At Home (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
The essay as a literary form was introduced in the sixteenth century by the French aristocrat Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. He used the word essai (an attempt) to describe the essential nature of his loosely structured pieces: as Gore Vidal expresses it, “an attempt to order one’s impressions and reflections on a given subject.” Over the centuries the essay has had many distinguished practitioners in Europe and the United States. Names such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and E. B. White immediately come to mind. In the late twentieth century, however, the essay, like its kissing cousin the short story, has fallen on hard times. The essay’s problem is contained in its definition: The modern reader wants hard facts from experts and wants them quickly; he has little patience with the uncredentialed layman who is merely attempting to order his impressions and reflections or attempting to do anything else. Why waste time on somebody’s attempt to arrive at the truth when there is so much documented, quantified, and electronically retrievable information going begging? The modern reader is like the man who told the lifeguard, “Don’t give my wife artificial respiration! I want her to have the real thing.”
In order to survive at all, the once-aristocratic essay has had to adopt various...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Booklist. LXXXV, November 15,1988, p. 533.
Interview. XVIII, December, 1988, p. 141.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, October 15, 1988, p. 1520.
Library Journal. CXIII, November 15, 1988, p. 75.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 8, 1989, p. 4.
The New York Times. CXXXVIII, November 14,1988, p. C16.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 30, 1988, p. 53.
Time. CXXXII, November 21,1988, p. 40.
The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, November 20,1988, p. 3.
(The entire section is 50 words.)