Alan Taylor 12th February 2010
In the forthcoming issue of the SRB we are launching, in association with the University of Aberdeen, an essay competition, in the hope that it will stimulate interest in this most elastic and embracing of forms. For reasons too tedious to go into here the essay appears to slipped off the radar, especially in Britain where it was once a much- loved part of the literary landscape. In the US, however, it remains integral, as the annual compilation, The Best American Essays, shows.
Indeed, so popular has this volume become that it has spawned several offspring, including The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Sports Writing.
Thinking about essays I turned recently to The Jacques Barzun Reader, purchased a few years ago in the Strand Bookshop on Broadway in Manhattan. Barzun was born in France in 1907 and is still with us.
Aged 13, he arrived in the US and there he has remained. Though he has written many books – chief among them perhaps being From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life – his true metier is as an essayist.
His essays not only illuminate the subjects about which he writes but himself which, I believe, is the hallmark of the best essayists. As Barzun wrote in the introduction to Samplings and Chronicles:
‘Commentaries are notoriously double-edged. At the same time as they may be excellent criticism of the thing commented upon, they serve equally as faithful indices to the character and intellect of the commentator. More often this latter function is unconsciously – even self-treacherously – performed. But examples are not lacking in which self-revelation is at least partly the object of the critique.’
Like all good essayists, Barzun is insistently eclectic, his essays covering a diverse range of subject matter, from baseball to food, the railroad to ‘the centrality of reading’. My favourite essay of his, however, is ‘James Agate and His Nine Egos’, in which he considers Agate’s nine-volume autobiography, called Ego.
Barzun, you feel, has much in common with Agate, whose opinions were never predictable and who never shied away from shocking or taxing (or taking to task) his readers. That is another mark of the best essayists. ‘To him,’ writes Barzun of Agate, ‘writing must exhaust meaning while invigorating the reader, a task which is doubly difficult when one wants to introduce uncommon facts or ideas into the rigidly guarded mind of the newspaper addict.’
Here are ten essays that exemplify the form at its finest. The order is meaningless:
E.B. White: About Myself
Pauline Kael: Movies on Television
Edward Hoagland: Home Is Two Places
Robert Louis Stevenson: Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Dr Hyde of Honolulu
Alastair Reid: Digging Up Scotland
Gore Vidal: Calvino’s Death
William Hazlitt: On the Pleasure of Hating
Virginia Woolf: The Death of the Moth
M.F.K. Fisher: Young Hunger
Calvin Trillin: Competitors
Find our more about the essay competition HERE