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Hurbert wheels

By Christopher Orlet

It is an article of the most unshakable faith that the personal, familiar, Montaignian--call it what you will--essay is minor stuff, a second-rate employment undertaken by bankrupt novelists and other failures. In literary rankings its place lay well below the novella and scarcely above the book review. "Essays, reviews, imitations, caricatures are all minor stuff,” wrote the New York Times critic in a recent review of a Max Beerbohm biography. In this conviction he has more support than a sports bra. Indeed, the personal essay’s most esteemed and acclaimed practitioners have to a man voiced misgivings about their trade. E.B. White called the essay a second-rate form. Cynthia Ozick, certainly one of the best contemporary essayists, may not specifically refer to the essay as second rate, but she certainly prefers to write fiction. “I don't think I ever undertake to write non-fiction without some external prodding," she told the Atlantic. Joseph Epstein will allow only that an excellent essay counts for more than a less-than-excellent higher form of literature, thereby damning the essay with faint praise. In his collection Plausible Prejudices the former American Scholar editor writes that “because essays do not have the prestige of other genres, no one sets out to be an essayist.”

A less odious, but no less frequent adjective applied to the personal essay is the term "undervalued." Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essay series, is no doubt correct when he says the essay is an undervalued genre that has resulted in a “sharply skewed canon, [and] the neglect of many important works.” In particular, master works such as T.S. Eliot's Selected Essays, H.L. Mencken's Prejudices, Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, and A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science come readily to mind. I suspect all but a handful of professors of literature dismiss these texts as lacking the creativity required of a first-rate genre.

In his introduction to the Norton Anthology of the Personal Essay, Mr. Epstein makes reference to the rise and fall of genres, which occur no less frequently than the rise and fall of empires. Time was when drama was tops, only to be outdone by the poem. Now the novel is king. Unless one counts film. Or, God help us, television. This much seems certain: if the essay has been exiled to the kitchen table of literature, this has not always been the case. No sensible person writes off the essays of Montaigne, Lamb, DeQuincey, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James as second-rate stuff. Dull, perhaps. Tiresome. But tiresome in the first-rate manner. "There are no second-rate genres," said Joyce Carol Oates, "only second-rate practitioners.” If that is indeed the case, it is either today’s writers who are second-rate or something unfortunate has happened to the essay to precipitate its decline. Or both.

As late as mid-twentieth century one senses the essay donned respectable clothing, all done up in the fine silk prose of Orwell, Santayana, Russell, Chesterton, Belloc, Pound, Eliot, Yeats, William Carlos Williams, the latter few writing nearly as much in the essay form as in verse. Indeed their corpses had scarcely cooled when the professors began to bemoan the essay’s deterioration, as noted in David Daiches' 1951 book A Century of the Essay, in which he blamed the decline on magazine specialization, noting that essays that appeal to intelligent persons of large general curiosity--notably the essays of Arnold and Thoreau--became increasingly rare as human knowledge was fragmented by "highly-focused serious prose discussions." Similarly, Cynthia Ozick blamed the ubiquitous short article for displacing the personal essay. No doubt, the New Journalism, as popularized by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer, played its part too. Arguably our best contemporary essayists--Ozick, William H. Gass, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and, to a large extent, Joseph Epstein—have shunned the personal essay in favor of the essay of literary criticism.

Материала е изпратен от: Михаил Илиев

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