English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay
There are many predictable delights to a year of navigating the great landmarks of literary history. But one unexpected pleasure has been the sense that so much of what we consider unprecedented about our own literary culture has actually been seen many times before. This feeling struck me in several different ways while reading this volume of English essays.
The short, personal essay, though it has roots in Seneca and
Montaigne, came into its own as a literary form in England in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as practiced by the writers
collected here. The form hits its stride in the early 1700s, in the
hands of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who wrote gossipy pieces
about the London of their day. Addison and Steele collaborated on the Tatler, which Steele founded, and later on the Spectator. They created a collection of personae, which they called the
Spectator Club, and many of their writings are openly fictionalised. Here's the beginning of Steele's
The Vision of Mirza:
When I was at Grand Cairo, I picked up several oriental manuscripts, which I have still by me. Among others I met with one entitledThe Visions of Mirza,which I have read over with great pleasure. I intend to give it to the public when I have no other entertainment for them, and shall begin with the first vision, which I have translated word for word.
There follows a three page pastiche of an Arabian night, all of it
ostensibly translated from this manuscript. When I read this work --
it's not an
essay in the sense that we use the term now, but nor is it a
exactly -- I thought immediately of a 20th century Orientalist
Anglophile, one who specialized in this strange straddling of two
forms. Borges' ficciones would not be at all out of place in the Spectator,
a fact of which he was no doubt well aware. And yet Borges' odd
mingling of fiction and non-fiction, story and essay, narrative and
exposition is generally considered a sui generis
post-modernist act. In light of these pages, Borges seems rather to be
returning the essay to its original form. He's like a real-life version
of his greatest creation, Pierre Menard, re-writing hundred-year-old
works to which the passage of time has given new meaning.
But there's another way that these essays made me think of more
recent writing. Addison and Steele aren't the only writers in this
volume who started their own journals. There was Daniel Defoe's Review, Samuel Johnson's Rambler, Sydney Smith's Edinburgh Review (the radical outlet much discussed in Mill's Autobiography), and Leigh Hunt's Examiner.
Which is to say that more than a third of the essayists included here
published in journals that they had some hand in founding. These
journals were often short-lived, and their content was often produced
by just one or two contributers. You can probably see where I'm going
here. Even names like the Rambler and the
Tatler sound like blog names.
There's been a lot of talk recently about the reduction of book coverage in mainstream media. Many wrtiers have rejected out of hand the notion that literary blogs might fill the cultural vacuum that shrinking mainstream media space threatens to create. Blogs make poor substitutes for print reviews, the argument goes, mostly because they aren't edited, and because they lack the rigor and accountability provided by the imprimatur of the professional masthead. At present, this complaint happens to be generally true in practice -- there are a lot of sloppy blogs out there (including this one) and even the very best struggle to balance immediacy with quality control.
But there's no reason that any of this must remain true over time. If the decline of the print review sends more literate readers to the blogosphere; if these readers bring with them the expectations inculcated by the best print review sections; if these standards influence which blogs these readers regularly visit and what feedback they provide; if, in short, the stakes are raised within the literary blogosphere, there is no reason to think that some blogs won't respond to this challenge by becoming more professional.
Self-edited doesn't have to mean
un-edited, and it
certainly doesn't have to mean poorly written. Many of the writers in
this volume wrote essays that were unapologetically trifling, written
to make a quick buck. But the best of them are still read today.
Whoever wishes to attain an English style, Samuel Johnson writes in his Life of Addison (included in this volume),
familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison. These exemplary works -- like most blogs -- were written, edited and printed by the same hand.
--CRB, August 12, 2007