Thursday, October 11, 2007

Familiar essays

Emerson’s essays can be hard traveling. He is not the friendliest companion. I’m not sure this should matter, but in the familiar essay, it does.

Michel de Montaigne is the master of the form. His style is genial and conversational. Many of his successors imitate this manner in some way – Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Joseph Epstein. Plutarch, 1,000 years earlier, is similar. None of these writers are as profound as Montaigne can be, not remotely in some cases. But they all feel like they would make good friends. Or good dinner companions at least.

Is this necessary for a great essayist? Francis Bacon’s essays are more like instructional pamphlets, little lectures. Thomas DeQuincey is a brilliant showoff, and I would think he would be a trial at dinner. Emerson wants to be Montaigne’s successor, and match him in moral seriousness (which I think he does). His concerns seem very private, though. He presents a certain view of the world that is original, but perhaps too much his own. Or maybe he is the sort of intense friend who always wants to discuss serious things and gets mad when you just want to make fun of Tom Cruise. Very rewarding to meet once every couple of weeks over lunch, but too strong a presence to see every day.

I should try to dig into one of his essays more carefully. They’re worth the effore, but the effort is very real.

And all of this is flummoxed a bit by the essay I just read, “Prudence”, which begins “What right have I to write on Prudence, whereof I have little, and that of the negative sort?” which is just the sort friendly stuff I’m talking about.

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