The latest example of this phenomenon in action relates not to a hot new release but to E.B. White’s 1977 collection of essays. First I came across a passing mention of the book in Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (a wonderful bookseller's memoir about which I promise a post soon) and noted it down. Then The Literate Kitten listed it in her response to Dorothy W.'s recent request for essay recommendations. That was enough for me; I went out and acquired a copy.
I’m thoroughly enjoying White’s essays. It’s too early in my reading for a post on the collection as a whole, but I wanted to share a couple of excerpts from the foreword given their connection to recent litblog discussions about the essay form.
Of the essayist White writes:
The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.
He’s having a bit of fun in the reference to self-centeredness but not entirely so. A few paragraphs on, he follows up on this point:
I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others.
I haven’t yet read enough of White’s essays to judge whether that’s a fair statement about his work. But I don’t accept it as an accurate reflection of essayists in general. Some of my favourite essayists do indeed depict their own lives in minute detail and do so in very compelling fashion. But many turn their gaze not on themselves but outward. Very often it is precisely their keen attention to the lives of others that makes their work so interesting. Of course, that doesn’t mean the essayist is absent from the text. I agree with Dorothy W. and Danielle that an engaging voice is paramount in the essay form. But often what makes an essay work is not the reader’s interest in the essayist but rather the essayist’s interest in his or her topic. We don’t need to be convinced that the essayist is interesting so much as we need to be convinced that he or she is interested. A good essay has the capacity to infect the reader with the same curiosity that grips the writer.
What do you think? Must the essayist be an egoist?