Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time


The first historically and internationally comprehensive collection of its kind, Essayists on the Essay is a path-breaking work that is nothing less than a richly varied sourcebook for anyone interested in the theory, practice, and art of the essay. This unique work includes a selection of fifty distinctive pieces by American, Canadian, English, European, and South American essayists from Montaigne to the present—many of which have not previously been anthologized or translated—as well as a detailed ...

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The first historically and internationally comprehensive collection of its kind, Essayists on the Essay is a path-breaking work that is nothing less than a richly varied sourcebook for anyone interested in the theory, practice, and art of the essay. This unique work includes a selection of fifty distinctive pieces by American, Canadian, English, European, and South American essayists from Montaigne to the present—many of which have not previously been anthologized or translated—as well as a detailed bibliographical and thematic guide to hundreds of additional works about the essay.

From a buoyant introduction that provides a sweeping historical and analytic overview of essayists’ thinking about their genre—a collective poetics of the essay—to the detailed headnotes offering pointed information about both the essayists themselves and the anthologized selections, to the richly detailed bibliographic sections, Essayists on the Essay is essential to anyone who cares about the form.

This collection provides teachers, scholars, essayists, and readers with the materials they need to take a fresh look at this important but often overlooked form that has for too long been relegated to the role of service genre—used primarily to write about other more “literary” genres or to teach young people how to write. Here, in a single celebratory volume, are four centuries of commentary and theory reminding us of the essay’s storied history, its international appeal, and its relationship not just with poetry and fiction but also with radio, film, video, and new media.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French have provided an informative guide to how the genre of the essay has been conceptualized and conventionalized in literary history. As this capacious collection of excerpts demonstrates, no genre has more potential to chart the meandering possibilities of thought in action, especially when the essay thinks itself.”—Charles Bernstein, author, Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

“Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French are among the finest commentators of the genre today. Their presentation of the material is compelling and, in my opinion, will be extremely valuable to us all—we teachers, writers, critics, and educated readers who remain devoted to furthering the study of the essay.”—Robert Atwan, series editor, Best American Essays

“At long last, a book that collects critical ideas—from the minds of essay practitioners—about the oft-maligned yet exquisite literary adventure that is the essay. Not only does this anthology document the history of the essay, but it also provides guidance, via an extensive thematic guide, to the study of this form. Teachers, students, essayists, and essay enthusiasts will want this volume on their shelves. Bravo to Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French for this superb endeavor.”—Kim Dana Kupperman, author, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence

Kirkus Reviews
Should essays be light and playful, hard and serious, or both? Some 50 experts on the form, ranging across 400 years, tackle the question in this odd volume, edited by Klaus, founding director of University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program (The Made Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, 2010, etc.), and Stuckey-French (English/Florida State Univ.; The American Essay in the American Century, 2011). "A genuine essay," writes Cynthia Ozick, "has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play." It is "science, minus the explicit proof" (José Ortega y Gasset), "spontaneous and audacious" (Enrique Amberson Imbert), "a walk, an excursion, not a business trip" (Michael Hamburger). It is personal, "a piece of Autobiography" (Charles Lamb), but only to a point. "Never to be yourself and yet always--that is the problem," writes Virginia Woolf. To essay means "to try but not to attempt," writes William Carlos Williams; according to Jean Starobinski, it means to weigh. Not so, says André Belleau: "The essay is not a weighing, an evaluation of ideas; it is a swarm of idea-words." Through the ages, the word has become a catchall for reviews, sermons and lectures, among other forms of expression. In the late 19th century, William Dean Howells bemoaned the day "when the essay began to confuse itself with the article, and to assume an obligation of constancy to premises and conclusions" Like a classic essay itself, this book approaches its neither-fish-nor-fowl subject from many angles; it bemoans the death of the form, salutes its hearty endurance and both inspires and alienates. A quirky, variegated salute to what Aldous Huxley called "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609380762
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2012
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 333
  • Sales rank: 1,468,739
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Carl H. Klaus, founding director of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, is professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and coeditor (with Patricia Hampl) of Sightline Books: The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction. His widely praised nonfiction includes most recently The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa, 2010), as well as My Vegetable Love (Iowa paperback 2000), its companion Weathering Winter (Iowa, 1997), Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary and Letters to Kate: Life after Life (Iowa, 2006). Ned Stuckey-French is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Florida State University. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, a study of personal essays, magazine culture and class construction. His reviews and critical work have appeared in journals such as American Literature, the CEA Critic, Modern Fiction Studies, middlebrow, culturefront, and the Iowa Review. He is the book review editor for Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

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Montaigne to Our Time

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-076-2

Chapter One

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–92), though widely recognized for his philosophic skepticism and his pathbreaking, free-ranging Essais, was known in his own time for his statesmanlike moderation of the prevailing religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Even after retiring from public life in 1571 to work on his essays and to travel, he was called back into service as mayor of Bordeaux. But Montaigne incessantly wrote and revised his self-oriented essays—"I am myself the subject of my work"—in defiance of literary conventions that scorned such writing. His self-absorption was ultimately motivated by a distinctively modern preoccupation with the complexity of his inner life, with the flow of his thoughts, as he makes clear in the excerpts that follow: "What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words."

From "Of Practice," "Of Repentance," and "Of Vanity"

From "Of Practice"

What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me.

And yet it should not be held against me if I publish what I write. What is useful to me may also by accident be useful to another. Moreover, I am not spoiling anything, I am using only what is mine. And if I play the fool, it is at my expense and without harm to anyone. For it is a folly that will die with me, and will have no consequences. We have heard of only two or three ancients who opened up this road, and even of them we cannot say whether their manner in the least resembled mine, since we know only their names. No one since has followed their lead. It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it. And it is a new and extraordinary amusement, which withdraws us from the ordinary occupations of the world, yes, even from those most recommended.

It is many years now that I have had only myself as object of my thoughts, that I have been examining and studying only myself; and if I study anything else, it is in order promptly to apply it to myself, or rather within myself. And it does not seem to me that I am making a mistake if—as is done in the other sciences, which are incomparably less useful—I impart what I have learned in this one, though I am hardly satisfied with the progress I have made in it. There is no description equal in difficulty, or certainly in usefulness, to the description of oneself. Even so one must spruce up, even so one must present oneself in an orderly arrangement, if one would go out in public. Now, I am constantly adorning myself, for I am constantly describing myself.

Custom has made speaking of oneself a vice, and obstinately forbids it out of hatred for the boasting that seems always to accompany it. Instead of blowing the child's nose, as we should, this amounts to pulling it off.

Flight from a fault will lead us into crime. Horace

I find more harm than good in this remedy. But even if it were true that it is presumptuous, no matter what the circumstances, to talk to the public about oneself, I still must not, according to my general plan, refrain from an action that openly displays this morbid quality, since it is in me; nor may I conceal this fault, which I not only practice but profess. However, to say what I think about it, custom is wrong to condemn wine because many get drunk on it. We can misuse only things which are good. And I believe that the rule against speaking of oneself applies only to the vulgar form of this failing. Such rules are bridles for calves, with which neither the saints, whom we hear speaking so boldly about themselves, nor the philosophers, nor the theologians curb themselves. Nor do I, though I am none of these. If they do not write about themselves expressly, at least when the occasion leads them to it they do not hesitate to put themselves prominently on display. What does Socrates treat of more fully than himself? To what does he lead his disciples' conversation more often than to talk about themselves, not about the lesson of their book, but about the essence and movement of their soul?

From "Of Repentance"

Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion—the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt—both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.

I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Each man bears the entire form of man's estate.

Authors communicate with the people by some special extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my entire being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a jurist. If the world complains that I speak too much of myself, I complain that it does not even think of itself.

But is it reasonable that I, so fond of privacy in actual life, should aspire to publicity in the knowledge of me? Is it reasonable too that I should set forth to the world, where fashioning and art have so much credit and authority, some crude and simple products of nature, and of a very feeble nature at that? Is it not making a wall without stone, or something like that, to construct books without knowledge and without art? Musical fancies are guided by art, mine by chance.

At least I have one thing according to the rules: that no man ever treated a subject he knew and understood better than I do the subject I have undertaken; and that in this I am the most learned man alive. Secondly, that no man ever penetrated more deeply into his material, or plucked its limbs and consequences cleaner, or reached more accurately and fully the goal he had set for his work. To accomplish it, I need only bring it to fidelity; and that is in it, as sincere and pure as can be found. I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old, for it seems that custom allows old age more freedom to prate and more indiscretion in talking about oneself. It cannot happen here as I see it happening often, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other: "Has a man whose conversation is so good written such a stupid book?" or "Have such learned writings come from a man whose conversation is so feeble?"

If a man is commonplace in conversation and rare in writing, that means that his capacity is in the place from which he borrows it, and not in himself. A learned man is not learned in all matters; but the capable man is capable in all matters, even in ignorance.

In this case we go hand in hand and at the same pace, my book and I. In other cases one may commend or blame the work apart from the workman; not so here; he who touches the one, touches the other.

From "Of Vanity"

I go out of my way, but rather by license than carelessness. My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance, and look at each other, but with a sidelong glance. I have run my eyes over a certain dialogue of Plato, a fantastic motley in two parts, the beginning part about love, all the rest about rhetoric. The ancients do not fear these changes, and with wonderful grace they let themselves thus be tossed in the wind, or seem to. The titles of my chapters do not always embrace their matter; often they only denote it by some sign, like those other titles, The Maid of Andros, The Eunuch, or those other names, Sulla, Cicero, Torquatus. I love the poetic gait, by leaps and gambols. It is an art, as Plato says, light, flighty, daemonic. There are works of Plutarch's in which he forgets his theme, in which the treatment of his subject is found only incidentally, quite smothered in foreign matter. See his movements in "The Daemon of Socrates." Lord, what beauty there is in these lusty sallies and this variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem.

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room. I seek out change indiscriminately and tumultuously. My style and my mind alike go roaming. "A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid," say the precepts of our masters, and even more so their examples.

A thousand poets drag and languish prosaically; but the best ancient Prose—and I scatter it here indiscriminately as verse—shines throughout with the vigor and boldness of poetry, and gives the effect of its frenzy. To poetry we must certainly concede mastery and preeminence in speech. The poet, says Plato, seated on the tripod of the Muses, pours out in a frenzy whatever comes into his mouth, like the spout of a fountain, without ruminating and weighing it; and from him escape things of different colors and contradictory substance in an intermittent flow. He himself is utterly poetic, and the old theology is poetry, the scholars say, and the first philosophy. It is the original language of the Gods.

I want the matter to make its own divisions. It shows well enough where it changes, where it concludes, where it begins, where it resumes, without my interlacing it with words, with links and seams introduced for the benefit of weak or heedless ears, and without writing glosses on myself. Who is there that would not rather not be read than be read sleepily or in passing? Nothing is so useful that it can be of value when taken on the run [Seneca]. If to take up books were to take them in, and if to see them were to consider them, and to run through them were to grasp them, I should be wrong to make myself out quite as ignorant as I say I am.

Since I cannot arrest the attention of the reader by weight, it is all to the good if I chance to arrest it by my embroilment. "True, but he will afterward repent of having wasted his time over it." That may be, but still he will have wasted his time over it. And then there are natures like that, in whom understanding breeds disdain, who will think the better of me because they will not know what I mean. They will conclude that my meaning is profound from its obscurity, which, to speak in all earnest, I hate very strongly, and I would avoid it if I could avoid myself. Aristotle somewhere boasts of affecting it: blameworthy affectation!

Because such frequent breaks into chapters as I used at the beginning seemed to me to disrupt and dissolve attention before it was aroused, making it disdain to settle and collect for so little, I have begun making them longer, requiring fixed purpose and assigned leisure. In such an occupation, if you will not give a man a single hour, you will not give him anything. And you do nothing for a man for whom you do nothing except while doing something else. Besides, perhaps I have some personal obligation to speak only by halves, to speak confusedly, to speak discordantly.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne, 1580; translated by Donald Frame, 1958

Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (c. 1579–1614) served in Parliament, in the king's privy chamber, and as a diplomatic courier for his father, who was ambassador to Spain. But he lived so extravagantly that his wife and eight children were impoverished when he died. His two collections of essays (1600, 1601) appeared shortly after Bacon's first collection of 1597, yet differed markedly in their plainness, directness, and sometimes personal stance, as in the opening of his piece "Of Alehouses": "I write this from an Alehouse, into which I am driven by night." His thoughts on the essay, excerpted below, are similarly frank in declaring himself at the outset to be in effect the first genuine essayist, because, unlike those who preceded him, his pieces were not "strong, and able to endure the sharpest trial"—a clear allusion to the root meaning of essay as a trial or attempt.

From "Of Essays and Books"

I hold neither Plutarch's, nor none of these ancient short manner of writings, nor Montaigne's, nor such of this latter time to be rightly termed essays, for though they be short, yet they are strong, and able to endure the sharpest trial: but mine are essays, who am but newly bound prentice to the inquisition of knowledge, and use these papers as a painter's boy a board, who is trying to bring his hand and his fancy acquainted. It is a manner of writing well befitting undigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a start, or providence that tastes before she buys: for it is easier to think well then, to do well; and no trial to have handsome dapper conceits run invisibly in a brain, but to put them out, and then look upon them: if they prove nothing but words, yet they break not promise with the world; for they say but an essay, like a scrivener trying his pen before he engrosses his work; nor to speak plainly, are they more to blame then many other that promise more: for the most that I have yet touched, have millions of words to the bringing forth one reason, and when a reason is gotten, there is such borrowing it one of another, that in a multitude of books, still that conceit, or some issued out of that, appears so belabored, and worn, as in the end it is good for nothing but for a proverb.

Essayes by Sir William Cornwallis, the Younger, 1600–1601, modernized by Patrick Madden,

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the first English essayist, was a prolific author who wrote a utopian novel entitled New Atlantis (1626), as well as substantial works on philosophic and scientific methodology, contributing to the development of what is now known as controlled research. Bacon was also trained in the law and rose to become Lord Chancellor of England in 1618, before being stripped of his office on charges of corruption in 1621, for the then-common practice of accepting gifts from legal petitioners. Bacon's pithy essays, first published in 1597 and expanded in 1612 and 1625, differ markedly from Montaigne's, not only in their brevity and rigorous focus but also in their complete self-effacement and their notably pragmatic outlook. In the following passage from The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon offers a detailed rationale for "writing in aphorisms," as he did in his essays, rather than "in method."

From The Proficience and Advancement of Learning

But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in method1 doth not approach.


Excerpted from ESSAYISTS on the ESSAY Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay, by Carl H. Klaus....................1
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE From "Of Practice," "Of Repentance," and "Of Vanity"—1580....................7
WILLIAM CORNWALLIS From "Of Essays and Books"—1600–1601....................9
FRANCIS BACON From The Proficience and Advancement of Learning—1605....................11
JOSEPH ADDISON From the Spectator—1712....................13
SAMUEL JOHNSON From the Rambler—1751....................15
WILLIAM HAZLITT From "On the Periodical Essayists"—1815....................19
CHARLES LAMB From an Unpublished Review of Hazlitt's Table Talk—1821....................23
RALPH WALDO EMERSON From "Montaigne, or the Skeptic"—1850....................25
ALEXANDER SMITH From "On the Writing of Essays"—1863....................29
WALTER PATER From "Dialectic"—1893....................32
AGNES REPPLIER From "The Passing of the Essay"—1894....................36
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS From "Editor's Easy Chair"—1902....................38
JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET From "To the Reader"—1914....................40
A. C. BENSON From "The Art of the Essayist"—1922....................44
VIRGINIA WOOLF From "The Modern Essay"—1925....................48
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS "An Essay on Virginia"—1925....................51
HILAIRE BELLOC "An Essay upon Essays upon Essays"—1929....................55
ROBERT MUSIL From The Man without Qualities—1930....................57
G. K. CHESTERTON "The Essay"—1932....................61
KATHARINE FULLERTON GEROULD From "An Essay on Essays"—1935....................65
WALTER MURDOCH From "The Essay"—1938....................68
ENRIQUE ANDERSON IMBERT From "In Defense of the Essay"—1946....................71
MAX BENSE From "On the Essay and Its Prose"—1947....................75
MARIANO PICÓN-SALAS From "On the Essay"—1954....................78
GERMÁN ARCINIEGAS From "The Essay in Our America"—1956....................82
THEODOR ADORNO From "The Essay as Form"—1958....................88
ALDOUS HUXLEY From the Preface to Collected Essays—1960....................91
MICHAEL HAMBURGER "An Essay on the Essay"—1965....................94
FERNAND OUELLETTE "Ramblings on the Essay"—1972....................99
GUILLERMO DÍAZ-PLAJA "The Limits of the Essay"—1976....................101
EDWARD HOAGLAND "What I Think, What I Am"—1976....................104
E. B. WHITE From the Foreword to Essays of E. B. White—1977....................106
WILLIAM H. GASS From "Emerson and the Essay"—1982....................110
JEAN STAROBINSKI From "Can One Define the Essay?"—1983....................116
ANDRÉ BELLEAU "Little Essayistic"—1983....................120
ELIZABETH HARDWICK From the Introduction to The Best American Essays—1986....................125
GABRIEL ZAID From "Alfonso Reyes' Wheelbarrow"—1988....................129
SCOTT RUSSELL SANDERS From "The Singular First Person"—1988....................132
PHILLIP LOPATE "What Happened to the Personal Essay?"—1989....................142
GERALD EARLY From the Introduction to Tuxedo Junction—1989....................147
SUSAN SONTAG Introduction to The Best American Essays—1992....................153
NANCY MAIRS From "Essaying the Feminine"—1994....................158
RACHEL BLAU DUPLESSIS From "f- Words: An Essay on the Essay"—1996....................162
CYNTHIA OZICK "She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body"—1998....................170
VIVIAN GORNICK From The Situation and the Story—2001....................172
JOHN D'AGATA From "2003" in The Next American Essay—2003....................174
PAUL GRAHAM From "The Age of the Essay"—2004....................177
ANDER MONSON From "The Essay as Hack"—2008....................180
JOHN BRESLAND "On the Origin of the Video Essay"—2011....................185
JEFF PORTER "Essay on the Radio Essay"—2011....................193
Bibliography, compiled by Ned Stuckey-French....................207
Thematic Guide to Entries in the Bibliography, compiled by Ned Stuckey-French....................213
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