Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Essay Assay

In my senior year of high school my English teacher created an extraordinary amount of work for himself. On top of our other assignments every student in the class every single school day was required to turn in an essay of at least 500 words: “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01.” (500 words fill about two pages in double-space 12-point Courier – then the most common typewriter font and size.) He returned the corrected papers to us the next day, which was a bigger and drearier task for him than I credited at the time. There was value to the exercise. A year later, college essays were much easier to churn out than they otherwise would have been. Also, the need to come up with a topic five days per week taught that essays could be written about absolutely anything from the air one breathes to the chair upon which one sits. Writing short essays actually became a hard habit to break. All these decades later I’m still doing it and posting the results on this site – albeit weekly (more or less) rather than daily.

The essay is an odd literary mutt. It is nonfiction of a sort, yet not strictly factual. It is defined “by individual expression – by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.” The quote is from a preface to The Lost Origins of the Essay, a 700 page anthology edited by John D’Agata. An essay also is relatively short, though book-length collections of essays (e.g. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) are commonplace. An essay can be read and digested at a single sitting. Anthologies always inspire the reader to second-guess the editor: i.e. “there should have been more of this and less of that and at least some of the other thing.” D’Agata’s book is no exception, but its strength is historical spread. The first entry is by Ziusudra of Sumer from 2700 BCE. The last by John Berger brings us to the dawn of the 21st century. In between we have many of the basics from Western literature (Seneca, Montaigne, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, et al.) and also a smattering from around the world (e.g. T’ao Ch’ien and Yoshida Kenko). The Lost Origins of the Essay is not a book to be finished in an evening. It is something on which to snack time and again, no more than a few nuggets at a sitting. At the end you still will be hungry. That’s a compliment.

All essays are of their time but the best of them transcend their time as well. Gore Vidal’s Matters of Fact and Fiction (a mix of reviews and general commentary), for example, speaks volumes about the 1970s but remains a relevant read in 2017 as well. Those of us who write essays rarely have the skill to achieve both timeliness and timelessness, but I recommend the exercise anyway. There are few better methods of organizing one’s own thoughts in a coherent and compendious way than to put them in an essay. So, while I never would have said it at the time, thanks Mr. Drew for all the homework.

Al Perkins & Betty Bibbs – Homework (1965)


  1. Is there a difference between essays and newspaper columnist? I guess a couple of my favorite are Molly Ivins and Dave Barry. Barry's column on the year 2016 was pretty good:

    1. Newspaper/magazine columnists of the opinion type certainly count as essayists -- H.L. Mencken being an archetype -- as are reviewers of books, restaurants, and plays. They just get paid for it, which most essayists don't. I've always enjoyed Dave Barry. Thanks for the link.