By the start of the 20th century, the essay was the runt of literary genres. It was what people wrote when they'd "failed in the larger roles, the finer forms, and could not populate a page with people, with passionate poetry." This was the conviction of fiction writer and essayist William Gass in 1985--and the consensus of most academic critics at the time.
Despite the number of strong essayists living--as well as the fact that it was an essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who first defined American literature in "The American Scholar"--the essay was essentially considered an expedient, not an art form, by the 20th century arbiters whose business it was to rate literature: a means to a social, political or professional end but rarely an end in itself.
When the first academic studies of the genre began to emerge in the United States about 15 years ago, they routinely opened with elaborate apologies and justifications. Why would anyone want to study the essay? Barred from the realm of art, and increasingly tainted over the last half of the century by association with college composition courses, the essayist cut a bad figure at the Table of the Greats. "The essayist," lamented E.B. White in 1977, "must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen."
That was then. Thanks to people like Robert Atwan, who founded the annual Best American Essays series in 1986 and has since co-edited "The Best American Essays of the Century" with Joyce Carol Oates, the essay has been rediscovered, dusted off and given a podium of its own. It was high time.
Of course, no one really knows what the essay is. One must settle for fuzzy criteria: the essay usually runs between one and 50 pages; it addresses general readers rather than specialists, lacks scholarly apparatus, bargains on voice, not expertise, chutzpah not authority. It is a meditative form: Its progress is exploratory, its conclusions provisional.
The question remains: What kind of beast is this particular essay that has been roused from the grave and now stares out at us from the pages of "The Best American Essays of the 20th Century" and "The Book of 20th-Century Essays"? It is hardly the mischievous creature Montaigne first dubbed essai in 16th-century France, the presumptuous imp that pranced boldly between the most personal of details and the most sweeping of generalizations about the human condition. Nor is it the oracular sphinx that speaks hard truths about love, loss, learning, ambition, marriage, fear and death that we find in Francis Bacon in the 17th century and Samuel Johnson in the 18th. Nor, finally, is it the high-flying lark of Emerson: the morning sentry that awakens men and women to their day's work, their inherent potential, their need for self-reliance. In fact, the animal in these anthologies is often a timid, private little burrower: It sticks to itself; it keeps its own turf and takes heed not to step onto the territory of others.
"I'm speaking for myself," the contemporary essayist seems to say. "For myself and--possibly--for my race, gender or family. I know nothing of you. I presume nothing. I argue nothing." After all, the patience of the public "wears thin when confronted with sermonizing in its many forms," as Oates remarks in the introduction to her collection with Atwan. "Sermonizing" is a vague term. Judging from Oates' collection, it means the advancement of any broad idea.
What the 55 essayists in her volume all do well is provide descriptions and tell stories--generally of autobiographical events. Some of them--from John Muir and James Agee to Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Dillard--do so extremely well. The writing in their essays frequently shines. Their conclusions, however, prove unformulated, even nonexistent. An author is content to tell us of a trip to a mountain with her husband, say, but reluctant or unable to make this experience relevant to us by proffering any larger point. She relates this anecdote elegantly. But that's it. She fails to exploit her right to interpret, speculate, philosophize, draw conclusions, make points and find generalizations, a right that essayists of all previous centuries have exercised and which has made their work arresting, if not necessarily agreeable.