroom mirror.
Kaminski: One of the disadvantages of being a personal essayist is, I think I probably know more about Joe Epstein from his essays than I know about a lot of people who are my friends. I know about his background, that he likes basketball, that he went to high school on the north side of Chicago, that he had a basketball hoop in his backyard when he was a boy. There're all sorts of things--unless he's lying in all this--that the personal essayist puts into his essays and if you read enough of these over time you get what seems to you a three-dimension picture of a human being, but this is the first time I've seen the three-dimensional person.
Rosenberg: We started talking about the history of the essay with Montaigne, but I might argue that you could possibility go back to classical antiquity. I have here in my hand a copy of Selected Lives and Essays by Plutarch; most of these are from the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, but some of which really count as personal essays. And surely Cicero did something of the same.
Kaminski: In fact, Plutarch has his Moralia and Seneca has a whole series of pieces that are called Moral Essays. It's interesting how the term has migrated over the years from the Renaissance and the modern world back into the ancient world because there was no concept, there was no genre of the essay back then, although the essay I think tended to develop out of the old idea of the letter, the epistle--that is, you might write a letter to somebody, a letter of consolation, a friendly letter, a personal letter, poets often wrote letters in verse, and these often did all the same kinds of things that the essay does now. Horace's epistles are actually personal essays in many ways. They tell us a lot about him, about his ideas, how he interacts with other people in his society.
Rosenberg: And Montaigne was among other things a classicist and must have known all these writers.
Kaminski: In fact, Seneca, whose moral essays were very popular in the Renaissance, is all over Montaigne's essays. He was always quoting Seneca and Virgil, it seems. These two are his favorites.
Rosenberg: Gentlemen, let's get the headsets on and get to the phones.
First Caller: I'm particularly interested in the field of the scientific essay and I was wondering if any of you gentlemen recall the name of Guy Murchie, who was a journalist who wrote three collections under the titles of Song of the Sky, Music of the Spheres, and The Seven Mysteries of Life, and what to me seemed so enjoyable about them was that he could take abstruse scientific concepts and discuss them with such lyricism. I think those books are still in print. Does that ring any bells?
Epstein: It doesn't for me. I wish it did. You make
him sound extremely good. You make him sound like Loren Eisley.
Caller: Yes, he puts you in mind of Eisley.
Kaminski: Or Lewis Thomas in some ways, perhaps not stylistically the same way but one who can take scientific topics and do very interesting things with them.
Rosenberg: Well, two scientific practitioners of essentially the same art these days are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, wouldn't you say?
Epstein: Yes, absolutely. Jeremy Bernstein used to do a great job in The New Yorker.
Root: There's a wonderful book by Chet Raymo called Honey From Stone, which is just an amazing book combining philosophy, religion, astronomy, geology, all set on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland, so it also has elements of travel narrative. I was simply astonished by it.
Second Caller: Since a good essay requires keen self-observation, I wonder if it's not sometimes distracting in daily life to be so constantly aware of what you do and what you think and what you take in and if it isn't true that sometimes, at least momentarily, that the unobserved life isn't maybe a more satisfying life.
Epstein: That's a darn good question. There's a Canadian writer named Mordecai Richler who said he divided all of his life between the time he made the decision to become a writer and the time after and before was better--for precisely the reason that you're saying. It's quite true that once one has made a decision to become a writer one is sort of living for copy and for things to write about and working sentences around in one's head. I don't know any other way to do it now, but one sort of longs for the time when life wasn't a number of essays, stories, pieces, scholarship to do.
Root: Essayists write about what their lives are like, what they read, and what they experience, which makes it easy to get to--you don't have to travel very far for it--but it also means you have to stay on the alert for it.
Epstein: Let me add just finally, that what I'm describing is kind of a happy problem, however. It's lovely to have things to write about and to have people willing to print what you do write.
Rosenberg: Here's an interesting e-mail. "Gentlemen, I am a closet essayist, a condition I have been hiding from my colleagues in city government for quite some time. Is there a place for someone like me to wax philosophical in print? With all due respect, has the essay been hijacked by academia.? What publications or journals would you recommend for those of us who love the essay and long to submit them? Thank you. An Essayist in Exile." What do you think?
Root: Well, as Joseph Epstein has written, it's a sweet time to be an essayist. There are lots of places to publish nonfiction. There's a new journal that I've been involved with called Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction; it's the second of the new nonfiction journals that are out and they're certainly interested in essays. There are a number of other good journals. The best way to find out is to wander around a very good library and take a look at what's out there. The essay and nonfiction forms are better received than they have been in fifty years or more.
Epstein: I think that's probably true, Bob. The major magazines still publish essays, and it's nicest to get something in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, but there are other magazines. There's a new phrase I don't like very much called creative nonfiction--I guess I don't like the word creative, it's sort of so self congratulatory--but a journal by that name publishes all sorts of essays. I suppose the essay has more prestige now than it's had for awhile. Going back to a point that was made earlier, it seems to me that no one in life sets out to become an essayist, it's something that just happens to you. I think , if you want to write imaginative literature, you set out in life to become a novelist or a poet and then somehow you're writing essays for some strange reason.
Rosenberg: The political essays, the ones that address public affairs or social issues, have reportorial things but they also have a good deal of opining in the form of essays.
Epstein: Yes, there's a good writer for a magazine called the Weekly Standard named Andrew Ferguson. He's really funny and I think he's really an essayist though he needs a journalistic peg.
Kaminski: In fact I think the political essay is something that is actually in the ascendance nowadays. There are a number of magazines where you can get people who can get things off their chests and if you're lucky you can get someone who knows something and can bring some facts to back up his opinion.
Third Caller: I'm calling about contemporary authors such as Garry Wills and George Will on the political spectrum and the possibility of their work being considered as essays as well as that of one of my favorite writers, who died a few years ago, Sydney J. Harris. I was wondering if you could speak about that kind of writing.
Rosenberg: Yes, indeed, the more or less daily newspaper
columnist. One could of course have mentioned as well Mike Royko,
surely a master of a very short essay form
Kaminski: This is an example of the area where journalism and the literary essay become almost indistinguishable. Royko of course often brought a lot of personal material into the political things that he was writing. Actually in some ways journalism is a way into writing of essays nowadays for many people--you start writing opinion pieces or editorials or something like this, and if you can get yourself syndicated, then you can expand.
Rosenberg: Who strikes you as the most readable, the most persistently interesting, more or less regular columnar writer working today?
Root: Columnar writer. That makes it tough. There are a lot of other writers doing interesting things with the essay nowadays.
Rosenberg: But I'm thinking about newspaper columnists.
Epstein: It depends on the occasion. At Chez Epstein we were getting great laughs out of Maureen Dowd during the Clinton-Lewinsky matter and my wife and I referred to her over breakfast as "Miss Scornucopia." But she's a kind of one-note. It's all scorn but it's terrific scorn, I must say.
Rosenberg: How do you like George Will as a stylist? His views are clearly conservative views; they're very well educated conservative views. I find him a rather vigorous and interesting writer.
Epstein: George Will takes great pains with style and when he writes his books especially then you see the style come out. It's tough to perform on such short notice and in such brief compass and still have the status of an essayist.
Root: Particularly regular columnists like newspaper columnists. For Royko to do the quality of work that he did was just amazing. I can also say about Royko that it seems to me that he's also in the vein of Addison and Steele in that he created this whole panoply of characters that he has dialogues with--
Rosenberg: Including Grabowski, is that right?
Root: Right, Slats Grabowski. That whole idea of walking into a bar and someone comes up to him and says something-- It was marvelous stuff, but that's what Richard Steele was doing with Sir Roger de Coverly.
Rosenberg: You were saying there are other writers you have enthusiasm for who are working in the essay form, at least some of the time.
Root: Well, a lot's been happening in the essay form in recent years to expand it, to do different things with it. Joe's Norton collection has an essay by Annie Dillard which I think is just one of the best, "Living Like Weasels," which is quite a different essay. And there are a number of essayists who feel that the essay is a lyrical form; they identify with poets and think that what they're dealing with is meditative or lyrical rather than narrative or argumentative. Barry Lopez is another one who does that. A number of nature writers are very strong that way.
Epstein: One writer that we've really scanted is George Orwell. He was one who really made the political essay an art form.
Kaminski: Actually Orwell should be mentioned with E. B. White as one of the great prophets of the simple prose style.
Rosenberg: Thank you all.
Milton J. Rosenberg is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and Director of the Doctoral Program in Social and Organizational Psychology as well as author of numerous articles and books, including Attitude Organization and Change and Theories of Cognitive Consistency. He has conducted his interview program since 1973, reaching as many as 600,000 listeners over thirty-eight states.
Joseph Epstein, a lecturer in literature and writing at Northwestern University, has published several collections of personal essays, including The Middle of My Tether, A Line Out for a Walk, Once More Around the Block, and Narcissus Leaves the Pool. His collections of literary essays include Plausible Prejudices, Partial Payments, Pertinent Players and Life Sentences. He was the editor of The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997 and edited two anthologies, The Best American Essays 1993 and The Norton Book of Personal Essays.
Thomas Kaminski, an Associate Professor of English at Loyola University at Chicago, where he directs the Graduate Teaching Fellows program, is the author of The Early Career of Samuel Johnson and numerous articles on Restoration and Eighteenth Century literature.
Robert Root, who teaches composition and nonfiction at Central Michigan University, is the author of two studies of nonfiction writers, Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing and E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist as well as Wordsmithery: A Guide to Working at Writing. He is the co-editor of The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction and Those Who Do Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching and his personal essays and academic articles have appeared in such publications as English Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, Journal of Teaching Writing, and Writing on the Edge.
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