Should essays be light and playful, hard and serious, or both? Some 50 experts on the form, ranging across 400 years, tackle the question in this odd volume, edited by Klaus, founding director of University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program (The Made Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, 2010, etc.), and Stuckey-French (English/Florida State Univ.; The American Essay in the American Century, 2011).
“A genuine essay,” writes Cynthia Ozick, “has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play.” It is “science, minus the explicit proof” (José Ortega y Gasset), “spontaneous and audacious” (Enrique Amberson Imbert), “a walk, an excursion, not a business trip” (Michael Hamburger). It is personal, “a piece of Autobiography” (Charles Lamb), but only to a point. “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem,” writes Virginia Woolf. To essay means “to try but not to attempt,” writes William Carlos Williams; according to Jean Starobinski, it means to weigh. Not so, says André Belleau: ”The essay is not a weighing, an evaluation of ideas; it is a swarm of idea-words.” Through the ages, the word has become a catchall for reviews, sermons and lectures, among other forms of expression. In the late 19th century, William Dean Howells bemoaned the day “when the essay began to confuse itself with the article, and to assume an obligation of constancy to premises and conclusions” Like a classic essay itself, this book approaches its neither-fish-nor-fowl subject from many angles; it bemoans the death of the form, salutes its hearty endurance and both inspires and alienates.
A quirky, variegated salute to what Aldous Huxley called “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”