In the middle of Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy’s edited collection On Essays is a typo so felicitous, so pleasurable, that it must have been intentional—if not by the author, then by the editors or the proofreaders. Petrarch once described one of his miscellanies as a text in which “multa familiariter deque rebus familiaribus scripta erant”: there were many things written in a familiar style on familiar matters. In On Essays the quotation becomes instead “multa familiariter deque rebus familiaribus scripta errant”: many writings wander in a familiar style on familiar matters. The errant line is a perfect description of the literary essay: a place for the writer, and therefore the reader, to wander.
Wandering sounds grand in English, conjuring the explorer and the flâneur, and hardly far off wondering. It implies digestion, digression, freedom, discovery, perhaps conversation, even with oneself. All this the canon of essayists have explicitly claimed for themselves, and the word appears in most chapters in the book. But lest we get too complacent, wandering, including the pseudo-Petrarchan errant, is also erring, making mistakes, going wrong, which, as Pope tells us, is not so much “human” as “humane.” Perhaps the mistake, like the lie, need not be the problem in an essay that it is in an article or treatise, a point queried in Ned Stuckey-French’s chapter on the ethics of factuality in contemporary American essay-writing. But why not? Because not-knowing (Que sçay-je?) is as central to the essay, and to literature, as knowing is to the scholar or scientist.
The essay is a poignant artefact for English literary academics—which almost all the contributors are—for it represents a lost Eden, a mode in which most of the early greats of our field wrote, but from which we have been exiled into scholarship, into footnotes, into evidence—in short, into knowing. Our professional writing is, at its best, patient, clear, and rigorous, but it is rarely intimate, surprising, sublime, moving, or funny. It no longer has a direct relationship with the talk of friends who can take things for granted, because it knows it might find itself speaking to anyone; it has become, like the foot and the bushel, standardized. This alienation is enacted in a phrase used three times in On Essays, namely “lived experience,” a distinctively academic term that yearns for the fleshy, fuzzy, personal, inalienable reality that we abandon the moment we enter our study and write phrases like “lived experience.” The literary essay is always at risk of such alienation, and not only in modernity; as Markman Ellis argues in his chapter, The Spectator itself, once entomed, “slough[ed] off the quotidian and incomplete status of the diurnal periodical essay,” and so aspired “to moral seriousness and philosophical sententiousness.”
Like Ellis, I am concerned about what is surrendered in such ecdyses, and feel no certainty that the study of literature is authentic in the mode of Wissenschaft, that is, in a mode that is not itself literature; we ignore at our peril Schlegel’s dictum that “Poetry can only be criticized by means of poetry.” We must find a way to preserve the particularity of our subject without isolating it from a larger world, and perhaps the literary essay, which prioritises particularity, offers a solution. Indeed, one can see a glimmer of the same concern in Bharat Tandon’s fine chapter on George Eliot, which describes her resistance to the “algebraic equations” of social science and her defence of empirical knowledge as embodied in the novel––a defence conveyed in a review that is, in effect, an essay.
The scars of standardization are still seen in On Essays, which, despite its amiability, is a conflicted volume. The distinguished editors write in their introduction that “we have asked our contributors to accept and even embrace the irony of writing literary criticism and scholarship on the essay,” but, typo aside, there is scant evidence of explicit irony. Instead, there is an unaddressed disjunct between tidy, dispassionate exposition and the contributors’ obvious yen for the swerving idiosyncrasy and untidiness of an essay.
This is not to deny the book’s scholarly value. We get very decent chapters on the usual suspects—Montaigne, The Spectator, Lamb, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Pater—and a few unusual ones, such as Hume, Claudia Rankine, and Freud. Christy Wampole offers a welcome and thoughtful expansion of the term into images and film; my one reservation is that her chapter, which dwells lovingly on Salvador Dalí’s illustrations to Montaigne, does not even mention Dalí’s own copious and fantastical body of essays. There are also three strong chapters on the relationship of the essay to the novel in Tristram Shandy, the Victorians, and post-war fiction. Between the contributions are points of commonality, or to put it another way, repetitions: the etymology of “essay,” or Adorno’s well-milked essay on essays, or the idioms of scribbling and ambivalence and provisionality and, yes, wandering.
Given the careful arguments found throughout the volume, the reader will be easily persuaded by its conclusions, for instance that “the history of the essay before 1800 should be understood in relation to broader historical narratives,” or that “Surrealism and essayism have many irons in a shared fire.” But it is hard to shake the romantic feeling that conclusions, especially when placed in a section entitled “Conclusion,” are out of place in a book about essays.
Moreover, if the conflict between subject and manner is repressed, there is not even a latent conflict in the book about the nature and value of essays; it is a land of peace, where the Woolf lies down with the Lamb. One wishes for a little drama, especially as the genre itself runs the risk of cosiness, notwithstanding the phantasmagoria of De Quincey and the political turmoil of Hazlitt. (Ophelia Field’s chapter here continues the story of the political essay into the twentieth century.) Lamb is the obvious culprit: for instance, when he—or rather Elia—tells us how much he dislikes Scotsmen (“you must beware of indirect expressions before a Caledonian. Clap an extinguisher upon your irony, if you are unhappily blest with a vein of it,” and so on) we don’t believe him, because it seems merely an excuse to rhapsodise about “indirect expressions” and “fragments and scattered pieces of truth,” that is, about the essay genre itself.
This is the version of the essay repeatedly assumed and extolled by the contributors, to the extent that the form comes to seem peculiarly orthodox in its dubiety and indirections. It is this complacency that Denys Thompson decried in his polemic “Our Debt to Lamb,” penned in 1934 on the centenary of the author’s death; he damns the old master as a flattering, soft-focus, anti-intellectual fount of quaint nothings, making an exception only for Lamb’s remarkable class critique of chivalry, “Modern Gallantry.” The only chapter in On Essays that engages with the enemy, by Felicity James, is specifically addressed to Thompson, whose assault she seeks to subdue by emphasising the “baroque darkness” and “deformity” in Lamb’s work, and by drawing parallels to postmodern fiction and Sebaldian bricolage. The defence is heroic and not entirely persuasive, but James deserves praise for taking the threat seriously, and her chapter repays attention.
The best chapters, or at any rate the most essaylike, are those of the book’s two editors, tragically separated by a laborious Hellespont of a piece on the miscellanies in the library of Isaac D’Israeli. In the first, Thomas Karshan favours a witty multum in parvo unpacking of Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” in which each of its images and events are allegorised, for want of a better word, as the essay form itself. Thus, an essay might be a bookshop, insofar as it brings together the works of others, or a valuation, insofar as it involves judgement, or a ramble—wandering again. Karshan outs himself as one of those mediaeval exegetes who couldn’t help but find Jesus everywhere they looked in the Hebrew Bible; he manages the feat of allegory twelve times, and each vignette brings other voices to the table, Montaigne and Cornwallis and Hazlitt and so on. There are easter eggs: ten pages after noting Woolf’s association of the word “nice” with Addison, Karshan writes “as Woolf nicely said of Addison’s essays.” This chapter does not try to persuade the reader of anything but the plenitude of “Street Haunting” and literary essays more generally; its currency is delight, and there is no conclusion.
The chapter by the other editor, Kathryn Murphy—a Caledonian connoisseuse of the pun who would surely have changed Elia’s (sham) opinion—is more pointed but just as funny, with a killer aside about Montaigne’s father that I won’t spoil. It deals with early essays (Montaigne, Bacon, Boyle) and their genetic connection to experience and experiment, direct contact with the world. Like an essay, her chapter is built around the contingent, around imagery (stones, sticks) and wordplay. Murphy has a conclusion, but it is less about particular writers or particular books in their context than about the form itself, and it goes to the heart of the issues we have been discussing here: the tension between the particular and the general, the life on which essays rely and the transmissible truth that they seem to promise. As she writes:
The central preoccupation of the early modern essay with experience and experiment… gave rise to some of the genre’s most characteristic conundrums and paradoxes: how to mediate immediate experience, how to render idiosyncrasy common and communicable, how to resist bookishness and dogmatism in a literary genre.
She finishes by emphasising the essay’s translation of the world into literature, of material into hermeneutic experience: “the encounter proves not that reality, but the vividness of the reader’s own experience of reading.” This strikes me as the most important moment in the volume, and one fully endorsed by Karshan’s allegorical thaumaturgy, for the plenitude he finds in Woolf is also his own. If the various chapters of the volume find happy agreement in identifying the essay as an icon of freedom, messiness, familiarity, and the material world––“everything and nothing,” in Karshan’s final figure—then it is an agreement that reflects something significant about our own involvement, with all its biases and preoccupations, in the treasury of the past. Something in us desperately wants not to know, or rather, to not-know.
I take the essay to be a way of making present, where so much academic writing is a way of making distant, whether in history or by theoretical abstraction. When we read the great essayists we are sitting at a table with the author, or watching Shakespeare with him, or buying a pencil with her. We would not want to spend our life in this mode. We need distance. But we have had a lot of distance lately. On Essays gives us a heady dose of presence, inviting us into a world of friendship and consensus, contingency and warmth. The editors close their introduction by ratifying Chesterton’s description of the essay as “the joke of literature,” on the grounds that jokes bring people together. In times like these it is a fitting rationale and a welcome invitation.
Anthony Ossa-Richardson is a literary and intellectual historian who teaches in the English department at University College London. He has published two monographs as well as recent essays in Modern Language Quarterly, the Review of English Studies, and Modern Intellectual History. His translation of Johannes Leo Africanus’s Cosmography and Geography of Africa will be published in 2022.