On Essays: Literature’s Most Misunderstood Form

Michael Depp
From the July/August 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This is not an essay. Though maybe, in a way, it is. Because it's a strange thing about essays—even talking about them, trying to get at what they are, it's hard not to cleave to the spirit of the essay, that inconclusive, most outwardly formless of forms, which spills and seeps into so many other kinds of writing-memoir, feature, commentary, review—and punctuates every assertion with a qualification, a measure of doubt, an alternate possibility.

So, this might be an essay.

It's this very problem, the want of a strict, inarguable definition of the essay, knowing where it stops and where other forms begin, that has perhaps made the essay one of literature's most misunderstood forms, a "second-class citizen" in the world of letters, according to one of its best-known practitioners, E.B. White. And yet to many who write them, essays are some of literature's most rigorous undertakings—both intellectually taxing and more revelatory than fiction, as they lack the soft membrane of fiction's artifice to buffer the impact of the writer's thoughts on the reader.

Long before postmodernism drew the reader's attention to the naked machinations of literature, there was the essay, laying itself bare, the curtain between the writer and reader already pulled back. The writer, caught in a kind of intellectual flagrante delicto, struggles, tests, sounds things out, finds ideas and discards others. For the reader, the very thrill and energy of the essay comes from this intimate exposure, the art of a writer intensely in dialogue with him or herself, the "dialectic of self-questioning," as essayist Phillip Lopate calls it. O.B. Hardison Jr. sees this self-realization extending even further, to an almost metaphysical level: "The essay is the enactment of the process by which the soul realizes itself even as it is passing from day to day and from moment to moment."

That acting out, that attempt, is the essay's vital center. And so it was coined in the 16th century by Michel de Montaigne, whose own prose works on matters philosophical, literary, and moral seemed to find no place among prescribed forms or genres of writing because of their self-effacing, antiauthoritative posture. He called his effort essai. (The modern translation from the French corresponds simply to "attempt.") And thus was a name given to the form and the process, though it was not necessarily born with Montaigne, as certain rhetorical works dating back to the likes of Seneca and Plutarch can be retrofitted with the designation.

If Montaigne didn't, strictly speaking, invent the form, he certainly gave it its tincture, laying out some of its broad parameters, setting the stage for the later identifiable informalities it would accrue. He rejected systemic thinking and hefty, authoritative rhetoric. He showed readers the colliding intersections of his own thoughts. He didn't begin with conclusions, and often he never found them.

Which is why it's so ironic that for many readers, the introduction to the form begins with a high school homework assignment to write a five-paragraph essay, with its standard introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. Robert Atwan, founding editor of the annual Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin), points out that this is a perverse inversion of the form. In his foreword to the 1998 edition of the series, which began in 1986, he writes, "It not only paraded relentlessly to its conclusion; it began with its conclusion. Its structure permitted no change of direction, no reconsideration, no wrestling with ideas."

A real essay, Atwan says, never begins with its end.

So what occasions the essay? If a writer has no surefire argument to make, no point to sway the reader toward, why flaunt personal vacillations in print? Why not leave the questions and doubts to the rough draft rather than give them life?

For Richard Rodriguez, the attraction is the essay's public rehearsal of ideas. "I've always thought of the essay as a way of responding to public life," he says. "For me, the drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It's in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay."