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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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 disguises, just as the French aristocrats disguised themselves to escape the Reign of Terror. The essay may appear as a magazine article, buttressed with quotations from authoritative people such as Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who can usually be relied upon to have said something that is applicable to just about anything. The essay appears as a newspaper column, although the author generally adopts a humorous tone to show he knows that he is merely a poor journalist who gets to work at home. Most frequently the essay appears under the guise of a book review, using some other hapless author’s creation as a springboard to dive into the uncharted seas of the reviewer’s own mind.

In fact, more than half of the essays in Vidal’s essay collection originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, a prestigious periodical whose contributors have made a fine art of subordinating the ostensible subject of the review to their own purposes. Many of Vidal’s essays could be used as models for a piece on “How to Write a Review for The New York Review of Books,” along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” The primary rule for authors in The New York Review of Books would seem to be: Keep the title of the work you are covering and the name of the author in the distant background. Ideally, they should be mentioned in passing, in parentheses or in a footnote. A companion rule would be that it is perfectly all right to help oneself to enormous chunks of information out of the book under review so long as one tosses them out offhandedly as if they had just come to mind.

Vidal quotes himself far more than he quotes anyone else. He is his own expert authority. This practice, however, is not to be censured in a modern essayist; if Vidal were less of an egotist he might not be an essayist at all, and he would be missed. He is an interesting writer, although it is hard to remember much of what he says. He is not for the ages but for our time. He appears almost too frequently on television, and this electronic medium, which goes on and off with the touch of a button and rarely contains anything of great significance, seems made to order for a personality such as Vidal’s. His gossipy nature has made him a favorite with the American public, who are looking not for intellectual stimulation but for recreation and amusement. Although intelligent, articulate, and always original, Vidal seems, like Charles Swann and the rest of the Guermanteses in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), to prefer to discuss the ephemeral and the superficial, perhaps because he considers such a preference a sign of good breeding.

Vidal affects the insufferable manner of an aristocrat. His favorite put-down is the upper-class sneer. Here is an example from an essay published in The New York Review of Books in...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)