What ever happened to the essay, and where do we turn today to discover the gifted essayist? While it is true to say that the essay is alive and well in any number of venues, some print and others online, it is also true that our new digital universe is, at present, shaping the very nature of this elusive mode of expression called “the essay.” Although it may be too early in this new, emerging era of literacy to say precisely how the form is changing, most intelligent readers sense that something is going on. And they may be alarmed by what they are seeing.
Indeed, what is an essay? According to our contemporary arbiter of meaning (Wikipedia), essays are “generally scholarly pieces of writing giving the author’s own argument, but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of an article, a pamphlet and a short story.” Essays overlap with short stories—really? Not so much. Generally scholarly—really? I would argue the opposite: the best essays are decidedly unscholarly, yet manifestly intelligent and beautifully written. Does an essay give an author’s argument? Well, two thoughts: often, the best essays simply ask good questions without providing clear answers; and second: many essays provide multiple, conflicting answers, and thus arguments, to these questions. At least the wiki-folk got one part correct: “the definition is vague.”
Great essays, and their composers, are like great athletic performances: I don’t have a clue how an athlete pulls it off, but then again I know excellence and beauty when I see it. Some students assure me that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but I like to assure them right back that beholders need some training. I assume that all prolific readers can make a list of their favorite essayists, even if they are unable to “define” precisely what it is about the writerly performances that they find most compelling. George Orwell, for instance: how easily he disrupts our expectations, as in “Politics and the English Language,” where he shows us how bad political argument often consists precisely of the concealment of true purpose. Or Annie Dillard: how gracefully she broaches issues of Providence and theodicy, as she does in her volume Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by sketching briefly a frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug. Or Mark Twain: his account of lynching is still devastating, especially as an argument against foreign missions in favor of more focus on “saving” America (and in particular his home state of Missouri) in an essay that remained unpublished during his lifetime called “The United States of Lyncherdom.” Or Henry Thoreau: how I aspire to reconnect to my own “wildness,” after reading his brilliant account of “Walking”; it literally redefines the act, and can make a reader want to get up right now and start walking due west. Or Susan Sontag’s brief, hypnotic performance in “Against Interpretation”: an important 1960s document which I love to assign to my upper-level students because it is provocatively composed, seriously flawed, and thus deeply unsettling for the uninitiated. (Oddly, I still assign it, even though I have major disagreements with her conclusions.)
I could probably go through each of these creative compositions, outline the arguments, and analyze the style and content (if there even is “content,” as Sontag might intervene here). Somehow, though, like when I watch an Olympian delivering the bravura performance of a lifetime or a master delivering a fine piece of music, I often prefer simply to watch and listen. One mark of a good essayist is that you can read the sentences out loud; to yourself. And every great essay sounds pretty good out loud.
All of this is by way of introduction to what I consider to be an outstanding new volume of essays representing many years of publication by the long-time editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein. At the heart of this wonderful collection is an all-important meditation on the nature and purpose of what he calls the “personal essay.” We might begin by considering some of the wisdom gained over decades of sifting through hundreds of submissions to one of America’s great venues for the art form called the essay. In fact, an important element of my review here is to suggest that, not only does Epstein give us a quirky and highly enjoyable account of the personal essay, but he also illustrates the form elsewhere in the volume, at a very high level of achievement.
Above all, Epstein’s writing shares something crucial with the similar achievements by the likes of Orwell, Dillard, Twain, Thoreau, and Sontag. The personal essay reveals much treasure about the person writing; it rings with autobiographical music. He writes,
Whatever the ostensible subject of a personal essay, at bottom the true subject is the author of the essay. In all serious writing, no matter how strenuous the attempt to attain objectivity, the author leaves his or her fingerprints. But in the personal essay, all claims to objectivity are dropped at the outset, all masks removed, and the essayist proceeds with shameless subjectivity. This direct presentation of the self, when it comes off, gives the personal essay both its charm and its intimacy. (383)
Here we have its essence, according to Epstein: a great personal essay, he argues, is secretly about its author. Thus do we come away as we might from a riveting conversation with a friend at a coffee shop or pub. And thus I feel when reading just about any of these warm essays that I am encountering their author. As Walt Whitman once wrote of Leaves of Grass: “this is no book, / who touches this, touches a man.”
But there is so much more insight in Epstein’s essay about the personal essay. Consider some of these suggestive passages: “I have called the personal essay ‘a happy accident,’ and invoked the word happy because it is free, the freest form in all of literature. A form that is itself intrinsically formless, the personal essay is able to take off on any tack it wishes, building its own structure as it moves along, rebuilding and remaking itself—and its author—each time out” (377). Here Epstein concedes the impossibility of constraint for this form. As for the voice he is aiming to create: “The personal essay has this single quality of difference from fiction: it is bounded—some might say grounded—by reality. There are no unreliable narrators in personal essays; in a personal essay an unreliable narrator is just another name for a bad writer. We believe—we have to believe—what the writer tells us, though we are of course at liberty not to be persuaded by the way he tells it. We believe, too, in the facts in his essay as facts that have an existence in reality...” (380). Thus do we read, and feel, a certain authenticity and truthfulness: we trust the author’s vision. And we enjoy going along for the ride, with a good writer: “The personal essay is, in my experience, a form of discovery. What one discovers in writing such essays is where one stands on complex issues, problems, questions, subjects. In writing the essay, one tests one’s feelings, instincts, and thoughts in the crucible of composition” (381). This curiosity cannot be overstated. Indeed, my most well-worn advice for student writers is just that: “get curious about something.” Epstein: “‘My idea of a writer,’ Susan Sontag has written, is ‘someone who is interested in everything,’ and it is true that the field of subjects available to the essayist is as wide as life itself” (383).
This volume showcases Epstein’s wide and deep curiosity. The book’s title, A Literary Education, reveals his two major themes: the “literary,” and the nature of an “education.” Generally, this book will appeal most to readers who are immersed in literary culture and in the higher education industry. Epstein has much experience with both, having taught at Northwestern University for many years. He knows English departments inside and out, for better or worse (mostly worse, about which more below, so fasten your seatbelts). When reading through these sections, I often discovered Epstein putting into words some of my own thoughts and considerations, ones that I had not yet even managed to express in language—an exhilarating experience, and in my experience one of the hallmarks of the great essayists. Our thoughts can return to us, as Emerson once put it, in “alienated majesty.” Or as Epstein writes: “Two of the chief ways an essayist can prove interesting are, first, by telling readers things they already know in their hearts but have never been able to formulate for themselves; and, second, by telling them things they do not know and perhaps have never even imagined” (385). While it is true that much of this book consists of many things I did not know already, I would say that much of the delight I discovered here was in those forceful and deeply-felt expressions of things I “already knew in my heart.”
This latter phenomenon, I am happy to say, is easily illustrated with numerous poignant and often hilarious examples. His fine, at times wicked humor is often in the context of very serious and challenging topics. For instance, in a witty yet wise essay on what he calls “The Kindergarchy,” Epstein analyzes the strong tendencies toward entitlement among today’s college students. He wisecracks that he often would like to write on their paper assignments, “D-, Too much love in the home” (132). But is it fully a wisecrack? Underneath the laughter, Epstein disparages the churlish complaints of some students against his harsh criticisms of their work. He also resents the highly therapeutic elements of child rearing these days: “I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement” (132). The reader may be shocked by such unqualified assertions, but they are pure Epstein, and they will ring both true and false for a lot of teachers in today’s university, including this one. Can there be “too much love in the home”? Are students deceived about their own inherent “significance”? Yes and no: but the great value of an essay like this is that it can begin to generate a useful and potentially searching reevaluation of how we think about our teaching, our students, and even our own child-rearing habits.
Another example comes in the form of an amazingly frank analysis of my institutional home for the past two decades: the humanities, especially that space reserved for some professors who like to imagine that they are perhaps the most humane of all, the English Department. Epstein signals his amusement—and his horror—in the title of one of the best chapters: “The Academic Zoo: Theory—in Practice.” One absolutely spot-on anecdote is his description of that rite of passage that many of us know so well: the lecture by the Famous Theorist that turns out to be both incomprehensible and enervating. I will not name the world-renowned speaker who is his particular focus; nor will I mention the similarly famous “expert” who provided me, in graduate school, with the eerily identical set of observations and responses. But something sinister inside makes me want to name them both. Here I will simply allow Epstein to sketch the scene:
I was astonished by the rapt reception his almost passionately boring, nearly frame-by-frame analysis of a delightfully lightweight little movie received on the part of graduate students and teachers in the standing-room-only audience. Professor ____ ran past the normal lecturer’s hour, which is probably longer than Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer spent on composing the screenplay for the movie but which to me felt longer than a bad fiscal quarter. I was the only one to leave the room at hour’s end. The rest of the crowd remained, slack-jawed and agog, no doubt making innumerable intellectual discoveries that were clearly not available to me. This was the first but it would not be the last time that people putatively interested in the same things I was interested in would discover treasure where I found none buried. (309)
Please note the care and craft of this fine passage. For one thing, it is a funny exaggeration: to think that a theorist might wax on about a “text” for even longer than it took some harried writers to compose it. But perhaps most importantly, he ends his testimony of this episode with a proverb, one that, at least for me, rings perfectly true. Epstein announces a set of feelings that I have myself often felt, but have never quite been able to put my finger on, and he does so with both wonder and aplomb. Unapologetically, he confesses his inferiority to other professors (or is his apology ironic?), who all seem willing and able to locate truth and beauty in something that he considers insipid, “almost passionately boring.” Personally, I have felt the pang of inferiority in just this situation; I have wondered if I might just be the dullest listener in the room. Epstein’s humor, devilish and appropriate, helps me locate my truest feelings: maybe I am one of the only listeners able to discern—or willing to admit openly—that the professor’s lecture is alienating, obtuse, condescending, off-putting, or all of the above.
Which brings me to one large theme that pops up over and over in this collection: the powerful sense that there is something tragically gone amiss in the study of literature (or in the humanities, or in the art world, or in the writing of poetry, or in creative writing programs, or in scholarly accounts of “the canon,” or in the way we interact with our students, or in many other areas). Epstein is certainly not only a firebrand in his writings; he is also very much a reactionary. This general sensibility, and even to some extent nostalgic desire for the past, is set up by the book’s title, which comes from the first, and longest, essay in the collection: “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature.” There, we recognize that he yearns for those clearer and purer days of yesteryear, when students mostly read thick books and such highbrow journals as The Partisan Review, much of it above and beyond their regular assignments.
But sometimes he even critiques those yesteryears, as in his devastating, yet oddly warm, unveiling of the late, great Walter Cronkite—with warts and all. Again, Epstein notices things about Cronkite that are easily overlooked, or lain away on the ash heap of history, in favor of the myth. Similarly he chastens our cultural memory of the 1950s, asking how it is we so quickly rely on clichés to describe an entire ten‑year span of time. His meditation on the 1950s arises within an intriguing book review of David Halberstam, whose achievements are dismissed as the work of a mere reader of newspapers. In effect, Epstein often pits his own experiences against the shared and now inherited wisdom of a generation. And among the bête noirs of the book is certainly another abstraction: “the 60s,” which for Epstein remains a period of terrifying, long-term consequences. This conceit is most on display when he analyzes his own early review of Paul Goodman, an exercise that is deeply moving in a poignant sort of way. Epstein’s “Retrospect” on Goodman consists of an account of how a liberatory icon of his generation has by now become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of all the bad things to come, even though there remains something magical about Goodman. These and other essays about the past reveal an observer deeply torn, so it is incorrect to suggest that he comes off as a dew-eyed Romantic venerating all things past. Generally, however, one leaves the volume feeling nostalgic for the old days, when young students read voraciously and respected the knowledge gained by their elders over long decades of work and experience.
I must end by admitting, that, in many cases, I am unwilling to go as far into the territory of the acute reactionary as Epstein wishes to take me. We all have our limits, and the PC Police will certainly want to pull him over for questioning, on several accounts. But I sympathize. I love the title, “Academic Zoo,” referring to university humanities departments and their pet theories, but then again I guess that makes me one of the animals imprisoned there. Nevertheless, I certainly recognize many of the diseases being diagnosed by Dr. Epstein.
Certainly, for me, there is something deeply personal about my engagement with these essays. Epstein succeeds at displaying excellence in the very form he set out to define, the personal essay: “at bottom the true subject is the author of the essay.” I learned some great ways to think about many subjects, but I came away from the book feeling as if I had spent time with an astute, but always whimsical, observer of contemporary culture, especially of the university. I am also encouraged to reach even higher, in my own attempts to write a decent essay. In this way, Epstein has done for me precisely what I would hope to do for my best students: he challenges me to be ruthless about my prose and to accomplish even greater things than I think I am capable of accomplishing. Plus, he has made me rethink what it is we are really doing, as teachers in the humanities. Those are venerable accomplishments.
Other readers might be less willing to grant him such latitude. As Flannery O’Connor famously put it, sometimes for the hard of hearing, you must shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures. Epstein is truly a master of such startling figures. Amazingly enough, as we confront many of our culture’s most shattering horrors, he allows us to laugh at them too, even while rethinking them. It seems to me, a veteran of the guild for some decades now, that a little self-deprecating humor in the service of outcomes assessment might be a rather good thing just about now, in these confusing and darkening days of American higher education.
Harold K. Bush is Professor of English at Saint Louis University. His book, Continuing Bonds with the Dead: Parental Grief and Nineteenth-Century American Authors, will be published in spring 2016 by the University of Alabama Press.