Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The essayist Joseph Epstein, on essays

As someone who takes some pride in being known as "Joseph Epstein, an essayist"—or, even better, "the essayist Joseph Epstein"—who takes the term "essayist" as an honorific, I have both an interest and a stake in the form. I hate to see it put down, defamed, spat upon, even mildly slighted. The best luck that any writer can have is to find his or her form, and I feel fortunate in having found mine some twenty years ago in the familiar essay. It happened quite by luck: I was not then a frequent reader of Montaigne and Hazlitt; in those days I was even put off by Charles Lamb, who sometimes seemed to me a bit precious. For me the novel was the form of forms, and easily the one I most admired and should most have liked to master. Although I have published a dozen or so short stories, I have not yet written a novel—nor have I one in mind to write—and so I have to conclude that despite my enormous regard for that form, it just isn’t mine. Perhaps it is quite useless for a writer to search for his perfect form; that form, it may well be, has to find him.

Over the years, I have come to think more and more of the history and of the contemporary standing of the essay, the form that is apparently mine. I recently had occasion to read through Montaigne, who was the first modern essayist. It is a deep tribute to call a man modern who began writing in 1572, but the first thing one notices in reading Montaigne is how contemporary he feels. The essay, his own chosen form—he all but invented it, really—made it possible for him to speak to us person to person, with an intimacy hitherto unknown in literature. In this magical form Montaigne could dilate upon his subject, deliberately digress, or do anything he pretty much damn well pleased. The slender silver thread that holds a Montaigne essay together is the man Montaigne himself. He was the first essayist to talk about himself: "not to dare to talk roundly of yourself betrays a defect of thought," he felt. In his hands, the essay became an instrument of discovery—self-discovery, chiefly. "I study myself more than any other subject," Montaigne wrote. "That is my metaphysic; that is my physics.”
Joseph Epstein, “Introduction,” in Joseph Epstein, ed., The Best American Essays 1993 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), pp. xiv-xv.

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