Who? O.B. Hardison, Jr., former head of the Folger Library who for a long time had a poetry prize named for him. Who knew he was so smart when it came to the essay? That he was so spot-on re the essay’s history, style, approach, and reach? To wit:
[T]he early essay [of Montaigne and Bacon] substitutes one kind of rhetoric for another. Since the new kind of rhetoric is unconventional and thus unfamiliar, it means … that the early essay seeks to give the impression of novelty. And since the impression of novelty depends on the use of formulas that are unfamiliar and therefore not obvious to the reader, it means … that the early essay seems to create the illusion of being unstudied and spontaneous. It pretends to spring either from the freely associating imagination of the author or from the Draconian grammar of the world of things.
There is a formula for such a style: … art that conceals art. Montaigne announces: “The way of speaking that I like is a simple and natural speech, the same on paper as on the lips…, far removed from affectation, free, loose, and bold.” The statement is charming, but it is demonstrably false. Both Montaigne and Bacon revised their essays over and over again. The lack of artifice is an illusion created by years of effort. (15-16)
Given the fact that neither of these guys “could let an essay alone once it had been written,” Hardison argues they proceeded to “muck up” the form they helped invent. “The constant revision implies a change in the concept of the essay from the enactment of a process to something that suspiciously resembles literature,” he writes. Then:
To turn the essay into literature is to domesticate it.… To turn the essay into literature is also to encourage authors to display beautiful—or delicately anguished, or nostalgic, or ironic, or outraged, or extroverted, or misanthropic—souls or, alternatively, to create prose confections, oxymorons of languid rhythms and fevered images. (22-23)
In other words, it’s to bring the poor thing into the academy and make it act like a short story (hence memoir) or a poem (hence lyric essay).
Hardison admits, preferring a form where the essay can remain an essay, that “in spite of all temptations, the essay has tended to remain true to its heritage” (23). What is that heritage, other than overly revised in order to come across as off-hand and freely vocalized? One thing I took from the piece is that the essay comes from a place (and time, see below) of profound doubt. It’s not, for instance, rhetoric. Not oration. The other things it isn’t, though, is purely thinky. Watch how Hardison reads the following passage in Montaigne’s “Of Repenting”:
Others shape the man; I narrate him, and offer to view a special one, very ill-made, and who, could I fashion him over, I should certainly make very different from what he is; but there is no doing that. The world is but perpetual motion; all things in it move incessantly…. I can not anchor my subject; he is always restless and staggering with an unsteadiness natural to him. I catch him in the state that he is in at the moment when I turn my attention to him. I do not paint his being, I paid his passing—not the passing from one age to another… but from day to day, from moment to moment…. Writers commune with the world with some special and peculiar badge; I am the first to do this with my general being, as Michel de Montaigne.
Here, I think, we have the authentic note of the Essais and of the essay as a genre. 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. It is the literary response to a world that has become problematic. (19-20, my emphasis)
Compare this with Atwan’s banal “an essay shows us a mind at work.” The obvious problem here: minds work sloppily. Even John Nash’s.