The Familiar Essay
The Familiar Essay
During a period spanning the entire nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, informal and discursive prose became a popular form of instruction and entertainment in England and North America, and the familiar or personal essay emerged as a distinct genre. Best represented by the works of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, the familiar essay has been explored from both historical and literary perspectives. Commentators examining the development of the essay have focused on its formal characteristics, the merits of its chief contributors, and its significance in world literature. The familiar essay is characterized by its brevity and discursive style. As the genre gained critical acceptance, attempts to arrive at a more functional definition of the essay proliferated, resulting in a division of essays into such categories as instructive, aphoristic, historical, literary, and familiar. Modern critics, however, have often found these classifications inaccurate, and many commentators agree that the term "essay," used indiscriminately for centuries in reference to philosophical, religious, political, and personal compositions, almost defies definition.
Sir Francis Bacon is generally credited with introducing and popularizing the essay in the English-speaking world. Influenced by the French essays of Michel de Montaigne, who first used the term "essais" (or "attempts") to describe his prose reflections on commonplace topics and occurrences, Bacon published Essays, Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion in 1597. For much of the seventeenth century, essay writing reflected Bacon's aphoristic style and incorporated elements of the commonplace book, the character sketch, and the personal letter. Thus, it gradually became less abstract and more familiar, appealing to a wider audience. The inception of the periodical magazine in the eighteenth century was instrumental to the development of the familiar essay. Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele's Tatler and Spectator, as well as Samuel Johnson's Rambler and Daniel Defoe's Weekly Review of Affairs in France, featured prose designed to entertain and instruct the English middle class. In addition to providing guidance in matters of wardrobe and proper behavior, Addison and Steele's periodical essays discuss such popular subjects as witchcraft and duelling, and satirize the aristocracy. Immensely popular during their time, the early periodical essayists are esteemed for introducing humor and less formal diction into the English essay. In the early nineteenth century, Hazlitt commented that the essays of Addison and Steele "are more like the remarks which occur in sensible conversation and less like a lecture. Something is left to the imagination of the reader."
The periodical essay was thus modified by Hazlitt, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas De Quincey, and other writers, many of them associated with the Romantic movement, who augmented the essay's scope and length, developing a highly personal voice. These writers produced some of the most popular and skillfully rendered prose works in English literature, addressing nearly any topic that came to mind. The typical familiar essay, whatever its theme, seemed to carry the reader into a personal conversation with a writer who was "tolerant, broad-minded, highly cultivated, endowed with the most enlightened views on art, eloquent, humorous, and very human," as Orlo Williams wrote of Hazlitt, adding, "his style is smooth and brilliant, yet he has the charm of seeming intimately conversational; he can soar on the wings of eloquence, yet his common sense is unimpeachable." Hazlitt is renowned for his familiar essays, such as "On Going a Journey," "Genius and Common Sense," and "Living to Oneself." Among the English familiar essayists Lamb is widely considered preeminent. His essays "Old China," "A Dissertation upon Roast Pig," and "All Fool's Day," are considered models of the nineteenth-century essay. In Britain, the familiar essay tradition was continued through the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Lynd, G. K. Chesterton (author of "What I Found in My Pocket," "Dogs with Bad Names," and several hundred others), and Hilaire Belloc, who published such familiar essay collections as On Everything (1909), On Anything (1910), On Nothing (1908), and simply On (1923). In the United States, prominent writers of the familiar essay included Oliver Wendell Holmes, creator of the avuncular highly opinionated speaker who holds forth in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858) and two other such collections, as well as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Agnes Repplier, among others.
Writing of the familiar essay became less widely practiced in the early decades of the twentieth century, though the prolific Repplier, Chesterton, Belloc, and Lynd extended the genre well into the 1930s and early 1940s. Increasingly, commentators have cited the utilitarian, fast-paced modern world, with its increasing loss of leisure time for reading and reflection, the modern reader's preference for information rather than knowledge, and the dearth of magazines inclined to provide space for familiar discourses as among the key factors contributing to the familiar essay's decline. In addition, critics have noted the perception of the familiar essay as an old-fashioned holdover from bygone days.
Charles Brockden Brown
The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings 1943
Horce Subsecivce. 3 vols. 1858-1882
Birds and Poets, with Other Papers 1895
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Friend 1818
George William Curtis
Prue & I 1892
The Uncommercial Traveller 1860
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Society and Solitude 1870
Twice-Told Tales 1837
Mosses from an Old Manse 1846
Table Talk, or, Original Essays on Men and Manners. 2 vols. 1821-22
The Spirit of the Age 1825
Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There 1850
Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table 1858
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table 1860
The Poet at the Breakfast-Table 1872
The Seer. 2 vols. 1840-41
Men, Women and Books 1847
Table Talk 1851
Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff Esq., and Others. 2 vols. [with others] 1807-08
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1820
Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared under That Signature in the "London Magazine" 1823
The Last Essays of Elia 1833
Essays in Little 1891
Donald Grant Mitchell
Reveries of a Bachelor; or, A Book of the Heart 1850
Dream Life: A Fable of the Seasons 1852
Essays in Idleness 1893
In the Dozy Hours 1894
Henry Dwight Sedgwick
An Apology for Old Maids, and Other Essays 1916
Robert Louis Stevenson
Virginibus Puerisque, and Other Papers 1881
Memories and Portraits 1887
Across the Plains 1892
William Makepeace Thackeray
The Proser 1850
Roundabout Papers 1863
Henry David Thoreau
Henry T. Tuckerman
Leaves from the Diary of a Dreamer 1853
Charles Dudley Warner
My Summer in a Garden 1871
Speciman Days and Collect. 2 vols. 1882-83
Nathaniel P. Willis
Pencillings by the Way 1835
SOURCE: "The Essay," in The Enjoyment of Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1935, pp. 38-61.
[In the following excerpt, Drew traces the development of the familiar essay from Montaigne and Bacon through the periodical essayists of the eighteenth century and on to the era of Robert Louis Stevenson.]
The essay is the simplest of all forms of literature, but with it we enter that world where we shall remain throughout the rest of this book, the world of the conscious art of writing. From the lowest to the highest, from the simplest to the most complex kinds of literature, we shall find henceforth that the enjoyment of it is always twofold. There is the pleasure we receive from the conscious stimulus of certain recognizable parts of our being: to our curiosity about the stories and situations of other human beings, to our emotions, to our intellectual faculties, to our moral nature, to our senses. The pleasure of sharing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of meeting Elizabeth Bennet, of being stirred by Milton or enraptured by the sheer music of The Eve of St. Agnes. Here we know clearly what it is that pleases us; we recognize both the cause and the effect of the sense of satisfaction. But in the other kind of pleasure which literature creates, we are clearly conscious only of its effect. Form works upon the consciousness as a whole; it stimulates the consciousness as a whole; it satisfies it as a whole. If it is there, the sensitive reader recognizes it at once without analysis: the whole thing is 'right,' and the reason of its rightness is not questioned. But if perfection of form is absent, if the thing is 'wrong,' the reader is conscious that something vital is lacking. Detached faculties may still receive pleasure, human curiosity may be provoked, the mind quickened, the senses stirred, but that fusion of all faculties into one general sense of satisfaction in which the whole man is involved, is not there. Just as in a ballet the individual movements may be supple, the individual poses superb, the individual dexterity amazing, the decor perfect, but if the whole has not been bound together, fused, unified by one general spirit of rhythm, the harmony is not complete. What distinguishes the real artist from the amateur, says Goethe, is that power of execution which creates, forms and constitutes the whole.
What is an essay? It is impossible not to agree with J. B. Priestley that the simplest and safest definition of the essay is that it is the kind of composition produced by an essayist. The term is indeed so wide that it is meaningless. If we try to bring Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding and Lamb on "Old China" within the limits of a single definition it obviously cannot be done. The essay may be a dissertation, a piece of rhetoric, an argument, a discussion. It may deal with a religious, economic, historical, sociological, scientific or philosophical subject, or any other kind of subject. But it is clear that there is something very much narrower in definition which we really mean when we speak of the essay in any general discussion of literature. We mean a form of writing which aims definitely at certain literary values: that is, it aims at using language as a medium to present life in a way of its own.
Of all forms of literature, the essay is the one which least calls for the use of long words. The principle which controls it is simply that it should give pleasure; the desire which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive pleasure. Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake refreshed with its last. In the interval we may pass through the most varied experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation … but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world.
'So great a feat is seldom accomplished,' Virginia Woolf continues, 'though the fault may well be as much on the reader's side as on the writer's. Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate.' This may be so, and yet, if the truth must be told, the reader has a good deal of excuse, for as a student he has generally been surfeited with essays, and unless the essay is superlatively good it is the dullest form of all reading. A soliloquy is a most difficult form to sustain, and the essay is all soliloquy. The essayist has so few baits with which to catch and hold the reader's attention. He has no story to arouse his curiosity and no rhyme to charm his ear: his space is so limited that he has but little room for movement, for changes of tone and pace. He cannot afford to make any mistakes. If he write tediously or carelessly or foolishly, the essay at once capsizes and sinks; the pleasure cruise is at an end, the reader is bored.
It is because of this razor edge between charm and boredom which so many essays balance on, that we might quarrel with Virginia Woolf's declaration that the essay should never arouse us, and declare instead that on occasions it does and should. Perhaps this is only true if we admit oratory and rhetoric into essay-writing, but if speeches be written to be read as well as to be heard, it is difficult to see how they can be excluded from this whole class of writings. Burke's speeches are superb essays, and so is Milton's Areopagitica, that great plea for the liberty of speech which, indeed, for the delight of direct intellectual and emotional and moral stimulus, in some of the most supple and sonorous cadences in the English language, remains unsurpassed. If I were to choose one sentence in the English language which is to myself the most kindling in its passion, and its idea and its expression, it would be one from the Areopagitica.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexercis'd and unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
The quality of that is the quality of the whole, and as a further taste of it, I quote the famous passage on the life of books.
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unless wariness be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God's Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.
It is true, however, that the class of writings which we usually mean when we speak of essays, does not have the rousing and animating quality of Burke or Milton. Its aim is much milder, its achievement quite different. The supreme art of the essay proper, that special type of writing which was originated and invented by Montaigne, and dates from the first publication of his Essais in March, 1571, is to communicate personality. The essay (the word was used by Montaigne simply to denote experiments in a new form of writing), is the most direct form of prose communication between author and reader: it is deliberate egotism and self-revelation. Montaigne wrote the epigraph for all essayists, 'these are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things, but to lay open myself.' As Lamb said of him, 'his own character pervades the whole, and binds it sweetly together,' and it is significant that Coleridge said of Lamb himself, 'Charles Lamb has more totality and individuality of character than any other man I know.'
That is the character the perfect essayist requires. He says with Sir Thomas Browne: 'the world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast my eye on. For the other I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.' The novelist or the dramatist requires to be detached from his own personality. He may be David Copperfield or Jane Eyre or Hamlet, but he must also be Dick Swiveller or Paul Emmuanuel or Lady Macbeth. But the essayist must never be more than one character. The personality with which he writes may not be entirely his own, but it must be a complete personality. Elia is not the whole of Charles Lamb, nor the Spectator the whole of Joseph Addison, but they are each a completely recognizable person. We can walk round them and feel we know them in the most actual and tangible way. And we must have this sense of intimacy with the essay-writer, it is the essential of his peculiar and difficult art. He must always be the same person, and we must never be out of his company. Whatever other personality or situation or circumstance he presents, whatever book or picture or actor he is discussing, he is at pains to remind us all the time that it is his vision of them we are sharing. The main interest is always shifted subtly from the subject of the essay, to the kind of mind and being—the personality—which is writing of that subject. Creative egotism is the secret of the essayist, an egotism which appears, in the hands of an artist, as if it were the most simple and natural thing in the world, while in reality it is never successful unless it is presented with supreme skill. Just as his subject matter appears desultory and meandering, and is really the most carefully conceived and constructed of unities.
Alexander Smith, a minor writer of the mid-nineteenth century, who wrote a good essay, "On the writing of essays," in a volume called Dreamthorpe, says that the essay resembles the lyric in that both are molded by some central mood, whimsical, serious or satirical. 'Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows round it as a cocoon grows round the silk-worm.' This is a good image of the essayist's art, and is a better starting point for the illustrating of essays than a mere history of the subject. But a few chronological landmarks are perhaps helpful.
Montaigne died in 1592, and the first ten of Bacon's essays appeared in print five years later, and were the first essays to be published in England. He increased the number to thirty-eight in the edition of 1612, and to fifty-eight in the final edition of 1625. But although Bacon must have taken the idea of the essay from Montaigne, nothing could be more different than the 'moods' from which each of the two spins his thread. Montaigne must always remain the perfect example of the essayist temperament—sympathetic, humorous, unexpected, lovable, passionately curious in his search after psychological truth—while Bacon takes this new instrument for writing of the world as it is seen through the eyes of a temperament, and manages to turn it into something completely inhuman. Montaigne is a warm flesh and blood figure, sitting at ease at his study writing-table underneath the beam on which is carved I do not understand, I pause; I examine. Bacon is a chilly statue of Wisdom, commenting on human life in the manner of a great judge in his robes and ermine, with the greatest brilliance and the greatest detachment. The subject is always perfectly planned and presented, but it is all entirely external and general. It has all been thought, never felt.…
It was not until Cowley's essays were published in 1668 that the tone of Montaigne crept into the English essay. Cowley's talent is a small one, his personality is not interesting or varied enough to bear very much exploitation of it: the vein is very soon worked out, but what there is of it is gold. In his essay "Of Myself" there is the true flavor—that intimacy and warmth of spirit, that fresh simplicity and apparent artlessness. It creates its own charm as it flows along: it is nothing, and yet it is delightful.…
Some of the essays of Sir William Temple (Dorothy Osborne's husband) have this same note, but it was the coming of the periodical newspaper which really established the essay in popularity. It created a market for it, which it has never lost, so that it was not only aristocratic dilettantes who could afford to practise it; and it developed that easy, friendly manner which comes from the essayist's sense that he is writing for a familiar circle of readers who are in sympathy with him. It also encouraged the essayist to write on the subjects which make the best essays—incidents of daily life about him, the immediate, the personal, the tangible, not the abstract and indefinite. On April 12th, 1709, the first number of the Tatler, one little folded sheet of paper, appeared at the breakfast tables of the aristocracy and in the coffee-houses of the town, and from then onwards the eighteenth century was deluged with essays. To our modern taste, the majority of these essays are completely unreadable, except in small extracts, and indeed, the capacity of the reading public of the eighteenth century for swallowing pills in jam is one of the most surprising things about it. Why, with the example of that century before us, we continue to regard the Victorian age as the great age of moral lessons in literature, is a mystery. We are apt to think of the eighteenth century as a gay and wicked age, though it is difficult to know why. Perhaps because its greatest writers were satirists and its novelists much concerned about the sexual impulse in young men and the consequent danger of young women losing their virtue. But at no time did the daily and weekly reading of the majority concern itself so much with the moral conduct of life as it did in the eighteenth century.… The essay became the vehicle of platitude rather than of experience: the essayists will not let themselves be themselves because they are all so busy feeling they must be the Censor. And as a result, though it would be easy to make an anthology of first-rate passages from the eighteenth-century essayists, it is not surprising that the heart of the average student sinks when he is told that if he wants to write good prose he must give his days and nights to the study of Addison. Addison is a very dull writer, and the volumes of the Tatler and the Spectator are dull volumes, and there are many equally good writers of prose.
And yet it is not really because the eighteenth century is so concerned about problems of conduct that it is dull: it is because of the way in which the writers treat of them. We are all, as a matter of fact, interested in ethical questions and in reading about them, but we are not interested in having a purely conventional and general code of social and personal morality applied to every subject. It is that which stifles the individuality which is the breath of life to the essayist. Dr. Johnson's opinion of Addison fits many more than Addison: 'he thinks justly, but he thinks faintly.' There is nothing vigorous, energetic or personal in the moral values of these men. If, however, moral feeling be an essential part of the mood in which the essay is conceived—instead of being merely tacked on as an adjunct—it becomes an essential part of its total quality and effect, and we would not wish it otherwise. Ethical feeling can lap us round as securely as any other mood.
It is no longer the fashion now to read Robert Louis Stevenson. His vogue during his life and immediately after his early death was so great and glowing that a reaction was bound to set in. But his popularity will inevitably return. He was a second-rate novelist, for his creative gift was never substantial enough to write great novels, but he is a first-rate essayist. And the mood of all, or almost all, of his essays is an ethical one; he spins its thread around some problem of conduct or some tenet of his own individual faith. Stevenson had to struggle all his life with an incurable disease: he did his work unflinchingly against appalling odds. But the strange thing about his extraordinarily vivid personality was that it produced an attitude to life which, instead of being one of splendid stoical endurance of suffering, managed to be one of positive exhilaration. He justifies life because it is a battle: he loves positive values as much as Milton: 'To avoid an occasion for our virtues is a worse degree of failure than to push forward pluckily and make a fall.' It is only over-prudence and timidity which he finds paralyzing: 'There are some to whom never to forget their umbrella in a long life, is a higher and wiser achievement than to go smiling to the stake.' 'Youthful enthusiasm may be foolish, but it is better to be a fool than to be dead.'
Whether we regard life as a lane leading to a dead wall, or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium, where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble destiny;… whether we look justly for years of health and vigour, or are about to mount into a bath chair as a step towards the hearse; in each and all of these views and situations there is but one conclusion possible: that a man should stop his ears against paralysing terror, and run the race which is set before him with a single mind.. As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious state in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world.
Here we are very far removed from the bony conventional morality of the eighteenth century. We are in the company of a clear-cut, witty, courageous, sensitive personality, and we are in the presence of an artist in prose. Stevenson's confession that he learned his craft by playing 'the sedulous ape' to other writers has sometimes been taken to mean that his own use of language always remains imitative. Nothing is more untrue. His early work is inclined to be a little thin and mannered and over-ornamented, but his later essays—such essays as "Pulvis et Umbra," "The Lantern Bearers" or the once famous "A Christmas Sermon"—are the work of a complete and warmly-colored personality, communicating itself in a forthright, strong and warmly-colored prose. They lay us under a spell with the first word, and we wake refreshed with the last.
The moods in which the problems of human conduct are of supreme importance can therefore be the basis of the essayist's art as much as any other moods. But it is true that they very seldom do make thoroughly successful essays. If a personality is passionately concerned with such questions, it is ten to one that his calling will not be that of an essayist; he will be expressing his personality in some more immediately practical way. We may safely say that but for the accident of ill-health Stevenson would not have been content to write essays. The essay which the man of such a temperament writes is seldom as we say 'pure literature.' It has an ulterior aim: it seeks to convert or persuade, to argue, to discuss, to analyze, to explain. It goes over into history or politics or criticism, like Macaulay or Carlyle or Arnold. But the pure essayist, as Virginia Woolf says, seeks only to give pleasure, and we read him with no ulterior aim ourselves. His own occupations and his own acquaintance are his subject matter, and we ask for nothing of more public or general importance.
SOURCE: "The Essay as Mood and Form," in Forces in Fiction, and Other Essays, The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1902, pp. 85-99.
[In the following essay, Burton surveys the history of the essay, tracing elements that contributed to the present form and focussing on the nineteenth-century familiar essayists of Britain and the United States.]
It is odd that while the essay as a distinctive form in modern literature is so well cherished and enjoyable, it has received so little of expert attention. Books upon the drama, upon poetry in its many phases, upon the novel even—a thing comparatively of but yesterday—are as leaves on Vallombrosa for number; but books on the essay—where are they? It is high time the natural history of the essay was written, for here is a fascinating literary development which has had a vigorous, distinguished life of more than three hundred years in English and which counts among its cultivators some of the abiding names in our native literature. Here is a form, too, interesting because of its inter-filiations with such other forms as fiction which is connected with it by the bridge of the character-sketch; drama, whose dialogue the essay not seldom uses; and such later practical offshoots as the newspaper editorial and the book review.
This neglect of the essay is not altogether inexplicable. Scholars have been shy of it, I fancy, in part at least, because on the side of form (the natural and proper side to consider in studying the historical evolution of a literary genre) it has been thus fluent and expansive: a somewhat subtle, elusive thing. We can say, obviously, that an essay is a prose composition, but can we be more explicit than this rather gross mark of identification? The answer is not so easy. Moreover, the question has become further confused by a change in the use and meaning of the word within a century. A cursory glance at the history of the English essay will make this plain.
Lord Bacon was, by his own statement, fond of that passed master of the essay in French, Montaigne. It is small wonder then that, when at the end of the sixteenth century he put a name to his "dispersed meditations," he called them essays, after the Frenchman, using the word for the first time in our tongue. Not the name only but the thing was new. The form was slight, the expression pregnant and epigrammatic; there was no attempt at completeness. The aim of this early prince of essayists was to be suggestive rather than exhaustive—the latter a term too often synonymous with exhausting. Bacon's essays imply expanded note-book jottings; indeed, he so regarded them. In the matter of style, one has but to read contemporaries like Sidney, Lyly and Hooker, to see to what an extent Lord Bacon modernized the cumbersome, though often cloudily splendid, Elizabethan manner. He clarified and simplified the prevailing diction, using shorter words and crisper sentences with the result of closer knit, more sententious effect. In a word, Style became more idiomatic, and the relation of author and reader more intimate in the hands of this Elizabethan essay-maker. The point is full of significance for the history of this alluring form; its development ever since has been from this initiative. Slight, casual, rambling, confidential in tone, the manner much, the theme unimportant in itself, a mood to be vented rather than a thought to add to the sum of human knowledge; the frank revelation of a personality—such have been and are the head marks of the essay down to the present day. This fact is somewhat obscured by our careless use of the word at present to denote the formal paper, the treatise: the current definition of the essay admits this extension, and of course we bandy the word about in such meaning. But it is well to remember that the central idea of this form is what removes it forever from the treatise, from any piece of writing that is formal, impersonal and communicative of information. Little was done for the development of the essay, after Bacon, during the seventeenth century. But with Addison, Steele and the Spectator in the early eighteenth, the idea is reinforced and some of the essential features of this form brought the more clearly out. The social, chatty quality of the true essayist is emphasized; the writer enters into more confidential relations with his reader than ever he did with the stately Verulam; and the style approaches more nearly to the careless, easy elegance of the talk of good, but not stiff society. The Spectator papers unquestionably did more to shape the mold of essay writing in English than any other influence; at the same time, to speak as if Mr. Bickerstaff originated the form (as some critics do), is to overlook its origin with Bacon. The essay idea—this colloquial, dramatic, esoteric, altogether charming sort of screed, was cultivated quite steadily through the eighteenth century. It became, as a rule, more ponderous in the hands of Johnson and was in danger of taking on a didactic, hortatory tone foreign to its nature; yet occasionally in the Rambler papers, Johnson takes on a lightness of touch and tone that is surprising and suggests that we have perhaps regarded the dictator as too exclusively a wielder of sesquipedalian words. That this God of the Coffee House had a clear and correct idea of the essay is shown by his own description of it: "A loose sally of the mind," he says, "an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance."
Goldsmith, a light-horse soldier in contrast with Johnson, full panoplied and armed cap-a-pie, broadened the essay for literary and social discussion, although Grub Street necessity led him at times to become encyclopedic; and he was never happier than when, as in "The Revery at the Boar's Head" he played upon some whimsical theme, pizzicato, surcharging it with his genial personality. Minor writers, too, in the late eighteenth century had a hand in the development; none more so, to my mind, than the letter and fiction makers, Chesterfield and Walpole, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Fanny Burney—these and that inimitable fuss and chronicler, Boswell. If one would know how society talked in the second half of that Tea Cup century, one must read—not the dialogue of the novelists where the art is too new to have caught quite the accent of life, but these off-hand epistles dashed off without a thought of print—to print were half way vulgar then—and hence possessing all the freshness and naturalness of life itself,—the ideal essay note. We may be thankful that as yet the habit of publishing everything, from one's thrills to one's table tastes, had not gained popularity,—those ladies and gentlemen could afford to be charmingly unreserved in their private correspondence. To-day in the very act of penning a note, intrudes the horrid thought that it may be incorporated as an integral part of one's "works."
The Letter, as a literary form, offers an interesting line of side inquiry in connection with the essay; it has influenced that form beyond doubt, is in a sense contributory to it. In the same way dialogue—a modern instance like Landor comes to mind—has had its share in shaping so protean a form.
But it was reserved for the nineteenth century to contribute in the person of Charles Lamb the most brilliant exemplar of the essay, prince of this special literary mood; not primarily a thinker, a knowledge-bringer, a critic, but just a unique personality expressing his ego in his own fascinating way, making the past pay rich toll, yet always himself; and finding the essay accommodative of his whimsical vagaries, his delicious inconsistencies, his deep-toned, lovable nature. And that incomparable manner of his! Tis at once richly complex and tremulously simple; an instrument of wide range from out whose keys a soul vibrant to the full meaning of humanity might call spirits of earth and heaven in exquisite evocations and cadences at times almost too piercing sweet. Turn to the Elia papers and see how perfectly this magic of Lamb's illustrates and supports the qualities of mood and form I am naming as typical of the essay as an historic growth. The themes, how desultory, audacious, trivial, even grotesque. The only possible justification for a dissertation on roast pig is the paper itself. Note, too, how brief some of the choicest essays are; half a dozen small pages, even less; and with what seeming carelessness they vary, stretching themselves at will to four times their normal length. Study the construc-tion of any famous essay to see if it can be called close-knit, organic, and you shall find a lovely disregard of any such intention. The immortal Mrs. Battle on whist gives a capital example. If you turn to the end of that inimitable deliverance, you will find it to contain one of the most charming digressions in all literature. Lamb leaves that delicious old gentlewoman for a moment to speak of Cousin Bridget, Bridget Elia, the tragic sister Mary of his house, and playfully, tenderly, picturing their game at cards, forgets all else and never returns to Mrs. Battle. But who cares? Is not lack of organic connection (to call it by so harsh a name) more than justified by that homely-heartful picture of Charles and Mary Lamb, bent over their "mere shade of play,"—a game not for shillings but for fun—nay, for love. "Bridget and I should be ever playing," says he, and the reader is charmed and stirred clean out of all thought of Mrs. Battle. It is ever so with your essayist to the manner born! to wander and digress is with him a natural right. He is never happier than when he is playing mad pranks with logic, respectability and the mother tongue. Yet should his temperament be sensitive, his nature broad, deep and noble. The querulous-gentle Elia was surely of this race.
To turn from Lamb to any contemporary is an effect of anticlimax. None other was like to him for quality. Yet Hazlitt and Hunt were his helpers, doing good work in extending the gamut of this esoteric mood in literature. De Quincey, too, though losing the essay touch again and again because of didacticism and a sort of formal, stately eloquence, wrote papers in the true tradition of the essayist. Passages in the Opium Eater are of this peculiar tone and that great writer's intense subjectivity is always in his favor—since the genuine essay-maker must be frankly an egoist. Hunt is at times so charming, so light of touch, so atmospheric in quality that he deserves to be set high among essayists of the early century. A man who could produce such delicately graceful vignette work as his sketches of the Old Lady and the Old Gentleman, was a true commensal of Lamb. In such bits of writing the mood and manner are everything, the theme is naught; the man back of the theme is as important in the production of the essay as is the man back of the gun in warfare. Herein lies Hunt's chief claim on our grateful remembrance—here, and in certain of his verses, rather than in the more elaborate papers to be found in such a volume as Fancy and Imagination.
But already we must begin to recognize in writers like Hunt, Hazlitt and DeQuincy, and still more in latter men, a tendency distinctly modern and on the whole antagonistic to the peculiar virtues of the esoteric essay, the causerie of literature. It is moving fast toward the objective, rounded out, formally arranged treatise. It becomes argumentative, critical, acquisitive, logical, expository, laden with thought. Hence when we reach masters like Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, we see what is natural to them as essayists in one sense deflected into other (and no doubt quite as welcome) forms; one and all, they have messages, and missions. Now your bona fide essayist has nothing of the kind; he would simply button-hole you for a half hour while he talks garrulously, without a thought of purpose, about the world—and himself—especially the latter. Splendid blooms grow from out the soil which gives us our Ruskins and Carlyles; but when we are considering this sensitive plant of the literary garden, the essay, it were well to agree that it is another thing, and to save for its designation the word essay. Nor is this to deny essay touches, essay moments, essay qualities to Ruskin or Carlyle; it is only to make the point that their strenuous aim and habitual manner, so far as they went, were against the production of a very different kind of literature.
Earlier American literature has at least supplied one real essayist to the general body of English literature,—the genial Irving, who was nurtured on the best eighteenth century models and carried on the tradition of the Spectator and Goldsmith in papers which have just the desired tone of genteel talk, the air of good society. There are hints in Benjamin Franklin that had politics not engulfed him, as they afterward did Lowell, he might have shown himself to the essay born. Irving is sometimes spoken of as a fictionist, but all his stories have the essay mood and manner; and he had the good sense practically never to abandon that gentle genre. His work always possesses the essay touch both in description and in the hitting off of character, thus offering an illustration of the fact that the essay, by way of the character sketch, debouches upon the broad and beaten highway of the novel,—the main road of our modern literature. There are plenty of Irving's papers which it is rather puzzling to name as essay or fiction; "The Fat Gentleman," for example. A later and very true American essayist, Dr. Holmes, furnishes the same puzzle in the Autocrat series: they have dialogue, dramatic characterization, even some slight story interest. Why not fiction then? Because the trail of the genuine essayist is everywhere; the characters, the dramatic setting, are but devices for the freer expression of Dr. Holmes's own delightful personality, which, as Mr. Howells testifies, Holmes liked to objectify. It is our intimate relation with him that we care about in converse with the essayist born; we sit down to enjoy his views. The fictionist's purpose, contrariwise, is to show life in a representative section of it and with dramatic interplay of personalities moving to a certain crescendo of interest called the climax.
And so Dr. Holmes remains one of our most distinctive and acceptable essayists of the social sort—possessing, I mean, that gift, perhaps best seen with the French, of making vivid one's sense of one's relation to other men and women in the social organism. It is the triumph of this kind of essay to be at once individualistic and social; without eccentricity, on the one hand, or vulgarity, on the other. Vulgarity, by the way, is a quality impossible to the heaven-called essayist; it can be better tolerated in poetry even. For the intimacy between the essayist and his reader (I say reader rather than audience with a feeling that the relation is a sort of solitude á deux) is greater than in the case of any other form of literary expression; hence, when one enters, as it were, the inner rooms of a friend's house, any hint of the borné is the more quickly detected, the more surely insufferable.
The voice of a natural essayist like Thoreau is somewhat muffled by being forced now and then into the public pulpit manner. Yet an essay-writer by instinct he certainly is; particularly in his journal, but often in the more formal chroniclings of his unique contact with nature. In Emerson, too, we encounter a writer with a vocation for the essay, but having other fish to fry,—doubtless a loftier aim but a different. No man, English or American, has a literary manner which makes the essay an inspired chat more than the Concord sage-singer; and the inspired chat comes close to being the beau ideal of your true-blue essayist. With less strenuousness of purpose and just a bit more of human frailty—or at least sympathy with the frail,—here were indeed a prince in this kind!
How much of the allurement of the essay style did Lowell keep, however scholarlike his quest, in papers literary, historical, even philological! In a veritable essay-subject like "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," he displays himself as of the right line of descent from Montaigne; there is in him then all that unforced, winsome, intimate, yet ever restrained revelation of self which is the essayist's model, and despair. In the love letters of the Brownings may be found some strictures by both Robert and Elizabeth upon an early book of this great American's which must pain the admirer of the Brownings as well as of Lowell. It displays a curious insensitiveness to just this power of the Cambridge man which made him of so much more value to the world than if he had been scholar and nothing more. One can hardly rise from anything like a complete examination of Lowell's prose without the regret that his fate did not lead him to cultivate more assiduously and single-eyed, this rare and precious gift for essay—a gift shared with very few fellow Americans.
A glance among later Victorian prose writers must convince the thoughtful that the essay in our special sense is gradually written less; that as information comes in at the door, the happy giving-forth of personality flies out at the window. It is in shy men like Alexander Smith or Richard Jefferies that we come on what we are looking for, in such as they, rather than the more noisily famed. Plenty of charming prosists in these latter days have been deflected by utility or emolument away from the essay; into criticism, like Lang and Gosse and Dobson and Pater; into preaching and play-making, like Bernard Shaw; into journalism like Barry Pain and Quiller-Couch; into a sort of forced union of poetry and fiction, as with Richard Le Gallienne. All of these, too, and others still have been touched by fiction for better or worse.
The younger Americans with potential essay ability are also for the most part swallowed up in more practical, "useful" ways of composition. Her old-fashioned devotion to the elder idea of the essay makes a writer like Miss Repplier stand out with a good deal of distinction, so few of her generation are willing or able to do likewise. There is no magazine in America to-day, with the honorable exception of The Atlantic, which desires from contributors essays that look back to the finer tradition. Mr. Howells has reached a position of such authority in American letters that what he produces in the essay manner is welcome—not because it is essay, but because it is he. His undeniable gift for the form is therefore all the better; often he strikes a gait happily remindful of what the essay in its traditions really is; the delightfully frank egoism of his manner covering genuine simplicity and modesty of nature. Since Venetian Days he has never ceased to be an essayist.
The twin dangers with the younger essayists of both the United States and England are didacticism and preciosity. The former I believe most prevalent in this country; and it is of course the death blow of the true essay. The danger of being too precious may be overcome with years: Max Beerbohm, for example, began by thinking and talking of himself, not for the reader's sake, but for self-love's sake. But of late he seems better to comprehend the essayist's proper subjectivity. We should not despair of essayists: no type of writer is rarer; the planets must conspire to make him; he must not be overwhelmed by life and drawn into other modes of expression.
Our generation has been lucky to possess one English essayist who has maintained and handed on the great tradition. I mean Stevenson. Although, in view of the extent and vogue of his novels and tales, Stevenson's essay work may seem almost an aside, it really is most significant. He is in the line of Charles Lamb. Where a man like Pater writes with elegance and suggestion after the manner of the suave and thoroughly equipped critic, Stevenson does a vastly higher thing; he talks ruddily, with infinite grace, humor, pathos and happiness, about the largest of all themes,—human nature. From "Ordered South" to "Pulvis et Umbra," through many a gay mood of smile and sunshine to the very deeps of life's weltering sea, Stevenson runs the gamut of fancy and emotion, the fantasticality of his themes being in itself the sign manual of a true essayist. In the Letters no man using English speech has chatted more unreservedly, and with more essential charm; it is the undress of literature that always instinctively stops this side of etiquette, of decency. The Stevenson epistles drive us on a still-hunt outside of the mothertongue for their equal, with little prospect of quarry save within French borders.
The essay is thus a literary creature to the making of which go mood and form—and the former would seem by far the paramount thing. Great and special gifts does it demand. 'Tis an Ariel among literary kinds, shy, airy, tricksy, elusive, vanishing in the garish light that beats down upon the arena where the big prizes of fiction are competed for amidst noise, confusion and eclat. But ever in its own slight, winsome way does it compel attention and gain hearts for its very own. 'Tis an aristocrat of letters; nowhere is it so hard to hide obvious antecedents. Many try, but few triumph in it. Therefore, when a real essayist arrives, let him be received with due acclaim and thanks special, since through him is handed on so ancient and honorable a form.
William Frank Bryan and Ronald S. Crane
SOURCE: An introduction to The English Familiar Essay: Representative Texts, edited by William Frank Bryan and Ronald S. Crane, Ginn and Company, 1916, pp. xi-lx.
[Bryan and Crane were professors of English at Northwestern University. In the following excerpt, they discuss the major nineteenth-century writers of the familiar essay, drawing distinctions between the mature form of the familiar essay and its direct ancestor, the mid-seventeenthcentury imitations of the Tatler and Spectator.]
Within the early years of the nineteenth century the type of familiar essay was developed which has continued to the present. By 1825 it had largely supplanted the imitations of the Tatler and Spectator, and Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and other writers had won for it a popularity that the essay had not enjoyed for a long time. The new type differed from the old in many essential respects.
In the first place, the new essay had a much wider range of subject than the old. It was no longer confined largely to "the Town," to the fashions and foibles of society, to problems of conduct and manners, or to the general principles of morality. There was, indeed, no general uniformity of topic. Each essayist wrote upon whatever presented itself to him as an attractive or congenial theme; his range of subject was determined only by the breadth or narrowness of his individual interests and sympathies. Lamb wrote of his schoolboy life, of his daily occupations, his vacation excursions, his friends and his family, his personal sympathies and antipathies; Leigh Hunt chatted about his reading, his fireside comforts, the interesting individuals or types he had observed or experiences he had encountered, or tried to discover compensation for the deaths of little children; Hazlitt lingered over his books or recalled his first meeting with poets later famous, recounted the delights of a solitary tramp in the open country and the evening comforts of an inn, presented the pleasures of painting or of hating, or considered the basis of his deepest feelings; De Quincey gossiped of his acquaintances or recalled gorgeous or terrible dream fancies. As many writers of the new essay, including Lamb and Hunt and Hazlitt, spent their most active years in London, they frequently, of course, wrote on some aspect of London life, but their subjects included such as had been in large measure beneath the sympathetic regard of the eighteenth-century essayists—chimney sweeps, the postman, clerks, artisans, and sailors.
In manner of presentation and purpose, too, the new essay was markedly different from the old. One of the most characteristic differences is that the essayist no longer hid his individuality behind the elaborately sustained figure of an invented Mr. Bickerstaff, or Mr. Spectator, or Chinese Traveler, but wrote in his own person. Even when through diffidence he employed the editorial plural or adopted a pen-name, he really expressed his own personality, and his thin disguise was easily penetrable. Many other long-used conventions were almost wholly discarded; for example, the machinery of clubs and correspondents, the visions and apologues, and the invented characters with classical or pseudo-classical names. The classics, too, and classical history were less drawn upon for mottoes and quotations and illustrations. In general, there was much less artificiality and much greater directness, and a strong tendency to rely for illustration upon the personal experience of the writer or of his acquaintances, upon contemporary events or those of comparatively recent history, and upon modern or native literature. Nor, as a rule, was the new essay marked by the satiric or didactic tone that generally pervaded the old. The eighteenth-century essay was largely social in character, and professed as its principal aim a reformation of the delinquencies and peccadillos of society. The new essay was just as distinctly individualistic; as a literary form it was not the vehicle of any propaganda. The character of each essayist's work as a whole was determined purely by his peculiar temperament, and any single essay might reflect his rnood of a moment or the deeply grounded philosophy of his lifetime. The one property common to the essayists of the early nineteenth century is their egotism; they were chiefly interested in themselves, and were frank, though by no means offensively so, in the expression of this interest. This frankness of egotism, however, is characteristic of the period rather than of the literary type, although, of course, a strongly personal coloring is never absent from the familiar essay of the nineteenth century.
Of all the differences between the essay of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth, the most obvious is the much greater length of the latter. As the content of a piece of writing is largely dependent upon the space it is to occupy, the greater length of the new essay is one of its essential characteristics. The eighteenth-century essay had space for only sketches and outlines or for the treatment of a very limited phase of a subject; the new essay could present full-length portraits or the development of ample themes, and it invited digression. The Tatler and Spectator papers, from their mode of publication and the temper of the particular reading public to whom they were directed, were very brief, ranging from about twelve hundred to fifteen hundred words each, and in this respect, as in others, they were followed by their imitators. Of the founders of the new essay, Leigh Hunt most closely resembled the writers of the preceding century in brevity; probably in part because of his temperament, and in part because, like the earlier essayists, he wrote principally for newspapers or for periodicals modeled upon the Tatler. Lamb was between the old and the new, the Essays of Elia averaging from one and a half to two times the length of the eighteenth-century periodical essay. The greater number of Hazlitt's essays were three or four times as long as those of the Spectator type; in this, as in so many other respects, they were wholly of the new order. Even within such expanded limits De Quincey was unable to confine himself, and some of his papers were inordinately long. Naturally, there cannot be any definitely fixed length for the essay, but so far as there is any standard, that set by Hazlitt became generally observed and is now usually followed. It permits the writer to treat his theme with reasonable fullness, but checks a presentation that would tax the capacity of the reader at a single sitting.
The changed character of the essay was the effect of a number of causes. The first was the progress of Romanticism, which, by 1820, throughout the world of literature had resulted in the expression of new interests or of those long dormant,—particularly the interest the individual felt in himself,—in the abandonment of old standards and conventions, and in experimentation with new or longdisused forms. Individualism had been strongly stimulated. The essayists were moved by the same forces as the poets. Indeed, in practically all essentials there is a manifest similarity between the new poetry and the new essay. The second cause is closely related to the first: the new forces in life and literature affected men of original and responsive genius, capable of developing a new type of essay, and by the success of their own efforts influential in establishing it in popular favor. The services of Lamb and Hunt and Hazlitt are exactly comparable to those of Wordsworth and Byron and Keats. A less general and somewhat more tangible influence was the greatly heightened interest in Montaigne. His Essais, in Cotton's translation, was one of the small stock of books identified as certainly belonging to Lamb; he was quoted or appreciatively referred to several times by Leigh Hunt; and Hazlitt was thoroughly familiar with the Essais and a consistent admirer of both their matter and their manner.
But the single factor of greatest moment in the development of the new type was the establishment of the modern literary magazine. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, publication of essays as independent periodicals after the fashion of the Tatler and the Spectator had largely given way to publication in newspapers and magazines. Obviously, the small news sheets could not provide space for any considerable expansion of the essay, which, moreover, was merely an excrescent growth upon them. Nor did the existing magazines, such as the Gentleman's and the European, offer much greater possibilities. They were literally magazines, overcrowded depositories of miscellaneous matter—meteorological data, tables of the values of stocks, parliamentary reports, records of births and deaths, cursory reviews, notes of the stage and the arts, letters from correspondents and answers to them, and curious information on a variety of topics. Literature was usually represented in a small section devoted to whatever of essays, sketches, verse, etc. the editor needed to fill out his ninety-odd pages, or had not the heart to reject. Rarely did a number of one of the old magazines have a single article of genuine literary merit or interest. And the critical reviews were even more hopelessly dull and wanting in originality. Both classes of periodicals were almost wholly the product of amateurs or of poorly paid drudges.
Vivification of the literary periodical first manifested itself in the critical reviews with the establishment of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and the Quarterly Review in 1809, the former a Whig, the latter a Tory organ. From the first the rivalry between them was intense; and the liberal payments to contributors soon attracted to each a group of vigorous young writers, whose pronouncements upon the social, political, and literary questions of the day, whatever they lacked in depth and poise, certainly wanted nothing in assurance and energy. Both the Edinburgh and the Quarterly became immediately and dominantly popular.
The first notable effort to establish a distinctly literary magazine was made by Leigh Hunt in the Reflector (1811-1812). Lack of financial support, however, and other causes not now known made the venture abortive. But only a few years later the first modern magazine was actually founded. The success of the new reviews prompted William Blackwood, an active and astute Edinburgh publisher, to set up a magazine which should be equally different from the dull and characterless miscellanies then in existence. He was unfortunate, however, in the first selection of his staff, and the initial number of Blackwood's Magazine, which appeared in April, 1817, gave no real promise of originality or increased attractiveness. But with the October number John Wilson ("Christopher North"), together with Lockhart, joined Blackwood's forces; and the former, particularly, imparted to the magazine a character derived from his own freshness and high spirits. Almost instantly Blackwood's leaped into a more than local popularity.
The success of Blackwood's encouraged the establishment of the first magazine of similar character in London. This was the London Magazine, the initial number of which appeared in January, 1820. Its first editor, John Scott, was apparently given a free hand by the owners; he, in turn, threw open the pages of the London to good writing on almost any subject and paid for it liberally. As a result of this policy the London commanded the pens of original and attractive writers and from the beginning was of interest and high standing. After the death of Scott in a duel, rapid changes in the control of the magazine ensued, the result of which was a swift descent in its fortunes. But it had shown the way to success and had set up a new standard for magazines. The conduct of the New Monthly Magazine illustrates the force of the example set by the London. The New Monthly, which was founded in 1814, during the first seven years of its existence was distinguished in no vital respect from the older miscellanies. In 1820, however, the popularity of the London forced a change of policy: it was placed under the editorship of Campbell, the poet, and inaugurating a new series with the first number for 1821, it became of the new order. Within a few more years many magazines of the older type had disappeared and very much the kind of magazine we know to-day had become definitely established.
Probably the most obvious contribution of the modern magazine to the development of the essay was the encouragement to expansion beyond the former narrow limits, an expansion impossible in the newspapers or in the older magazines, divided as they were into numerous crowded departments. The new magazines, unburdened with the traditions that hampered the old, and thus excluding much of the journalistic matter appearing in their predecessors, were able to provide not merely a page or two for an essay, but six or eight, and on occasion, ten or twelve or twenty pages. They thus made possible the changed content and manner of the essay, which could result only from an enlargement of its physical limits.
But increased length and all that goes with it was not the only indebtedness of the new essay to the new magazine. Blackwood's and the London could make a place for themselves only by being different from the long-established magazines, by surpassing them in literary interest and attractiveness; their editors and owners accordingly vied with one another in offering inducements to writers of original power, paying them with hitherto unexampled liberality and leaving them free to write as their own genius might direct. Finally, the very fact that these magazines were new, that they were unfettered by hampering precedents, was in itself a strong incentive to break away from existing conventions and to test new forms and modes. Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, Wilson, and De Quincey are chief among the founders of the new essay; though Hunt, the least modern of the group, owed comparatively little to the new magazines, even he departed from his eighteenth-century models for the first time in the Reflector; and Blackwood's produced Wilson's sketches, and the London stimulated Lamb, Hazlitt, and De Quincey to discover their peculiar genius and to give it expression. Extremely significant is the fact that the great body of familiar essays produced within the last century has been written for the modern magazine, the direct successor of Blackwood's and the London.
During the period within which the new essay was established Lamb, Hunt, and Hazlitt were the most notable writers—notable for their relations to the older type or for their influence upon the development of the new, as well as for the permanent interest and attractiveness of their writings.
Lamb's first essay, "The Londoner," was printed in the Morning Post for February 1, 1802. "The Londoner" promised to be the first of a series, but the promise was not carried out, and Lamb wrote no other essays until the establishment of Leigh Hunt's Reflector. To the four issues of this magazine, which appeared probably in 1811-1812, he contributed a number of short essays as well as two important critical papers. Consequent upon the death of the Reflector was a period of scant productivity, which lasted until the appearance of the London Magazine in 1820. Lamb's first contribution to this magazine, "The South Sea House," appeared in the number for August, 1820; his last, "Stage Illusion," in that for August, 1825. Between these two dates, writing over the pen-name "Elia," which he had appropriated from an Italian fellow clerk of the South Sea House, Lamb published in the London practically all his most characteristic essays. After 1820 he wrote but little except for the London, and after 1826 he practically ceased writing at all, his only considerable papers being three or four for the ephemeral Englishman's Magazine in 1831. Collections of Lamb's essays were made three times before his death in 1834: his Works (1818) contained most of his earlier pieces, and the Essays of Elia (1823) and the Last Essays of Elia (1833) included most of his contributions to the London as well as a few of both his earlier and his later papers.
Lamb's earlier essays were written under the influence of the long-established models. His first venture, "The Londoner," was obviously imitative, owing much in particular to the first number of the Spectator; and most of his brief papers in the Reflector were considerably indebted to the seventeenth-century "character" or to the Tatler and its successors. Moreover, even in the period of Lamb's most thoroughly original work, when Elia was doing much to establish the new type of familiar essay, he at times reverted to the manner of the old: the first part of "Poor Relations" is patterned after the seventeenth-century "character"; the first part of "The Wedding" is wholly in the manner of Steele's sketches of domestic life; and "A Vision of Horns," one of the Essays of Elia not reprinted by Lamb, he himself characterized as "resembling the most laboured papers in the Spectator."
But by far the greater number of the Elia essays were no more imitative than they are imitable; they were wholly original and the expression of Lamb's own personality. They were the very perfection of that kind of intimate writing which wins not merely interest for itself but affection for the writer. The content of these essays was varied. A few were playful fantasies, a few were serious musings; a small number presented Lamb's satirical observation and comment upon incongruities of conduct, a larger number, his humorous observation of incident and character; and seven or eight were critical papers on books and the stage. In almost every one of these papers, even those professedly critical, Lamb's personality was warmly reflected, and by far the greater number of his essays were undisguised autobiography and reminiscence, written in the first person. They recorded ingenuously his sympathies and his prejudices, presented him and his family and his friends, disclosed his habits, and unveiled his memories. They formed almost a complete record of his life, together with an intimate and candid commentary upon it. In them appeared his tenderness and manliness, his tolerance of everything but pretence and priggishness and complacent stupidity, his intensely social nature, his liking for people with some harmless idiosyncrasy, his keen observation of the unexpected hidden amid the commonplace, his devotion to his old folios, and his half-humorous, halfpathetic attitude toward life.
Lamb's most fundamental characteristic was his humor—tender, playful, fantastic, never bitter, usually warming the reader's feeling or flashing a glimpse of a truth hitherto unconsidered. Very frequently the vehicle of this humor was a comparison startlingly unexpected, but perfectly appropriate and owing much of its happiness of effect to a suggestion of incongruity. The illustrative or figurative half of such a comparison was usually drawn from Lamb's familiar acquaintance with English literature of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century—Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists, Milton and Marvell, Burton and Browne and Fuller, and the Bible. From the same sources came the abundance of allusion that enriched every page, and the choice of word and turn of phrase that gave to his diction its archaic flavor. The result wag not the affectation and artificiality that might have been expected, but what Lamb called a "self-pleasing quaintness," a style and manner peculiarly his own and perfectly expressive of his individuality.
About two years after the appearance of Lamb's "The Londoner," Leigh Hunt began to contribute his juvenile essays to the Traveller newspaper (1804-1805), and during the next fifty years, amid much ephemeral matter, largely critical or journalistic, a very considerable body of familiar essays appeared from his pen. Though in the Reflector (1811-1812) he made a notable attempt to found a literary magazine, yet the new type of magazine, when it was actually established, had much slighter effect upon his development than upon that of any of his contemporaries; by far the larger number of his essays were written for newspapers, family miscellanies, and independent sheets patterned somewhat closely after the Tatler. In fact, his most attractive and most characteristic work appeared in periodicals of the kind last mentioned. The most important of these was the earliest, the Indicator, which was issued weekly from October 13, 1819, to March 21, 1821. Similar in character were the Companion (1828) and Leigh Hunt's London Journal (1834-1835). No approximately full collection of Hunt's essays was made before his death, in 1859, nor, indeed, has any been made since. Selections from the Indicator and the Companion were reprinted in 1834; and the Seer (1840-1841), Men, Women, and Books (1847), and Table Talk (1851) contained a good deal of matter that had previously appeared.
The influence of the earlier types was even more pervasive and persistent in Hunt's work than in Lamb's. Hunt's papers in the Traveller were in avowed imitation of the Connoisseur (1754-1756), itself an imitation of the Tatler and the Spectator. In the Reflector, which he edited, most of his own essays, as well as many from other contributors, were similar in subject and manner to those of Addison and Goldsmith. A third literary venture of his, the Round Table papers in the Examiner (1815-1817), was confessedly designed after the Tatler and the Spectator, and most of Hunt's own writing was strongly suggestive of his reading in the essays of the eighteenth century. The influence of the early models persisted in a large proportion of even his most individual and most nearly original essays, such as those written for the Indicator. His "characters," particularly, a form which he cultivated as long as he wrote, owed much both to the seventeenth-century "characters" and to the more lifelike and dramatic studies of the Tatler and its successors.
Hunt's own everyday experiences and his observation of the everyday life about him formed the staple of his essays: he wrote upon books, the stage, clothes, manners and habits, the weather, animal pets, interesting types of character, the life of the London streets, the pleasures and the discomforts of a dweller in the suburbs, the joys and the sorrows of domestic life. Books were his chief interest, and his reading largely colored his observation. His distinctive manner first showed itself in "A Day by the Fire," in the last number of the Reflector—a cheery, familiarly gossiping presentation of a book lover's enjoyment of his snug fireside. Hunt's personality as revealed in his essays, unlike Lamb's, was not such as unfailingly to win the reader's appreciative sympathy, nor was he, like Hazlitt, keenly analytical or deeply reflective; he was merely a companionable sort of person who chatted entertainingly about everything that caught his own interest. His talk was sprightly, frequently interrupted to touch some topic that had suggested itself, now colored with sentiment, now shot through with gentle or tricksy humor. Few essayists have conveyed more perfectly than Hunt the sense of their own personality.
Hazlitt first appeared in the rôle of essayist as the principal associate of Leigh Hunt in the Round Table papers published in the Examiner between January 1, 1815, and January 5, 1817. After the somewhat abrupt termination of this series Hazlitt turned his energies for a few years very largely to the preparation of lectures on English literature, in the meantime writing a few brief essays for the Edinburgh Magazine, New Series (1818). With the establishment of the London Magazine, in 1820, the period of his most abundant and characteristic work as essayist began. In the periodicals to which he had been contributing he had been cramped for room; now he had space in which to write himself out upon his chosen topics, and his papers accordingly expanded to two or three times their former length. His first essay in the London appeared in June, 1820, and he wrote regularly for this magazine until December, 1821. In February of the following year he allied himself with the revivified New Monthly Magazine, to which he was a more or less regular contributor until his death, in 1830. He occasionally wrote also for other magazines, for newspapers, and for the miscellanies then coming into popularity.
These contributions to periodicals did not exhaust Hazlitt's fertility. In 1821-1822 he published under the title Table Talk thirty-three essays, twenty-six of which had not been printed previously; and in 1826, The Plain Speaker, in which thirteen of the thirty-two essays were new. These two collections contained a great deal of his most attractive and most characteristic writing. Except in the Round Table (1817), Table Talk, and The Plain Speaker, Hazlitt did not collect and republish his essays. In 1839 this was in part done by his son in Winterslow and Essays and Sketches.
In the Round Table paper on the Tatler, Hazlitt declared Montaigne to be "a most magnanimous and undisguised egotist." In a sense—not the commonly accepted one, to be sure—the first half of this characterization might be applied to Hazlitt as well as to Montaigne; the second half, without any qualification, would be applied to him by anyone who knew him. In the earlier papers of Round Table series his individuality showed strongly, although he wrote under the restraint of the editorial and collective we; in his later papers he broke through even this thin disguise and wrote freely and openly in his own person. Very few of his essays were purely autobiographic or reminiscent; and yet he wrote the whole body of them out of himself, and into them he wrote himself completely. It would be difficult to discover a single important circumstance of his life to which he did not refer in his writing, and equally difficult to find a paper of his in which he did not exhibit clearly some phase of his many-angled personality. As a young man Hazlitt studied painting, and although he was unsuccessful as an artist, painting and the great painters remained one of his passions. He was deeply rather than widely read—in Cervantes and Boccaccio, in certain French writers from Montaigne and Rabelais to Rousseau, and in English literature from the time of Shakespeare. His personal acquaintance included most of the writers of the time, for whom and for whose works he had strong—and usually mixed—feelings of attachment or aversion. He was a dramatic critic whose enthusiasm had not become sated or dulled. He fancied himself a metaphysician, and was much given to reflection upon philosophical and psychological problems and processes, particularly upon his own ideas and emotions. This speculative and reflective habit of mind produced his somewhat cynical observation of society, in which he concerned himself much more with the springs of conduct than with speech and dress and manners, though these details did not wholly escape his animadversion. Finally, he remained throughout his life a political Radical, preserving unchanged his hatred of repression and his faith in the doctrines and ideas of the French Revolution. Curiously enough, however, he saw in Napoleon the embodiment of these principles and made him the "god of his idolatry."
Although Hazlitt was almost never wholly promiscuous and desultory, yet, except in the briefer and earlier Round Table papers, he rarely presented a carefully ordered treatment of a subject. His essays had much of the discursive character of talk—but the talk of a thinker who is always master of his subject and is never mastered by it. His manner combined a good deal of Montaigne's reflective self-curiosity with Rousseau's naked self-revelation of feeling; he lacked, however, something of the latter's hectic sentimentalism as well as the former's openmindedness. Hazlitt's style, though thoroughly individual, was unusually free from mannerisms; two particulars of it, however, were very striking. The first was his fondness for quotation, frequently remembered inexactly and almost as frequently somewhat changed to secure greater appositeness. The quotations were never paraded, and appeared as congruous and native as Hazlitt's own diction. The second was his favorite practice of beginning a paper, particularly one on a speculative or reflective theme, by some striking statement, epigrammatic or paradoxical. This was, of course, the device employed by Bacon and somewhat frequently by essayists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Hazlitt's. work showed other occasional resemblances to the "character" and to the papers in the Tatler, but the indebtedness, even in his earliest essays, was actually very slight—Hazlitt was a thoroughgoing individualist, who never willingly conformed to any convention, literary or social.
Next to Lamb, Hunt, and Hazlitt, probably John Wilson ("Christopher North") and Thomas De Quincey were most influential in the establishment of the new type of familiar essay. Wilson joined the staff of Blackwood's with the number for October, 1817, and soon became the most important contributor to that magazine. The Noctes Ambrosiance, which for the most part were written by him and by which his reputation was chiefly established, were a series of dialogues constituting a symposium upon the topics of the day, and cannot strictly be classed as familiar essays; but they possessed many of the features of the essay, and their popularity encouraged indirectly the cultivation of the type. In addition Wilson wrote for Blackwood's a number of papers after the general pattern that was being set by Lamb and Hazlitt.
De Quincey's first essay was the "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," published in the London Magazine for September and October, 1821. It commanded immediate and lasting popularity. In the succeeding thirty years De Quincey wrote for a number of magazines particularly Blackwood's and Tait's; for the former, the "Suspiria de Profundis" (1845) and "The English Mail Coach" (1849); for the latter, many articles presenting sections of his autobiography and reminiscences of his literary friends and acquaintances. Most of the essays proper, such as the "Suspiria" and the "Confessions," were largely dream phantasmagoria, the real or feigned result of De Quincey's consumption of opium. They were characterized by their extreme length and discursiveness, and in many passages by a dignity of cadence and subtlety of rhythm hardly before attempted in English prose.
Though it is as a novelist that Dickens holds his place in literary history, yet it was as an essayist that he first attracted notice. His earliest departure from mere journalism was in the Sketches by Boz, the first of which was published in the Monthly Magazine for December, 1833, and others in the Monthly and in the Evening Chronicle during the next two years. Some of these sketches, particularly portrayals of characters, were apparently written under the influence of Leigh Hunt. A quarter of a century later Dickens began a new series of essays and sketches, first collected in the Uncommercial Traveller and issued in December, 1860. To this collection additions were made in 1868 and 1869.
But the chief figure among the essayists of the mid-century was Thackeray. A number of his contributions to Punch between 1846 and 1850—the Snobs of England (1846-1847), Travels in London (1847-1848), and Mr. Brown's Letters to a Young Man about Town (1849)—presented most of the features of the familiar essay, frequently differing from the type only in the excessive heightening of burlesque or satirical tone; and The Proser (1850) was really a series of familiar essays. They were written in the character of Dr. Solomon Pacifico, an "old Fogey" of kindly heart and much experience of the world and a very close relative of the later moralist of the Roundabout Papers. It is, however, to the Roundabout Papers in the Cornhill Magazine that Thackeray owes his place in the small group of writers who have given to the familiar essay in England its charm and distinction. When the Cornhill began publication in January, 1860, Thackeray was its editor, and he continued in this position until after the number for March, 1862. Then ill health and the irritating urgency of his editorial duties caused his resignation, though he remained a contributor to the magazine until his death, December 24, 1863. The first of the Roundabout Papers appeared in the initial number of the Cornhill, the last in the issue for November, 1863. The total number of essays included in the series is thirty-four, though six of them did not appear under this heading when they were first published in the Cornhill.
The various single Roundabout Papers rambled in such a pleasantly discursive fashion that they do not readily submit to any definite classification based on the subjects treated. A few were dream phantasmagoria; several were inspired by events or situations of contemporaneous interest; a goodly number were largely autobiographical or reminiscential, concerned particularly with Thackeray's boyhood, with his reading, and with his editorial trials and triumphs; but by far the largest part of the whole body consisted of reflections—humorous, satirical, sympathetic—based upon the writer's observation of human life and conduct and character. Indeed, in nearly every essay, whatever the professed subject, there were almost sure to be shrewd thrusts at sham and disingenuousness, or whole-hearted attacks upon baseness and meanness hidden behind respectability, or the sympathetic consideration of human weakness, or grateful appreciation of such simple virtues as manly strength and honor and womanly purity and charity. In Thackeray's consideration of the human comedy, his point of view was the same as in his novels, particularly the later ones—that of a member of the upper ranks of society, a man of breeding and position and knowledge of the world, whose experience had made him thoroughly cognizant of human frailty but had also mellowed him to a kindly tolerance. The audience to whom he especially directed himself were men of his own station and the members of their families; his sympathy embraced servants and workhouse inmates, but his attitude toward them was that of the considerate master and the genuinely charitable gentleman.
In the essayist's point of view, in the audience particularly addressed, and in the generally prevalent tone of social satire the Roundabout Papers were strongly suggestive of the eighteenth century. A further resemblance in detail appeared in the frequent use of illustrative characters with descriptive or suggestive names. But the differences were even more noteworthy than the resemblances. Unlike the eighteenth-century essayists Thackeray as a social satirist was concerned not with externals of taste and dress and manners, but with character and its expression in conduct. Further, in their greater length, in their discursiveness, and in their intimate revelations of personality, his essays were closely related to those of Montaigne and Lamb and Hazlitt. Montaigne was Thackeray's "bedtime book."
The Roundabout Papers owed almost as much of their attractiveness to their style as to the personality of the writer. They possessed the greatest charm of familiar writing—conversational ease that does not lack vigor or suppleness and still does not degenerate into vulgarity.
Dr. John Brown, an active physician of Edinburgh and a valued friend of Thackeray's, occupies a small but significant position as essayist, chiefly by reason of his sketches of dog life and character. "Rab and his Friends," the best known of his works, was as much story as essay and claimed interest as much for its human figures as for its canine hero; but certain other very attractive papers were simply studies of the personality of dog companions by one who loved and understood them. Dr. Brown's essays also included some delightfully fresh out-of-door pieces, such as "Minchmoor" and "The Enterkin" which in many respects anticipated the travel essays of Stevenson. His writings, of which only a part are properly familiar essays, were first collected in the three volumes of Hora Subseciva, published in 1858, 1861, and 1882, respectively.
Of the later nineteenth-century essayists Robert Louis Stevenson a fellow townsman of Dr. Brown's, was the most conspicuous—notable for the character of his own work and for the stimulus he gave both to the writing and to the reading of essays. Stevenson first appeared in print in a half-dozen papers written for the Edinburgh University Magazine (January-April, 1871). After the demise of this publication he practiced his art assiduously, but for some two and a half years he published nothing. Then, in December, 1873, an article of his entitled "Roads," which had been rejected by the Saturday Review, appeared in the Portfolio. In May, 1874, he contributed "Ordered South" to Macmillan's Magazine, and in the same year, through the discernment of Mr. Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill, his work was admitted to the pages of that magazine. From 1876 through 1882 the Cornhill was by far his most important medium of publication; after the latter year his writings appeared more at large. The most important body of essays of his later life was written for Scribner's Magazine, one paper appearing each month throughout 1888. In the summer of that year Stevenson sailed on his first voyage to the South Seas. Thereafter his voyages, the setting up of his establishment in Samoa and his interest in Samoan public affairs, letter writing, and absorption in fiction consumed his energies, and he published no essays.
Several small volumes of Stevenson's essays were collected and published before his death in 1894. The earliest of these, Virginibus Puerisque (1881), contained fourteen papers; Memories and Portraits (1887), sixteen; and Across the Plains (1892), twelve. All but three or four of the essays contained in these volumes had been printed previously in various periodicals. Even before Virginibus Puerisque two other slender volumes had appeared: An Inland Voyage (1878)—Stevenson's first book—and Travels with a Donkey (1879). The titles suggest narratives, but these little books were really series of travel essays, almost any one of which could be enjoyed separately, though the papers composing each volume were bound together by a slender thread of narrative. Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), despite its title, can hardly be considered a collection of familiar essays; it is rather a group of critical articles. For some years preceding Stevenson's death his essays were more widely read than were those of any one of his contemporaries; nevertheless, no full collection of them was issued before the publication of the first complete edition of his works in 1895.
Stevenson's essays presented chiefly four kinds of material: travel impressions, autobiography and reminiscence, moral and philosophical ideas, and a writer's interest in his craft. Probably Stevenson's most characteristic work was his development of the travel essay, the cultivation of this particular variety being the natural consequence of the nomadic habits which his search for health and his innate fondness for wandering confirmed in him. In his hands the travel sketch became not merely a narrative of travel or a description of places visited and objects and persons observed; it was both narrative and description combined with recollections, comments, reflections, and all interpenetrated by his personality.
The title Memories and Portraits indicates the character of a considerable number of Stevenson's essays other than those included in the volume to which it was affixed. The portraits ranged from those of beggars, the family gardener, and an old shepherd, to the friends of Stevenson's youth and the members of his own family. The memories were largely of his childhood and young manhood—and naturally so, as he had scarcely reached middle age when his last essay was written. The most highly individual papers of this kind were those in which Stevenson recalled his very early sensations and impressions, and interpreted the actions and emotions of childhood in very much the same sympathetic spirit as in his Child's Garden of Verse.
The essays in which were embodied Stevenson's ethical and philosophical ideas varied in content from an appreciation of wisely spent idleness or a study of the comic incongruities incident upon falling in love, to a resolute, almost stoical facing of man's ultimate fate. They manifested his conviction that life is well worth the living and that this world is a very good place in which to live it, his admiration for the active and unafraid, and his remoteness from that spirit which is actuated to well-doing merely by the hope of bread-and-butter success in this world or by a promised reward of immortality in another. Almost everywhere in Stevenson's essays the moralist appeared; not as the righteous Pharisee or the self-constituted reformer of society, but as an observer and thinker thoroughly human and richly endowed with a sense of humor.
Besides the distinctly critical articles a number of Stevenson's essays showed his interest in the craft of letters. These exhibited his contempt for slovenly and dishonest writing, and insisted upon the blindness of the note-taking realists who transcribe the bare apparent facts and ignore the poetry and romance of life. They also recounted his own efforts to learn to write and his unwearied pursuit of style. For no writer of English has been more consciously a stylist, or has considered more nicely the effects he aimed to produce. In the choice of word and phrase, as in the attitude toward his subject, he carried almost to the extreme what Mr. Leslie Stephen has characterized as a "hatred for the commonplace formula." His style was fluid, always in process of change, but there was a fairly consistent difference between that of his earlier and of his later essays. The earlier papers, those in the Virginibus Puerisque collection, for example, were the more mannered—Stevenson himself declared that they were written in a "neat, brisk little style"; the later, including most of the essays collected in Across the Plains, were less affected, less jaunty. While they were being written and afterwards, Stevenson was practicing what he called a "bald" style. He has named the models whom he chose to follow. Significantly enough, the eighteenth-century essayists are not included in the list; and equally significant is a statement of his that he "could never read a word" of Addison. But of Montaigne and of Hazlitt—who of all the English essayists most resembles Montaigne—he was an eager and admiring student. And his relationship to these two was much closer than that of style in any narrowly restricted sense of the term.
With Stevenson the tale of the greater essayists of the nineteenth century is ended, and thus far in the twentieth century no one has appeared to match him in charm and distinction. As, moreover, no really important modification of the character of the familiar essay has occurred since his death, this sketch of the development of the type may well be concluded with the account of his work. But Stevenson is by no means the last of the English essayists; today Chesterton and Benson and Galsworthy are notable names. And despite the popularity of the short story, which during the last twenty-five years has come more and more to occupy the magazines, the essay holds its place secure, and promises to continue to give pleasant half hours to the thoughtful and unhurried reader.
SOURCE: "The Light Essay," in The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918, edited by Olaf Hansen, Urizen Books, 1977, pp. 506-10.
[Bourne is widely considered one of the twentieth century's most astute and visionary critics of American life and letters. His writings established him as a leader of the youth movement that swept across American college campuses in the decade preceding World War I and which transformed New York's Greenwich Village into a mecca for modern artists and avant-garde intellectuals. In the following excerpt from a review originally published in the Dial in 1918, Bourne writes bemusedly of the "light essayists" of the recent past, emphasizing that the familiar essay is a key forum for middle-class rumination.]
Perhaps it is hardly fair to relegate the light essay to the less creative forms of literature, to see it as journalism dressed up, as it were, for a literary party. Yet when you have begun to identify "creative" writing with novels, verse, and drama you find yourself belittling the essay as scarcely more than a subterfuge, an illegitimate method of securing the literary sensation without doing the genuine literary work. You suspect that the light essayist is a person who was born without the narrative style and the poetic gift, who has not had enough adventures or does not understand life well enough to write stories, and lacks the divine fire for verse. In spite of the august examples of the essay which our professors slowly brought us to admire, most of us would rather be a Maxim Gorky than a Lamb, or have written The Brook Kerith than the Sketchbook of Washington Irving. American writers especially seem to be compensating for their lack of novelistic talent by a striking artistic capacity for the light essay. They do not, like the protean Mr. Chesterton, simply toss it in as one of the many things they can do. They found whole literary careers on it. But you always feel something lacking, even in the piquant petulance of Miss Repplier, the sly charm of Dr. Crothers, the urbanity of Mr. Sedgwick, and even the inexhaustibly witty fooling of Simeon Strunsky. Just the last vivifying touch is absent. You feel that it is proper that most of these writers are middle-aged, and most of their readers too.
The youthful light essayist is usually a painful phenomenon. He is apt to be ostentatiously bright. The middleaged mind is legitimately mellow, and its selfconsciousness is rather pleasant. We know that it has ruminated over and is aware of a lot of things that happened before we were born. But vivid green shoots can't be mellow. The young essayist is afraid you will think he is unsophisticated, while the middle-aged doesn't much care if you do. And youth's idea of being whimsical is usually to nose about among the irrelevant, and be very bold with the trivial. The youthful essayist usually develops into the professional anecdotalist, with an active mind that is harnessed up to no real thinking but can only stream off from itself a futile current of amusing incident.
When Mr. Robert Cortes Holliday, therefore, in his Walking-Stick Papers, describes himself as a "pale, spectacled, middle-aged young man" you are prepossessed in his favor. A middle-aged young man ought to write pretty good light essays. He ought to be mellow without giving you the impression that life has no more adventures, and he ought to be as diverting as his youth and naiveté will let him. The first requirement of the light essay is that it should amuse you. To be amused is to experience one of the really great pieces of good fortune in life. The trouble with most pretended amusement is the...
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Arthur C. Benson
SOURCE: "On Essays at Large," in The Living Age, Vol. XLVI, No. 3423, February 12, 1910, pp. 408-15.
[Benson was an English educator and author. A prolific poet, novelist, and biographer, he is best known as an essayist. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the Cormhill Magazine, Benson approaches a definition of the essay and touches upon the accomplishment of several key writers of the familiar essay, including Lamb, Thackeray, and Stevenson.]
There is no word which it seems harder to define than the word Essay; it seems as difficult to describe as the quality of justice in Plato's...
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SOURCE: "On Familiar Style," in Romantic Prose of the Early Nineteenth Century, edited by Carl H. Grabo, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927, pp. 3-12.
[Hazlitt was one of the leading essayists of the early nineteenth century. Influenced by the concise social commentary of Joseph Addison's Spectator essays and by the personal tone of Michel de Montaigne's essays, Hazlitt developed what became known as the familiar essay. Characterized by conversational diction and personal opinion on topics ranging from English poets to washerwomen, his familiar style is best represented by the essays in The Round Table (1817), Table-Talk (1821-22),...
(The entire section is 17979 words.)
SOURCE: "On the Writing of Essays," in A Book of Essays, edited by Blanche Colton Williams, D. C. Heath and Company, 1931, pp. 243-61.
[Smith was a respected nineteenth-century Scottish poet and familiar essayist. In the following excerpt from an essay included in his Dreamthorpe: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863), he writes from a rustic retreat of the familiar essayist's subject matter and wide-ranging habit of mind.]
Giddy people may think the life I lead here staid and humdrum, but they are mistaken. It is true, I hear no concerts, save those in which the thrushes are performers in the spring mornings. I...
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SOURCE: "III" and "IV," in The Essay, Martin Secker, 1915, pp. 36-47, 48-63.
[In the following excerpt, Williams discusses the accomplishment of the major nineteenth-century English essayists and posits the defining characteristics of the true essayist.]
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, by some miracle that has been variously explained, the civilized world, which had been modern before, suddenly became modern again after some eighty years of being old-fashioned. There is no need to recall the astounding wonders of that time—the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the mortal convulsions of Europe, the Romantic...
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SOURCE: "The Passing of the Essay," in In the Dozy Hours, and Other Papers, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894, pp. 226-35.
[Repplier was an American essayist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A prolific writer, she published thirteen volumes of familiar essays. In the following work, Repplier claims that reports of the familiar essay's death are exaggerated.]
It is the curious custom of modern men of letters to talk to the world a great deal about their work; to explain its conditions, to uphold its value, to protest against adverse criticism, and to interpret the needs and aspirations of mankind through...
(The entire section is 21182 words.)
Benson, Arthur Christopher. "The Art of the Essayist." In Contemporary Essays, edited by Odell Shepard, pp. 14-25. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Discursive reflections on the essayist's role, concluding that "He [the essayist] works … on what is called the analytic method, observing, recording, interpreting, just as things strike him, and letting his fancy play over their beauty and significance; the end of it all being this: that he is deeply concerned with the charm and quality of things, and desires to put it all in the clearest and gentlest light, so that at least he may make others love life a little better, and prepare them for its infinite variety and alike for its joyful...
(The entire section is 587 words.)