Saturday Arts – what ever happened to essays?

San Fran words

“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘On Self-Reliance’)

I had reason, during the week, to use a famous line of Ralph Waldo Emerson – the one about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds.

It was from his essay, ‘On Self-Reliance’ – but as I looked it up, it struck me that I hadn’t read Emerson, or Thoreau, or their ilk since high school – and that was a lot of years ago.

In fact, I hadn’t read any of the great essayists in decades. Why was that? I wondered.

Perhaps, I thought, it was because I didn’t have time with my busy life – but that didn’t make sense: I could easily dedicate hours to binge-watching a TV series.

So perhaps I was reading modern essayists instead of the classics. After all I often read articles in Narratively, or the Guardian’s Long Reads, or the Daily Beast’s Longread roundup

And then it struck me – I was asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking “why hadn’t I read any of the ‘great essayists’ in years?” perhaps I should be asking “what’s the difference between the ‘classic essayists’ and current ones?”

And that’s an interesting question.

It strikes me that the difference between essayists of the 19th century and those of the 21st is not so great after all … both seek to explain, or examine, the human condition in personal observation.

John Locke’s ‘On Human Understanding‘ from 1690 is not so different, really, to Randy Shilts’ ‘Talking AIDS to death‘ from 1990.

Both strive to show that words shape our thinking – in the sense that the way we think about something can only be determined by the words we use – but conversely that the words, the talking, are not of themselves valuable – unless action follows.

I read, while researching this piece, about a conversation between novelist Andrew O’Hagan and a former teacher at a book signing:

I related to him an entire conversation we had all those years ago about JB Priestley. “You said: ‘The point of an essay is to amuse, educate and express something personal.’ You called it ‘the form with the greatest pedigree in English literature, the jewel in the crown’.”

And I don’t think I could define it better myself. The concept of a literary essay is a slippery one – essays / longform journalism / personal observations all merge and criss-cross. I think one description I saw was useful, however. Justin Kaplan described the genre as “neither fiction, nor fact.”

But however you define it, I come back to the Emerson quote in the caption to the picture we took outside San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore: “See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average.” And long may we sail on “the voyage of the best ship…”

Books referenced in this article:

Best American essays of 1990
Andrew O’Hagan’s Atlantic Ocean – Reports from Britain and America
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self Reliance and other essays
John Locke – An Essay on Human Understanding

Disclaimer – should you purchase any books from these links, I get a very small commission. So be it 🙂


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