The Modern Essay Overview


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary E. Rucker

SOURCE: "The Literary Essay and the Modern Temper," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 317-35.

[In the following essay, Rucker outlines the evolution of the modern essay.]

Although a generic definition is conspicuously absent in the large body of periodical literature devoted to the essay between 1880 and 1950, many American and British journalists and essayists debated its viability and its capacity to express the modern sensibility. The issue underlying the debate was, ultimately, the function of art in an era of dramatic social change. The seemingly blithe humanism that allowed the essay to reach its apogee in the early nineteenth century was rapidly undermined by the deterministic sciences and by the colossal growth of technology and industry. Each of these developments tended either to deny or to undercut the validity of spiritual realities and the imaginative constructs predicated upon them. Not idealism but rather pragmatism and empiricism, systems of thought that focus upon the immediate, progressive, and existentially vital, became the focal point of politics, education, philosophy, and eventually the fine arts.

Granted that the bulk of the criticism of the essay was written by non-academicians whose concepts of the subject matter and style of the form were varied, this criticism nevertheless reveals popular opinion, which may or may not be sanctioned by literary historians. It was of crucial importance in that it reflected the taste of that audience to which the weeklies and monthlies were addressed. Because of its brevity, the essay has relied upon the periodical press, which, in meeting the demands of its readers, finally imposed upon the genre a content and method appropriate to the social order. Traditionally, the familiar essayist presented his reflections upon commonplace incidents and objects and appealed to the emotions of his readers, who sought not intellectual food but rather lyricism. If he assumed the role of the philosopher, he pretended to be no more than the arm-chair philosopher whose loose cogitations upon human destiny were primarily to entertain. The essay has been a form for a consideration of nonmomentous matters, and its existence presupposed in society a well-being that allowed for the detached observer and for the appreciation of often eccentric individuality. With the emergence of the deterministic sciences and the industrial and technological developments of the past century, however, the aloof yet familiar stance of the essayist began to smack of gentility; his art was judged neither organically related to nor pragmatically functional in that society of which it was a part. Consequently, during the last decades of the preceding century, the traditional essay began either to evolve into or to be replaced by the article, which emphasizes the polemic. By the 1930s, both editors and a majority of readers won their demand for a periodical literature addressed to the biological and existential needs of man. This development did not, of course, result in the immediate extinction of the essay, which has had its defenders and practitioners even during the most hectic decades of this century. And the new journalism of, for example, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe is to a degree a resurgence of the personalism that characterizes the essay. In general, however, the cultural context of the last hundred years or so has been such that the delicate art of the familiar essay has been judged mere escapism.

The desired relation between art and the social order resulting from an emphasis upon the empirical and the pragmatic was formulated by José Ortega y Gasset and George Santayana, both of whom criticized what they perceived to be a split between the intellectual and the existential life of American and European cultures. In The Modern Theme Ortega argued that the values set up by culture are never fulfilled under existential conditions because they bear no relation to the biological and historical needs of man. As Ortega saw it, "The 'Good, the Beautiful and the True' only achieve estimable importance in the service of culture. The doctrine of culture is a kind of Christianity without God. The attributes of the latter sovereign reality—Goodness, Truth and Beauty—have been amputated or dismantled from the divine person, and once they were separated became deified. Science, Law, Morality, Art, etc., are activities… which the culturist only appreciates in so far as they have been antecedently disintegrated from the integral process of vitality which creates and sustains them." Ortega opted for the vital and the existential, and this preference accounts for his essentially positive attitude toward the younger generation of the 1920s who rejected not only culturalism but also the two inherited methods of dealing with the antinomy between life and culture: relativism and rationalism. Not willing to sacrifice either truth or life, one of which is demanded by either system, the younger generation chose perspectivity, which finds truth from the point of view of the observer and thus makes truth and culture depend from life. Hence the new artists debunked art, declaring it to be a thing of no transcendent value. Whereas the culturist deemed art of value because it is a copy either of lived realities or of realities humanized by the artist's temperament and because it deals with human destinies, the new artist believed that art is a mere image, a transparency devoid of human or real substance and hence is not a vehicle for the redemption and salvation of man. Art is art only insofar as it dehumanizes, derealizes reality; and to the extent that the dehumanization of art served spontaneous man, it was made subservient to the existential.

Very similar to Ortega's vitalism is Santayana's naturalism. Certainly Santayana's belief in the dependence of essence and spirit on matter underlies his charge against American culture: that its intellectual life has no direct relation to its practical life. In his famous "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," Santayana asserted that

America is …a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind—in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions—it is the hereditary spirit that still prevails.… The truth is that onehalf of the American mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained … slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the back-water, while, alongside, in invention and industry and social organisation the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids.

This split is symbolized by the colonial mansion and the sky-scraper. "The American Will," Santayana wrote, "inhabits the sky-scraper; the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion. The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition."

Both Ortega and Santayana argued for an organic relation between imaginative constructs and social existence. So did those critics who contended that the familiar essay was warped by gentility. They held that neither its conventional subject matter nor its technique was organically related to society and that, given the crucial issues that readers confronted in their practical lives, the form was trivial. The opponents agreed that the modern sensibility made inevitable the rejection of a genre incompatible with its existential needs. Significantly, other critics defended the genre because it was not geared to the immediate and practical. Believing in an essentially humanistic function of literature, they maintained that because the essay could nourish the soul, which they saw threatened by many aspects of modern history, it should be fostered even though its vitality did not come from the social order.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a society in which the essay flourishes is a relatively homogenous system of values providing a sense of community to which the essayist may appeal whether he is castigating the town or reflecting upon old china. Although commentators on American society both deny and affirm its having fostered a community such as that of England in the early nineteenth century, it is generally agreed that the culture of both countries was fragmented by industrial and technological developments. Among the earliest commentators on the implications of this fragmentation for the essay was an anonymous writer in the Cornhill Magazine for September 1881. He noted that the England of Addison, Steele, and Lamb offered both a homogenous culture upon which their art was predicated and a specific means of experiencing community: the club. In the 1880s, however, the club had deteriorated to a mere crowd of strangers, and the larger social order was no more than "a shifting caravanserai, a vague aggregate of human beings, from which all traces of organic unity [had] disappeared." The closest approximation to the club was the clique, but its emphasis on the cosmopolitan and on uniformity proved to be destructive of the individuality necessary to the essay. American critics too complained of the absence of community. Fragmentation, they suggested, was an inevitable consequence of the acquisitiveness and aggressiveness demanded by the frontier. Although America necessarily promoted the individualism upon which the essayist's art was built, it also fostered action at the expense of reflection and independence at the expense of community. The factors that destroyed community in England thus further prohibited in America not only the emergence of community but also, as a critic noted in the Saturday Review of Literature for 23 August 1930, the development of the contemplative mind and the meditative temperament necessary to an appreciation of the familiar essay.

The no-nonsense pragmatism of American culture did not, however, preclude the emergence of an essay believed to be organic to that culture. There were, of course, writers such as C. S. Brooks and Richard Le Galliene who sought to perpetuate the Lambian essay. But the form that critics such as Henry S. Canby judged indigenous was the humorous essay of the 1920s. The Lambian essay, Canby argued, was antithetical to the frankness and pragmatism which define the American, and writers who consciously strived to be "literary" by engaging in "pretty writing about trivial things—neighbors' back yards, books I have read, the idiosyncrasies of cats, humors of the streets—the sort of dilettantish comment that nations writing of a more settled, richer civilization can do well" were out of the mainstream of their society. Americans, Canby contended, are temperamentally prone to exaggerated humor and are inspired by the follies of the crowd rather than by the whimsical aspects of cultured leisure. While many other critics have protested this levelling tendency of democracy, Canby seemed to accept it and used the literature that it had produced as a measure of the essay. The dominant characteristics of this literature are first "a hard-hitting statement, straight out of intense feeling or labored thought," as one finds in Emerson, and second, the "easy-going comment on life, often slangy and colloquial and frequently so undignified as not to seem literature," as one finds in humorists such as Twain and Billings. Exaggerated humor and directness in dealing with the follies of the crowd were, for Canby, the foundations of the essay that emerged in the 1920s, when humorists were deepening their casual perceptions, expanding the pithy sentence into developed thought, and expressing their perceptions more artistically.

Insofar as Canby and others conceived of the essay in terms of the social order, they avoided the antinomy between life and art of which Ortega and Santayana spoke and could declare the form viable despite the forces that threatened its existence. If the absence of community and the pace of life in an industrial society caused some critics to lament the desuetude of the essay while others woefully noted the ways in which it had been transformed, those who accepted literary evolution defended both the viability of the genre and its capacity to express the modern sensibility. In their defense, however, critics such as Florence Finch Kelley too often abandoned all standards to praise any essay that smacked of democracy or Americanism. In the Bookman of February 1916 she welcomed the democratization of the Lambian essay and offered Frank Crane's Just Human, the individual pieces of which are characterized by the brevity, pith and plainness consonant with democracy, as the apogee of the American essay. She bestowed upon the author questionable praise for skirting literary graces and for platitudinously discussing the obvious. Kelly's values are implicit in her assertion that although Crane "is prone to skip rapidly along the surface of his subject and [although] his observation is often inaccurate and his reasoning faulty," his essays are praiseworthy in that they reveal his fundamental and comprehensive democratic feeling. In the August 1920 issue of the same journal Berton Braley proffered a less irresponsible comment on the changes in the essay which, in his opinion, had ceased to be a "precious, precious thing," a "delicately exclusive snob which can endure association only with a strictly selected number of other snobs.…" In addressing the masses, he contended, the American essayist is closer to Dugan in his back lot than to Fauntleroy.

The question which these critics indirectly raise is crucial but not readily answered: to what extent may a particular genre evolve before it becomes another genre? Or, to put it another way, just how far may the traditional essay as it was shaped by Montaigne adapt to a dynamic social order without becoming the polemic article? The earlier mentioned writer in the Cornhill at one point declared the essay a lost art and at another stated that it had undergone radical changes toward the article. In a 1902 Harper's "Editor's Study" William Dean Howells noted the changes in the genre effected by the modern temper and denied an evolutionary relationship between the essay and the article:

… the moment came when the essay began to confuse itself with the article, and to assume an obligation of constancy to premises and conclusions, with the effect of so depraving the general taste that the article is now desired more and more, and the essay less and less. It is doubtful, the corruption has gone so far, whether there is enough of the lyrical sense left in the reader to appreciate the right essay; whether the right essay would now be suffered; whether if any writer indulged its wilding nature, he would not be suspected of an inability to cultivate the growths that perceptibly nourish, not to say fatten, the intellect.

But whether the article is a distinct genre or merely a development of the essay, the fact is that the traditional essay failed to express the modern sensibility and to meet the needs of its would-be readers. An unsigned article in the issue of Saturday Review for 23 July 1932 presents the case succinctly: twentieth-century man not only moves too fast but also thinks too little; he is "too impatient of the speculative, and too avid of accomplishment to tolerate the ruminative discursiveness of the easy chair philosopher." If this critic and Howells suggested that the failure of the form was due to a corruption of society, others believed that it was due to an inherent weakness in the form. G. K. Chesterton, for instance, compared the essay to the thesis and warned that despite the tendency of the modern mind to think in terms of the essay, that is, to make no attempt to come to conclusions, the essay had strayed too far from the structured thesis. Its lack of direction and its impressionism that often conceal sophistry and illogicality were perilous because of the essayist's relation to the masses: "the wandering thinkers have become our substitute for preaching friars. And whether our system is to be materialist or moralist, or sceptical or transcendental, we need more of a system than that [of the wandering essayist]. After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or to go home."

The modern temper was such that the well-ordered polemical article willy-nilly displaced the essay as a form of expression. Critical reaction to this change that was noticeable as early as the 1880s was varied. Most essayists, of course, defended the traditional form by indicating its humanitarian and aesthetically utilitarian values, while those journalists who tended to embrace the immediate and the pragmatically utilitarian welcomed the factual, realistic article and denounced the essay because of its gentility. The journalists won the day in part because of the clamor of the 1930s and 1940s and the very real need of their readers for direction in a topsy-turvy world. The conventional subject matter and method of the essay may have been able to nourish one's soul, yet there was the more pressing problem of nourishment for the body, and journals were expected to offer their audience direction in meeting their biological and other existential needs.

Agnes Repplier was among the traditional essayists who defended their art against the changes imposed by the social order. In the 1890s she naively attacked the factualism of the current journals with the bland assertion that the public craved not facts but rather "the maddest and wildest impossibilities" of romance. And, as if morally to justify this craving for romance which the essay could satisfy and to prevent charges of escapism, she asserted that the traditional subject matter of the form...

(The entire section is 7579 words.)