Monday, February 8, 2010

The Essay: An Introduction

I've always been interested in the essay as a form of writing. Ew, no! you say. I was done with essays in high school or college, those awful five paragraph hamburger essays, or AP exam essays, or some Judith Butler essay like “Merely Cultural.” Oh, the painfulness of essays.

No, not those kind of essays.

I'm talking about "personal essays," also called familiar essays or literary essays. Personal essay writers always cite Michel de Montaigne, a French writer from the 1500s who wrote stuff like "Of Thumbs," which was, as one might guess, about thumbs. Montaigne would pick some topic---thumbs, marriage, flatulence, death---and kind of roam around the subject, using anecdotes from his life, interesting facts from books he'd read, and his thoughts. Essay writers will also bring up the fact that "essay" comes from the French for "attempt" (like the English word "assay"). An essayist picks up an idea, looks at it, thinks about, it and makes an attempt at shedding some light on the subject.

This is embarrassing, but this Wikipedia article may explain this better than I can.

In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, 'I am myself the matter of my book', was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?'). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly — his own judgment — makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. . . . Writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.

So, an essay usually has the following traits:
  • Personal elements, if only opinion. I.e. you don't have to talk about yourself, but you do have to talk AS yourself.
  • Not taking an explicit, pre-decided stand, but rather thinking things out within the essay itself.
  • Using yourself and your experiences as a lens to view the world. Again, this doesn't mean you have to be self indulgent or talk about your personal life.
  • Any of these rules can be broken.

There is a lot more to be said on the essay, but that is the purpose of this blog. To look at what makes an essay, whether it is long or short, research based or anecdotal. Where does memoir begin and essay end? Who is writing essays today and where can we find them? Does an email to a friend count as an essay? How useful are formal rhetorical rules when writing an essay?

For now I'll leave you with one of my favorite essays, the aforementioned "Of Thumbs" and hope we meet again soon.

Tacitus reports, that amongst certain barbarian kings their manner was, when they would make a firm obligation, to join their right hands close to one another, and intertwist their thumbs; and when, by force of straining the blood, it appeared in the ends, they lightly pricked them with some sharp instrument, and mutually sucked them.

Physicians say that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand, and that their Latin etymology is derived from “pollere.” The Greeks called them ‘Avtixeip’, as who should say, another hand. And it seems that the Latins also sometimes take it in this sense for the whole hand:

Sed nec vocibus excitata blandis,
Molli pollici nec rogata, surgit.
[“Neither to be excited by soft words or by the thumb.”—Mart., xii. 98, 8.]

It was at Rome a signification of favour to depress and turn in the thumbs:

Fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum:
[“Thy patron will applaud thy sport with both thumbs” —Horace.]

and of disfavour to elevate and thrust them outward:

Converso pollice vulgi,
Quemlibet occidunt populariter.
[“The populace, with inverted thumbs, kill all that come before them.”—Juvenal, iii. 36]

The Romans exempted from war all such as were maimed in the thumbs, as having no more sufficient strength to hold their weapons. Augustus confiscated the estate of a Roman knight who had maliciously cut off the thumbs of two young children he had, to excuse them from going into the armies; and, before him, the Senate, in the time of the Italic war, had condemned Caius Vatienus to perpetual imprisonment, and confiscated all his goods, for having purposely cut off the thumb of his left hand, to exempt himself from that expedition. Some one, I have forgotten who, having won a naval battle, cut off the thumbs of all his vanquished enemies, to render them incapable of fighting and of handling the oar. The Athenians also caused the thumbs of the AEginatans to be cut off, to deprive them of the superiority in the art of navigation.

In Lacedaemon, pedagogues chastised their scholars by biting their thumbs.


  1. From 'Of the Force of Imagination': "Of 'the vessels that serve to discharge the belly' I myself knew one so rude and ungoverned, as for forty years together made his master vent with one continued and unintermitted outbursting, and 'tis like will do so till he die of it"

    I love essays. Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. looks great, Emily! i love the page.

  3. Someone today pointed out that "On Thumbs" ends very abruptly. This is totally true. It may be one reason I like it, because I'm opposed to neat endings, but it is a flaw in many ways.

    It also illustrates Montaigne's "who cares" attitude towards writing these essays, which in many cases is what makes them so enjoyable---he's chatting with us on a very intimate level. In the end though, it is a bit of a cop out.

    More on endings in future posts.

  4. Hi Emily, I happened across your blog via your Facebook page, because I was thinking about you and other members of our Creative Nonfiction class with McPhee. Did you happen to see the item from PAW in which McPhee wrote in to name all the members of a Literature of Fact class from 20 years ago? And how he knew what most of them are doing professionally, even today? Very cool. It led me to write to him and fill him in on me -- you should do the same!

    Anyway, although I am less of an essay connoisseur than you, my favorite essay of all time is David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present," from Harper's magazine in 2001. It's about grammar but also about a grammar dictionary, class, race and education (as you pointed out, successful essays have multiple themes). Have you read it? It's long, but worth it. It led me to buy the dictionary under review -- also worth it.

    Hope you're well, Kit

  5. I wanted to write an essay on Montaigne, but I am "all thumbs". Oh; that is not really true of me, I guess
    Charlie J

  6. If anyone is curious, the above post is from my dad, who cut off part of his thumb in a factory accident during college. This both disqualified him for Vietnam service and allowed him to buy his first car, a Chevy Nova, with the settlement money and drive my mother around the country on their honeymoon. I am trying to get him to write an essay about this.

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