The essay, as a literary genre, will celebrate its four hundred and fiftieth birthday next year. How well has it weathered its four and a half centuries of existence since Michel de Montaigne put quill to paper in 1571 to produce the first composition in the format he created? Is it thriving? Is it maintaining the standards of excellence set for it by its inventor and his many imitators? Or is it, as some would suggest, moribund or even dead?
Manifestly, the essay is not extinct, since it still has many practitioners, including some on this platform. Yet in many respects, in common with the whole of Western culture, it is undergoing a crisis of identity. Granted that the essay has been eclectic in its subject matter from birth (among his output Montaigne wrote On Smells and On Thumbs), critics have defined so many varieties of essay that, by such promiscuous attribution of the title to a wide diversity of articles, papers, theses, et al., they have annihilated its distinctive identity.
In essence, the informal, familiar discourse dealing with a subject either abstract or concrete, with the author virtually thinking aloud and coaxing the reader, via the flattery of apparently taking him into his confidence, to reach the same conclusion, is the most authentic form of the essay. There are indisputably other legitimate variations, more focused and more serious, but the classical essay, even if making a serious point, will often be characterised by whimsy.
From its earliest days the essay form was subjected to extravagant distortion, straining the meaning of the term to the utmost. Alexander Pope wrote two verse contributions to the genre, An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man, yet the content was so appropriate to the essay form that any reasonable critic must concede their legitimacy. The same does not apply to the profusion of book-length theses, manifestos and academic papers that have increasingly usurped the title of essay, an abuse first perpetrated by John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding).
Following its first begetting by Montaigne, who gave the world a total of 107 essays, Francis Bacon contributed a further 60 and thereafter the genre proliferated across Europe, though it became particularly prominent in English letters. Addison and Steele, through the Tatler and the Spectator, popularised the essay among a wider public. Dr Samuel Johnson was another eighteenth-century essayist who further promoted the genre as a vehicle of good prose style.
The essay in England experienced a golden age in the nineteenth century, with exponents including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb (“Elia”), Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson and many others. The genre made a spirited entry into the twentieth century, courtesy of G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, later succeeded by writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In the post-War years the essay became diminished as a literary form, its character increasingly vaguely defined. Although, for example, A S Byatt is often described as an essayist, her works are more accurately categorised as literary studies.
The essay continued to feature in French literature in the nineteenth century, notably from the pens of Sainte-Beuve, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier and, of course, Marcel Proust. Other European countries contributed to the essay tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including August Strindberg in Sweden and Miguel de Unamuno in Spain. It is in America, however, that the essay has found its modern home, beginning with its nineteenth-century interpreters, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain, succeeded in the twentieth century by such practitioners as Gore Vidal, in a literary environment more hospitable to this classical form of writing than any other country in the present day.
The perennial question remains: what is an essay? Aldous Huxley provided one of the best definitions when he wrote that ‘the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything’ and contended that ‘by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece’. He categorised essays under three types: the personal, the objective-factual and the abstract-universal. That division, more restrictive than later multiple categories, is persuasive.
Contemporary literature needs to recapture the soul of the essay, even if that élan vital is alien to the contemporary Zeitgeist. Although one of the most accessible literary genres, the essay is patrician in character. It is the product of leisured minds untrammelled by material concerns; it has a flavour of the opulent life of a Roman villa – Montaigne had his château in the Dordogne decorated in that style and was greatly influenced by Plutarch who had written essays a millennium and a half earlier, arguably making Montaigne a reviver rather than the creator of that medium. A traditional discursive essay may resemble a prose version of one of Horace’s Odes.
The most effective essays are often personal and even trivial. Montaigne wrote: ‘I first of all found that radishes agreed with me; then they did not; now they do again.’ Charles Lamb wrote A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig and The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers. It is in discoursing on such whimsical themes that a writer finds opportunity to give free rein to the creative imagination and to hone his prose style to perfection. The essay is the most effectual vehicle for the perfection of style.
That, in turn, can produce great economy of expression and penetrating analysis, executed with patrician elegance. Sir Max Beerbohm, mainly remembered as the author of Zuleika Dobson, that satirical evocation of Oxford when its spires were still ‘dreaming’ – an excursion in which he almost wandered onto Firbank’s turf – was also an accomplished essayist. In his essay on Dandies and Dandies, with the facility of the consummate stylist he conveyed, more concisely than any biographer, the means by which ‘Beau’ Brummell produced his effect: ‘In certain incongruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr Brummell’s miracles.’
In its purest distillation the essay, in an English context, might be regarded as the literary equivalent of the Tory cult of the amateur, a flâneur manner disguising underlying purposefulness. Yet its character is decidedly Whig, the majority of its practitioners (pace Samuel Johnson) tending towards a sceptical, subversive, ‘progressive’ worldview; but it is the radicalism of the Palladian mansion with chequerboard marble tiles in the entrance hall, housing the Whig oligarch.
Arguably, the last authentic exponents of the essay were schoolchildren writing compositions on such topics as A Day in the Life of a Penny. The essay is a delicate miniature that must not be enlarged into a garish poster. While the epics of world literature created by Tolstoy or Proust flow like great rivers across continents, the essay is a slight, babbling stream, musical to the ear and crystalline to the eye, occasionally punctuated by deep pools in which perceptive aperçus lurk like silvered trout. It is a literary medium to be cherished.