“Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”
“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White remarked in his reflection on the art of the essay. And yet there must be a reason why the essay is what we turn to when we set out to assess human potential, as in college applications, and discuss matters of cultural charge, as in op-eds. For Annie Dillard — modern mystic, sage of writing, champion of the creative spirit — the essay is not only an immensely valuable genre of literature, but also a pinnacle of thought and a hallmark of the writer’s aspiration for significance. In the introduction to the altogether excellent anthology The Best American Essays 1988 (public library), which she edited, Dillard explores the misunderstood merits of the essay, a form she considers to be the short form of nonfiction, much as the short story is the short form of fiction. She places particular focus on the narrative essay — a genre that “demonstrates the modern writer’s self-conscious interest in writing” — especially narrative essays that “mix plain facts and symbolic facts, or that transform plain facts into symbolic facts.”
A great many narrative essays appear in the guise of short stories… My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artists, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve.
Her aspiration in editing the volume, Dillard notes, was to coax essay writers “out of the closet.”
Comparing the extinction of the essay with the shrinking of other literary forms — including a particularly ungenerous but, perhaps, tragically accurate account of poetry’s role in the literary ecosystem — Dillard presages the rise of the narrative essay:
Poetry seems to have priced itself out of a job; sadly, it often handles few materials of significance and addresses a tiny audience. Literary fiction is scarcely published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art — all the unknown writer can do is tell people about his work, and all they can say is, “good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, willfully limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it cannot address the things that most engage our hearts and minds. So the narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.
She goes on to explore just what makes the narrative essay such a winsome genre over short fiction and poetry:
In some ways the essay can deal in both events and ideas better than the short story can, because the essayist — unlike the poet — may introduce the plain, unadorned thought without the contrived entrances of long-winded characters who mouth discourses… The essayist may reason; he may treat of historical, cultural, or natural events, as well as personal events, for their interest and meaning alone, without resort to fabricated dramatic occasions. So the essay’s materials are larger than the story’s.
The essay may deal in metaphor better than the poem can, in some ways, because prose may expand what the lyric poem must compress. Instead of confining a metaphor to half a line, the essayist can devote to it a narrative, descriptive, or reflective couple of pages, and bring forth vividly its meanings… The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than that of poetry. And it can handle discursive idea, and plain fact, as well as character and story.
The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do — everything but fake it. The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically — the connections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader. Veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the writer; there’s a lot of truth out there to work with. And veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the reader. The real world arguably exerts a greater fascination on people than any fictional one; many people, at least, spend their whole lives there, apparently by choice. The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.
Dillard argues that American literature “derives from the essay and hinges on the essay,” for it stems from Emerson, who was an essayist. She lists among the notable godfathers of the genre Thoreau, Twain, and Poe, then turns to Melville and what his underappreciated essays reveal about the general cultural conceits toward the genre:
There is no reason why anyone should read, touch, or publish this brilliant stuff (“The Encantadas” [Melville's essay about his ephemeral experience of the Galapagos Islands]) as fiction — except that the world is curiously blind to the essay, and to the essay’s imaginative and narrative possibility, as if it didn’t exist, or as if a work by its very excellence should have mysteriously tiptoed out of its proper (but dull-sounding) genre and crept into a more fashionable (but incorrect) one.
Noting that understanding history is a recurrent theme in her selection of essays, as well as in literary nonfiction in general, Dillard captures the cultural role of the writer beautifully:
Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.
And yet that is an act that requires mastering the art of uncertainty, of “the unknowingness that is the nub of any intimacy”:
We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.
(It is rather ironic, given Dillard’s dismissal of poetry as a lesser form, that it was John Keats — a poet — who best articulated this notion in his famous concept of “negative capability.”)
Dillard returns to the cultural journey of the essay:
The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on. The thinking mind will analyze, and the creative imagination will link instances, and time itself will churn out scenes — scenes unnoticed and lost, or scenes remembered, written, and saved.
Complement The Best American Essays 1988 with this meditation on what makes a great essay by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, from the 2012 edition of the anthology, then revisit E.B. White on egoism and the art of the essay and Annie Dillard’s collected wisdom on writing.