Discover the personal essay: unique and immortal Intimacy: The form is reflective, skeptical, sharply observant, compact, yet endlessly provocative.

The Argument

December 07, 1997|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The personal essay, like so many of this world's good things, is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. It is not autobiography, reportage or criticism, though it may closely resemble any of these, and sometimes even all three at once. Its subject matter can range from the sublime (Michel de Montaigne's "On Some Verses of Virgil") to the seemingly trivial (G. K. Chesterton's "On Running After One's Hat"). Invented by the Romans, perfected by a Frenchman and churned out in awe-inspiring quantities by the English, it has long since become the characteristic mode of American literary expression - yet American publishers are still notoriously reluctant to bring out essay collections, reflexively citing the conventional wisdom that "essays don't sell" (by which is meant that they don't sell as well as, say, John Grisham's latest novel).

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of today's leading essayists, Joseph Epstein, who has supplied the best working definition of this elusive genre: "For myself, I hold the essay to be a piece of writing that is anywhere from three to fifty pages long, that can be read twice, that provides some of the pleasures of style, and that leaves the impression of a strong or at least interesting character."

To which I would add (as Epstein himself does later on) that modesty is central to any valid definition of the essay. The wise essayist never sets out to say the last word about anything, for experience has taught him that such all-encompassing statements are not to be made by mere mortals; rather, he offers a wholly idiosyncratic view of his subject, unashamedly cast in the first person singular. "If all complain that I talk too much about myself," said Montaigne, the quintessential essayist, "I complain that they never even think about their own selves."

Reflective, skeptical, sharply observant, compact yet endlessly provocative, the personal essay is to my mind the most grateful of all literary forms, and for those in search of an alternative to the exhibitionistic memoirs and trashy celebrity unbooks that blight the best-seller lists, the great essayists of the past and present are the perfect antidote. But where to begin exploring their work? As always, the road to cultural discovery leads straight to the nearest bookstore. Here are nine books - each available in paperback - that, taken together, will provide the interested reader with ready access to the intimate world of the essay:

* The starting point for any exploration of the essay as literary genre is Philip Lopate's "The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present" (Anchor, 777 pages, $16.95, paper). This collection, which starts with Seneca and ends with Richard Rodriguez, contains selections by 51 famous essayists - among them Montaigne, Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin and Joan Didion - together with a shrewd introduction in which Lopate, himself a noted practitioner of the form, hits the nail on the head: "The personal essay has historically sought to puncture the stiffness of formal discourse with language that is casual, everyday, demotic, direct. The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom."

* Having first sampled the genre, you should go on to explore in depth the profoundly humane writings of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who is chiefly responsible for developing the first-person essay as a literary form. His essays are available in innumerable editions, among them a well-chosen collection translated by J. M. Cohen (Penguin, 406 pages, $11.95, paper)

* The modern counterpart of the great English essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries is George Orwell. Though the author of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "Animal Farm" is mainly known in the United States as a novelist, it was in his essays that Orwell's direct, forthright style and searching moral imagination came through most clearly. Of the various collections of Orwell's shorter pieces available in this country, the most wide-ranging is "A Collection of Essays" (HB/Harvest, 316 pages, $11, paper), which contains such classic essays as "Shooting an Elephant" and "Politics and the English Language."

* Baltimore's own H. L. Mencken remains by far the most popular of 20th-century American essayists, and the standard single-volume compilation of his work is his own "A Mencken Chrestomathy," published in 1949 and in print continuously since then (Vintage, 627 pages, $19, paper). Many of Mencken's old standbys are here - "In Memoriam: W.J.B.," "The Sahara of the Bozart," "The Hills of Zion" - along with dozens of less well-known but equally pungent selections.

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