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Of Essays

Since my early retirement from academic employment in 2004 I have taken to describing myself as an “essayist” and have had the occasional gratification of seeing others use the term to describe me. The reason for using this term is largely residual. “Writer” seems wrong at both ends because most people can write and specifying that you are a “writer” seems to invite a question about how many of the books in Waterstone’s front window are by you. “Journalist” also seems wrong: even though I’ve written for a lot of newspapers calling yourself a journalist seems to suggest affiliations, qualifications and a sense of urgency which I don’t have. So “essayist” it is and, even though it’s far from clear what the word means it is the least misleading available and its connotations capture a real aspiration.

It has hardly ever been possible to make a living from writing essays and the people I will be citing and discussing in this essay all had other sources of income and employment. The financial situation for the essayist has worsened markedly during my working life. In the 1980s when I was in my thirties I was paid sums of £750 and $1000 for articles which is more than I ever get now. I’m not complaining because I needed the money then and I don’t now and it is the predictable consequence of a communication revolution and the consequent decline of newspapers and magazines. In this case one can use the word “revolution” in its original sense because the current situation in some respects resembles that in the eighteenth century when self-published pamphlets were sold on street corners. Somewhere in between was a golden age of the reasonably paid essayist.

During the period of relatively high pay I did, briefly and not very seriously, consider becoming a “freelance writer”. Not to have to administer anything or attend an academic policy meeting ever again did have a certain appeal. Two much better known and more distinguished writers took the trouble to advise me against it. Unless I found my day job intolerable I should not even consider the idea – and far from finding it intolerable there were aspects of it like teaching which I enjoyed enormously. Both my advisors were keen to inform me that as a freelance with no other income I would find myself writing things which I had no wish to write and not doing them very well. They were both emphatic that they had been in that position themselves; one example given was writing and editing broadsheet supplements which put dodgy regimes in a favourable light. I made the inference that whatever I would be writing as a freelance would not properly be described as “essays”.

The question of what defines an essay may be unanswerable and (a more serious indictment) unnecessary. In saying this I am influenced by W.B.Gallie’s idea of an “essentially contested concept”, which are difficult words of which we must assume that an acceptable definition is probably unavailable, but that we make “progress” in the attempt to find one; his examples include “art” and “democracy”. In this spirit I do think it is useful at least to consider what makes something an essay rather than a mere article. One website which lists “great essayists” (I’m not mentioned!) suggests that an essay is an article which is highbrow and/or pretentious. Although this looks crude and evaluative I think it’s not as bad a start as it looks. I don’t think “highbrow” is particularly helpful, but “pretentious” is insofar as an essay should pretend or aspire to a generality and depth not present in most articles. You write a piece on Leyton Orient’s financial problems and it’s just an article, but extend that to reflections on the relation between sport and commerce and it has developed essay tendencies.

It follows that the essay is a model or ideal type and that the form overlaps in structure and function with many others so that it is absurd in some ways to say that Michel De Montaigne “invented” the essay in the sixteenth century. Sermons, homilies, orations, epistles . . . and many more forms all have essay-like qualities. So do poems: I don’t just mean that, for example, Pope’s Essay on Man is a poem, I mean that a certain kind of reflective poetry overlaps in structure and function with the purest forms of essay. There is, however, an ultimate difference because the poet cares about sound, the essayist only about clarity. There is also the category of the “essay disguised as a novel”. If I have to define “essay” I will say it is a sustained piece of non-fiction which seeks to establish one or more general arguments. But the terms are debatable and this is not a definition of the legal type which is intended to allow any piece of writing to be either an essay or a not-essay.

A more vivid insight might be achieved by asking what a person might seek to achieve by choosing to write essays. My own inspiration was very clear: at the age of twelve I read 1984 at a sitting in the back of a car on a wet day in Morecambe. I was so fascinated and frightened by it that I wanted to read everything by George Orwell. When I found the Essays I knew that I wanted to write like that; that is, write and like that. In retrospect I remind myself of interviews I have heard with actors or dancers when they describe being taken to a performance and knowing instantly that they were watching something that they wanted to do. There is an important difference, however, in that acting and dancing typically consume a life whereas essay writing can only ever be one dimension. The inspiration was magnified when I discovered the essays of David Hume. Both Hume and Orwell seemed to possess a kind of clarity which could only arise from a very rare absence of false assumptions and false motives. As I was a bright little boy people told me I might be prime minister one day, but I knew that I would rather write something on the level of Hume’s “Of the Origins of Government” or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, not least because the mindset of future prime ministers would be influenced by writing at that level.

There was a further inspiration – or, at least, influence – in the form of Alpha of the Plough, who was really A.G.Gardiner, a distinguished journalist and editor who was born in 1865 and died shortly before I was born in 1946. Gardiner was a well known figure in his day though he is largely forgotten now. My acquaintance with him came about because my father had something of an obsession with him, diving into second hand bookshops when we were on holiday to see if they had any of the collections of his work. Gardiner belonged to the high period of newspapers and of the professional essayist. He concentrated on his writing after 1915 when his fifteen year tenure of the the editorship of The Daily News ended as a result of his moral crusade against Lloyd George. The Cadbury family, who owned the paper, remained loyal to LG. Gardiner’s essays fall very clearly into two groups: there were the biographical sketches of prominent figures which were his professional staple and there were the more whimsical pieces. The latter were often inspired by remarks heard on the bus or by cricket as a metaphor for life or by the things such as the Chiltern Hills or the birds in his garden, which gave him pleasure. Gardiner had a friend and rival, Robert Lynd (1879-1949) who had a similar career. My mother claimed a sort of fan status in respect of Lynd as if to rival or parallel my father’s affection for Gardiner. But I’m not sure how genuine this was since she seems to have been unaware that, though he was a protestant who lived in England, Lynd was a fervent Irish nationalist.

The natural conclusion from looking down a list of titles by an established essayist and you would conclude that essays can be about anything. But they can also start with or focus on any combination. It is a common trick to relate a particular observation to a more general theory: cricket and eternity, boys’ comics and the class structure, forms of greeting and national identity and so on. Therefore there is little point in trying to classify essays in terms of their subject matter, though there are a couple of subject types which have a special status. The first is the biographical essay, of which I have written very few. These typically summarise the nature and significance of a person without the detail and narrative structure of a biography. Probably the most famous examples in English are John Aubrey’s Brief Lives and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. I regard Strachey on Thomas Arnold as a classic of the genre, brief and incisive and possessing much more insight than longer and more scholarly accounts of Arnold. Older, non-English, predecessors include Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (Le Vite de Piu Eccellenti Pittori) and Suetonius’s scurrilous The Twelve Caesars (De Vita Caesarum). There seems to have been a decline in the biographical essay as a form; modern scholars are probably not going to write them because if they have done enough work to cover their backs on a subject they are going to want a book out of it. The other genre is the “travel” essay: I put the word in quotation marks because I think it is misleading. I have written quite a lot of these and I would summarise their objective as being to relate the history and geography of a place to its landscape and architecture and to the people you meet in order to try to synthesise a kind of genius loci.

The purposes of essay writing are much easier to classify than the subjects. Essentially there are two: the polemical and the lyrical. Polemical essays attack and expose error; lyrical essays draw the reader’s attention to and celebrate the good and the beautiful. Orwell is the essayist most aware of these alternative purposes, though, perhaps typically, he expresses the distinction in a rather confused and misleading way. In “Why I Write” he claimed that he must always have a “political purpose”: everything he writes is intended to further the cause of “democratic socialism”. But this becomes rather more complicated when he says that he is obliged to write in this way because he is living in “evil times” and he imagines himself as a eighteenth century clergyman writing about ducks and goldfinches. We are surely entitled to infer that there is something of a “Merrie England” fallacy behind this comment. The eighteenth century was “evil times” in its own way and many clergyman were investors in slave-trading companies. In any case, Orwell did write lyrically – about English food and P.G.Wodehouse and Donald McGill’s “dirty” postcards, for instance – though there is always a political dimension to his essays.

The larger contradiction concerning Orwell is that he failed in his stated purpose, but succeeded as an essayist. “Democratic socialism” has not prospered and Orwell is quoted with favour and even deference by avowedly conservative outlets much more often than by socialists. This detracts nothing from his achievements as an essayist because his real power is in exposing the “smelly little orthodoxies” of his day (his own phrase used in praise of Dickens). In the same way, the permanent achievement of David Hume’s essays is not the defence of his Hanoverian and North British affiliations, defended on the grounds that they allowed an unprecedented “system of liberty” to exist, but his dissection and destruction of key elements of the nonsenses which had prevented liberty from developing in previous eras.

Whereas I was acquainted with Orwell and Hume at an early age I only read Montaigne, the first self-avowed essayist, in my sixties. I always knew he was there because my father was a French teacher (before becoming a headmaster) and there was a copy of the Essais visible on a bookshelf for decades. What most people know about Montaigne, apart from his being the first essayist, is that he was a sceptic and this second proposition is less misleading than the first. He adopted Que Sçait-Je as his personal motto at the age of thirty eight. ( The ç disappeared from this word at a later date because it is essentially redundant.) In some respects he pre-tested Descartes’ method of eradicating “knowledge” before knowledge can be established. This allows him some excellent guidelines for the proper spirit of conversation, insisting that, “No proposition astounds me, no belief offends me, however much opposed to it is my own”. Since Montaigne was born in 1533 this prescription was formulated in a time of bitter religious strife. One might ask how he got away with it: the answer is “Fideism”, a doctrine, with echoes in obscure corners of catholic theology, that matters of faith exist in a completely different dimension from matters of reason.

The idea that Montaigne “invented” the essay needs a good deal of qualification. On his own account there are many models among his favourite Latin authors – and he was a man who claimed that he understood Latin better than French. He was the first to use the word essai to describe what we would now call an essay. But, as J.M.Cohen, one of his most respected translators into English, points out, “essai” does not necessarily mean essay. Cohen suggested that we should bear in mind at least three other words which could be used to suggest its meaning. They are the more literal “try” and “trial” as in a trial or try-out of ideas, but also “experience”.

Montaigne can be quite jaw-dropping when he allows his open mind to take him to strange places. He comes up with theories of self-fulfilling prophecy, psycho-somatic illness, gender identity and luck, for example, which seem much closer to twenty-first century belief than to the orthodoxies of his own time. This seems to me to be a quality of great essayists: Hume has it, but it is perhaps too early to comment on Orwell in this respect. Montaigne is also very frank about sex, referring to his penis, for example, as, ” . . . this member which intrudes so tiresomely when we do not require it and fails us so annoyingly when we need it most . . . “. It is difficult to imagine the honest and decent, but seriously uptight, Orwell talking like this or recommending masturbation and the avoidance of radishes before going out on the pull, but, of course, he wasn’t a rascally Frenchman. Not surprisingly, Marie-Madeleine Fragonard’s edition of the essays, which is currently in use in French schools, misses out “On the Power of the Imagination”, which contains the most explicit sexual references. Nor does she include “On Experience”, a late essay which contains a long list of ailments; reading it is like talking to old ladies in Billingham clubs.

Montaigne had an English equivalent and imitator in Francis Bacon, twenty eight years his junior. Bacon was fluent in French and studied at Poitiers where he would have come across at least the first volume of Montaigne’s essays. At first glance Bacon’s essays look much like Montaigne’s in range and form. They were studied by generations of British schoolchildren, including myself, though much less so at the moment; they have nothing like the status in our culture that Montaigne has in France for all the obvious equivalence. They are full of wit and common sense and impressively informed by scholarship. But – and it is a very big but – they lack the originality and the open mind of Montaigne. Bacon is a part of the orthodox scholarly world; Montaigne wants to challenge everything in that world. I’m not a huge fan of Bacon’s style, for that matter. Given that he was only two years older than Shakespeare his language seems markedly older and less innovatory: how anyone could come to the conclusion that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays defies all intuition. He doesn’t give you the moments that Montaigne elicits when you want to exclaim, “My God, he said that then.” Though I was intrigued to find in Bacon’s “Of Gardens” the observation that one can have a supply of “sweet marjoram” available all year round because it is something I have worked out for myself in several decades of gardening.

While I must limit the number of essayists on whom I pass comment there must be some room for William Hazlitt. In David Lodge’s trilogy of academic novels that nice Phillip Swallow writes a book on Hazlitt which is printed, but never distributed (a common academic nightmare). I was often told that I would like Hazlitt and I was aware that Gardiner, for example, revered Hazlitt, but I never got round to reading him till I was retired. By most accounts his greatest achievement was his writing on Shakespeare. He played a part in Shakespeare reaching the heights of reputation he has now attained and some of Hazlitt’s verdicts on Shakespeare became orthodoxies. For example, he tells us that, “Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet are usually reckoned as Shakespeare’s four greatest tragedies” and this was taught to me as if it were fact.

Well, my various friends were wrong: I don’t like Hazlitt at all. He seems to me the prototype of a certain kind of prissy modern intellectual whose views are ultimately rooted in a dislike of life. In terms of theatre this means that he prefers to read plays rather than see them because the actors are rarely as good as his own imagination. He loathes Henry V (the character rather than the play), but admires Petruchio for teaching us the value of marital discipline! (His personal relationships were fairly disastrous.) He never makes me laugh except inadvertently, as with the opening of his essay on Henry VI (all parts): “During the time of the civil wars of York and Lancaster, England was a perfect bear-garden and Shakespeare has given us a very lively picture of the scene.” And at his worst his writing is simply dreadful. An example is this passage about Juliet:

What was to hinder the thrilling tide of pleasure, which had just gushed from her heart, from flowing on without stint or measure, but experience which she was yet without? What was to abate the transport of the first sweet sense of pleasure , which her heart and her senses had just tasted, but indifference which she was yet a stranger to? What was there to check the ardour of hope, of faith, of constancy just rising in her breast, but disappointment which she had not yet felt?

Dreadful stuff: there is nothing to dislike about the content, but badly written and even if you like rhetorical questions there must be an infinite number of better ways of putting the point.

So: I don’t like Hazlitt, but there are people (believe it or not) who don’t like me. A friend gave a collection of my essays to a relative. The latter reported that “I couldn’t get on with him at all”. Which is a clue, I think, to one of the most important aspects of the essay: the more writing fits the model of the true essay, the more personal it is. With good essayists you feel that you know them, that a conversation exists; you like or dislike them personally. One might initially judge that the memoir or autobiography is the most personal genre of writing, but I have had cause to read many of these, mostly by politicians and sportsmen. Even putting aside that many are ghosted to some degree what they generally do is seek to establish a narrative and a persona, which is quite different from the genuine expression of a personality. It also follows that, although the essay can be seen as an art form it can also be seen as an anti-art form because good essay writing eschews the allusions, nuances and ambiguities which various arts thrive on.

That connects to essay-writing being essentially an amateur activity. I don’t just mean that it usually doesn’t make you a living. Nor even that almost all the great essayists had day jobs: Montaigne had an estate to run, Bacon was Lord Chancellor, for heaven’s sake, Hume was the foremost philosopher and historian of his day and so on. I mean that the essay essentially demands to be written; it is the product of a Schopenhaurian “blind will” and must be produced irrespective of rational calculations of self-interest. Most of Montaigne’s weren’t published until after his death, Gardiner lost an important editorial job because of what he felt obliged to say in an essay and even I could name awards and positions I have lost because of what I have written. This connects to the excellent piece of advice I was given, to which I referred earlier: essayists should have a day job if they don’t have an estate. And essayists should never suffer from writer’s block because if you don’t know what to write you can exercise the option given by the day job.

Given this analysis of what proper essays are the apparently silly question of who are the greatest essayists is surprisingly easy to answer. Heard the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Frenchman? Michel De Montaigne, David Hume and George Orwell stand above all others. They are the most free from “smelly little orthodoxies”, the most honest in person and intent and the most likely to surprise the reader.

Lincoln Allison

NOTE: In writing this I failed to take my own advice dished out in lectures to various kinds of journalism and writing student. The advice suggested that in writing an article you should always have a target outlet in mind and you should bear it in mind in respect of everything including subject matter, length and style. Well I didn’t on this occasion: there simply isn’t a worthwhile outlet that publishes 4000 word articles on the history of writing which lack references and doesn’t take on the views of other critics. So here it is.