The essay is the ditch-digging occupation of writing. Ishmael Reed
When Michael Herr's Dispatches first appeared in 1977, the critics applauded this unique rendering of the Viet Nam experience. Citing the dearth of compelling fiction from Viet Nam, they hinted that the novel and short story had finally proven themselves archaic in both form and sensibility, as evidenced by their inability to capture the immediacy and disjointed folly of this most foreign of American wars. Now Herr's book was something else, and they called it everything imaginable: rock 'n' roll reporting; a personal journal; a transcript of the "mad-pop-poetic/ bureaucratically camouflaged language in which Viet Nam was lived."
On its own terms, Dispatches might best be regarded as a huge and motley totesack -- a literary receptacle for sensation and memory, hard facts now and then shifting the balance to visceral impressions and off-the-cuff (oftentimes, off-the-wall) philosophy. To call upon Dr. Johnson's phrase, Dispatches was "an irregular, undigested piece." Or to borrow a word from the French in referring to the form later perfected by the English, Herr's book was, quite frankly, an essay.
That the term essay should evoke any negative connotations is probably a factor of our early classroom experience with a stuffy set of notions that link formality to style and set a premium on bloodless analysis and objectivity. While these principles might apply in an odd way to Montaigne and Francis Bacon, it must be remembered that the congenial essay has always been one of our most personal, eccentric, and adaptable forms. "One damn thing after another," Aldous Huxley called it, "but in a sequence that in some miraculous way develops a central theme and relates it to the rest of human experience." In fact, in the annals of world literature, the unrestrained essayist (essai: attempt, trial, experiment) has always kept courageous and often dangerous company: Plato, Cicero, Carlyle, Swift, Twain, and scores of others who have helped forge our appreciation for clear thought and fresh language. Today the accomplishments of the modern essayist are no less important, and certainly no less varied and appealing.
The Newspaper Connection
Journalism has always been the first and best refuge of the essayist. Since the early 18th century when Joseph Addison and Richard Steele first put together the Tatler -- a thrice-weekly newspaper designed to elevate the moral and intellectual faculties of England's budding middle class -- the essayist has enjoyed constant if somewhat ambiguous employment as a member of the working press. Plying his trade under a variety of guises that have ranged from the timeless street scenes of Dickens 'Sketches by Boz to the out-and-out polemics of H.L. Mencken, the essayist has approached the inherent conflicting interests of his craft with a full larder of whimsical irony. Immersed in the wage-earning and ephemeral world of four-alarm fires and political intrigue, the true essayist has had to continually suppress or blunt what E.B. White calls "the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest."
Sometimes, as in the case of Janet Flanner, this urge to self-censorship makes for a rather opaque style of revelation. Writing for a half-century under the pen-name of "Genet" for The New Yorker, Flanner generally focused her discriminating eye upon the social and artistic elite of Europe. Her work often recalls the advocacy for taste and manners so prominent in the pioneering efforts of Addison and Steele; at other times, Flanner inserts herself neatly into the turmoil of the age, observing a bankrupt Berlin of 1931 or reflecting upon the fate of Warsaw some time after the ghetto uprising. But whether she writes about manners or history, Flanner always manages to construct her point of view in a most effectively self-effacing manner, her own personality hiding watchfully beneath the subtle implications of her prose.
Not so, of course, for America's foremost contemporary reporter-turned-essayist, Joan Didion. When Didion undertakes a character profile -- her piece on James Pike, the Episcopalian Bishop of California, for example -- she doesn't begin with the subject, his family, philosophy, or even a recitation of his favorite food (as did Janet Flanner in a 1936 profile of Adolph Hitler). Rather, Didion begins the piece with a word about her own recollection of Pike's church, and then characteristically proceeds to lace the narrative with what she calls elsewhere, "always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable 'I.'" "The greatest study of Mann is Mann" wrote Janet Flanner in a profile of the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, and likewise, we may note that an equivalent scheme of interests exists for Joan Didion. As a reporter, she tells us, she is not really interested in issues, but in the "alchemy of issues." And what this seems to mean is that every character, every subject, from Linda Kasabian to shopping malls, must at some point brush up against the author and receive its illuminating charge from the quality of that contact. This is, of course, self-indulgence led to an often abrading extreme. But on the other hand, self-indulgence, coupled with with, passion, and intelligence, has always been the touchstone of the successful essayist. "Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and stamina to write essays" advised E.B. White. Didion's collected pieces in The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem frankly do not purport to be objective social history, and we would be missing the point to regard them as such. Rather, we read these meditations upon Bogota and Malibu, John Wayne and Charles Manson to learn how an acutely sensitive and articulate individual managed to harrow the age. Subjectivity is the point in full.
A Strong, High Voice
Didion is often praised for her fine, precise language, her strong voice speaking in contrast to a physical presence which is, as she tells us, "small," "temperamentally unobtrusive," and "neurotically inarticulate." In other words, she has had to fight for her language, and each stone-cut line marks some small victory.
Edward Hoagland is another essayist who has earned his style through adversity. A novelist of modest reputation before turning to the essay (Cat Man in 1956 and The Circle Home in 1960), Hoagland has spent much of his childhood and adult life as a stutterer. ("Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a devoted writer at twenty. I worked like a dog, choosing each word.") Hoagland's style is consonant with the idea that the essay is a variety of "conversational writing." Unshackled, Hoagland converses recklessly, wildly, an abundance of critical detail and blinding enthusiasm fueling his abrupt transitions from present to past, subject to self, city to countryside. As Hoagland charges about from topic to reflection to stylistic glissando, we find, as observed critic Geoffrey Wolff, that "it is impossible to know (but easy to feel) what the essay is 'about.'" Hoagland, ablaze in a trail of Pickwickian serendipity, is the sympathetic purveyor of black bears, red wolves, and city rats; he records the folk lore of early settlers in British Columbia and Vermont and the survivalist point of view from New York City; he journeys to the Sudan, collecting all manner of stories and "hemorrhaging with loneliness" in a village "so poor that its people could have spent ten years living on the air fare itself." In the course of these travels, Hoagland selects generously from observations and imagination and supports the disparate elements of his experience with an iron brace of determined optimism.
In Town & Country
Hoagland is hardly the first observer of animals and lairs to balance between the rough call of the woods and the concentrated frenzy of big city living. Since Thoreau, the American essayist has been torn by the happy agony of deciding whether to leave the city for the country, and upon leaving, when to return. Nowadays the tension of two homes is stock-in-trade for the essayist, though few display the pertinacious ease and delight with acquired folkways that distinguish both Hoagland and his counterpart, John McPhee.
As a staff writer for The New Yorker, McPhee has straddled two worlds in scores of articles and more than a dozen books. Best known for his non-fiction study of Alaska, Coming into the Country, McPhee has also tangled with long, discursive pieces about the higher levels of tennis, the craft of bark canoe builders, missing links in the technology of nuclear waste disposal. McPhee is an adventurer of information, a stickler for the facts. He has written a book about oranges, a most studious and exacting survey that would do justice to Montaigne in its recognition of fundamental cravings. Typically, McPhee works from the sidelines, bending his style to any angle or knot that might suit his subject: in one piece, the raging differences between conservationists and the Federal government are tightly defined when McPhee boards a rubber raft headed down the Colorado along with Friends of the Earth founder Dave Brower and the U.S. Commissioner of Reclamation: "'Come on now, Dave, be honest' (the Commissioner) said. 'From a conservationist's point of view, what is the best source of electric power?' 'Flashlight batteries,' Brower said."
A peripatetic and specifist of sorts, McPhee -- like his cohorts -- must feel somewhat cheered now that many private concerns have risen to the general interest, and the essay once again enjoys a reasonably wide and diverse circulation. As for success and riches, the lot of the essayist has probably been most realistically defined, once again, by E.B. White. "A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play," assures White, "and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.