Thursday, December 14, 2017

Dec 14, Robert Atwan, Contented With Content: Autobiographical Reflections on the Aesthetics of the Essay

Contented With Content:
Autobiographical Reflections on the Aesthetics of the Essay

Robert Atwan


Talking with a friend is nothing else but thinking aloud. 
—Joseph Addison (1672-1719)


A few years ago, Stephen Miller wrote a fine essay for The Sewanee Review called “The Strange Career of Joseph Addison.” Miller begins by noting that Addison’s reputation has diminished almost to a state of obscurity. I realized that hardly anyone read Addison any longer, but I didn’t know until Miller made a good case for it that the well known author of The Spectator has been in decline for nearly a century, his once solid reputation severely damaged by such influential early-twentieth century critics as Bonamy DobrĂ©e and T. S. Eliot. This should have come as no surprise, since the polite or genteel essay that Addison (along with his fellow-Spectator Richard Steele) had pretty much invented had fallen out of fashion as audiences towards the late nineteenth century discovered the more risque arts of La Belle Epoque, and then after World War I and the complete collapse of  Victorian values, the new literary modernists, like T. S. Eliot, had little use for the old-fashioned essay. “Belletristic” had become a pejorative term. Add to this the cultural climate introduced by new technologies and new forms of entertainment, and by the 1930s many prominent magazines had declared the old-fashioned essay dead. The long-cherished leisurely essay (once called the “true essay”) could not survive the pace of modern times.
     It came as a surprise to learn how long a time Addison’s reputation had been in decline. I suppose that’s because Addison had been so highly regarded when I was a college student in the early 1960s, a long time after the crushing attacks of Dobree and Eliot. My small Catholic commuter college—the long defunct Paterson, N.J. branch of Seton Hall University—apparently hadn’t known that Addison was finished, just as they hadn’t know that Thomas Aquinas was finished, or, for that matter, Cardinal John Henry Newman or G. K. Chesterton. So one semester I found myself in a first-year composition course responding to assignments asking us to write essays that imitated The Spectator. At the time I didn’t know that Samuel Johnson, an admirer of Addison, had once recommended similar imitation, a recommendation that would influence the prose of generations to come. “Whoever wishes to attain an English style,” wrote Johnson at the conclusion of his long essay on his illustrious predecessor, “familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Many early American authors and political figures would do just that, including the nation’s founders; Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson were steeped in Addison’s prose. The argument can be made that choice remnants of Addison’s prose style can be seen in The Declaration of Independence. 
     I found the imitation exercises fun, and I suppose that while learning this familiar literary style I obtained a sense of what an essay should sound like. But several years later at Rutgers graduate school I would discover that Addison was not as highly respected as I had come to believe. I can distinctly recall one of my favorite teachers, Thomas E. Edwards, an eighteenth century scholar and critic, standing in front of the class and, with the assistance of his ever-present Chesterfield, pointing out the limitations of Joseph Addison. Edwards memorably mentioned that one could trace an uninterrupted line from The Spectator to the present-day New Yorker magazine (it was 1965), but I quickly realized he didn’t intend his remark as a compliment. Like Addison, the New Yorker, he suggested, was fashionably Whiggish, each week endorsing a complacent middle-class liberal world view. I’m not sure if he used the term “bourgeois” but that was the effect. I was relatively well-read (mainly because my college had never heard of critical “theory” and so we just read and discussed one great author after another), but I was essentially uneducated when it came to literature. I had no clue that the revered New Yorker could be considered “middle-brow.” And Edwards said it as though it were common knowledge.
     As a staunch Whig, Addison was more centrist than Steele, whose often impassioned politics tilted more to what we’d call the “Left” today. The two would eventually clash over parliamentary politics. We might say that the Tories and Whigs as political parties roughly correspond to our Republicans and Democrats (or conservatives and liberals), but there was at least one big difference. The Tories at that time represented a landed aristocracy which hoped to preserve class distinctions and titles and found commercial pursuits undignified. Whigs like Addison were enamoured of commerce and business, which they perceived as avenues that would assist a rising middle class and produce a more socially equitable nation. Today’s liberals, especially its progressive wing, essentially detest Capitalism and what they deem to be a greedy corporate culture. This hostility toward businesses and corporations is ironically reflected in our well-established periodicals that court an upper class with luxury advertisements (for expensive automobiles, mult-multi-million dollar properties, jewelry, fragrances, designer clothing, pricey liquor, exotic vacation packages, and Broadway shows unaffordable to the vast majority of Americans) while publishing articles and editorials that promote a fashionable egalitarianism. While browsing these glossy periodicals one may well wonder: which demonstrates their true ideology, the luxury ads aimed at the 1% or the articles identifying with the 99%? A few of these magazines, despite the progressive stance of their content, are unabashedly targeted to the elite super-rich. A key part of Addison and Steele’s plan for their fashionably Whiggish Spectator was to promote Commerce and middle-class values.


I decided to write a paper on Addison for Tom Edwards’s class. I still have “The Prose Style of Joseph Addison” (dated April 2, 1965) in which I thought I’d praise Addison’s compositional achievements and demonstrate how he accomplished them—that is, I would get into the nuts and bolts of style, grammar, and syntax. The paper was a failure, though Edwards generously gave it an A-, commenting in red on what I well knew: “This falls a little short of showing how A. does it.” No sooner had I started the paper that I realized I had no idea how to analyze prose style; I could look under the hood and find the distributor but I didn’t know how to change the points and set the timing.
     I began the paper by citing C. S. Lewis on Addison’s style in order to show the deficiencies of a certain kind of criticism:
C.S. Lewis concludes his essay on Addison with the sentiment that the “Addisonian world is not one to live in at all times, but it is a good one to fall back into when the day’s work is over and a man’s feet on the fender and his pipe in his mouth.” This metaphor of masculine relaxation, though not very analytical, is not useless, for it is a way of describing the atmosphere, or more appropriately, the tone one experiences while reading Addison, whom Mr. Lewis calls “above all else, comfortable.” 
Notice that we are back to what the mid-twentieth century critics found contemptible about Addison—his smugness, complacency, persistent congeniality, and adherence to middle-class values. I then went on to say :“The sound of Addison’s sentences strikes what Robert Frost called one’s ‘audial imagination,’ leaving the reader with the impression of an easy conversational manner, a voice, unlike Swift’s and Pope’s, comfortable in the limitations of its own style; a style which is not so much the disclosure of a person as it is an attitude.”
     My aim was to show that “Addison’s tone is largely a result of his sentence structure” and so I spoke of “independent clauses,” “co-ordinate ideas positioned co-ordinately,” “main verbs,” “pleonasms,” and “parallelisms and antitheses.” The best I could conclude about Addison’s style was that as “prose on its best behavior,” it “conveys the impression of a voice utterly conscious of being in a social situation; of participating in an audience-writer relationship which demanded the same correctness and propriety in the realm of letters as it did in the realm of manners.” When I finished, it was clear to me that I hadn’t proceeded any further analytically than the C. S. Lewis “picture” I began with and which I had hoped to disqualify as legitimate criticism.
     For me, the value of the Addison paper (and I felt this even at the time) was that it brought home the difficulty of talking rigorously about nonfiction prose. Fiction, Poetry, Drama all came with a large critical vocabulary developed over centuries. I could take a poem by John Donne and blend that hallowed critical vocabulary with newer critical terminology to show how the poem “worked.” I was beginning to form a set of critical principles (I wouldn’t call it a “theory”) that shaped my responses to literary works of all kinds. The first of these principles grew out of what I considered the central purpose of literary criticism: to demonstrate analytically why a text is composed in one way and not another, and how that text’s meaning is conveyed by its particular composition, which could generally be called its “style.” At the time, I thought to focus an essay on Addison’s social and political background, his intellectual core, or his cultural values would be to do something that fell short of genuine literary criticism. If you couldn’t explain why a work was written the way it was and not some other way, or how its specific language conveyed its meaning, if instead you digressed into a consideration of its content alone, you hadn’t engaged with that work properly. Or, to put it another way—you hadn’t really read it.
     In high school and college I had accepted the age-old distinction between style and content. On term papers, professors sometimes gave separate grades for each. But as I learned to read literature in my senior year at college—thanks mainly to having discovered the brilliant critical essays of R.P. Blackmur—and then into graduate school, I understood that distinguishing between form and content (or style and substance) indicated an unsophisticated literary sensibility. Form and content were one and the same, indistinguishable entities. The obligation of a critic was largely to demonstrate how the meaning of a literary work was inseparable from its style. Although the fusion of form and content (with form being the main source of creative energy) is usually thought to be a foundational principle of New Criticism, the idea, as W. K. Wimsatt [1] reminds us in his study of Samuel Johnson’s prose style, goes farther back. Wimsatt cites our old friend Cardinal Newman from an 1858 lecture: “Thought and speech are not inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language...”
     However, it is one thing to acknowledge that form and content are one and the same, yet another to demonstrate critically just how they behave inseparably in a particular work of art. It is like trying to describe what consciousness feels like without saying what the consciousness consists of, what it is we are conscious of. I would think for most people it is far easier to talk about content than form. Yet, to focus on a work’s meaning by “explaining” its content—usually by summary or paraphrase—wouldn’t cut it for the instructors I then most admired. Nor would going a step farther and grappling with the content by pointing out contradictory thoughts or exposing hidden complications; only critical discussion that concretely responded to a work’s “language” would do. In a seminar on Emerson’s essays I remember a talented student who kept bringing into the discussion Kant and transcendental thought until I wanted to say in exasperation: “Please, we’re doing literature here, not philosophy.” Yet what does it mean to study literature: for me it meant to understand and assess the ways that language—the diction, syntax, sentence patterns, all that contribute to a definable “style”—enacts a work’s meaning. To appreciate Emerson’s genius wasn’t a matter of understanding Kantian philosophy or New England Transcendentalism but to be attuned to the dramatic conflict of his sentences. As Emerson said of his own writing: “each sentence an infinitely repellent particle.”

I’ve since grown more open to all sorts of critical avenues but have nevertheless retained a personal commitment to aesthetic approaches. Yet, as I discovered long ago in writing about Addison, it is especially challenging to bring that aesthetic inclination to a critical evaluation of essays. Although it may have been liberating to discover that Addison was no longer a model for an English prose style, nor any longer a literary icon, I was still disappointed in my inability to go beyond a metaphorical description of his prose style. But I also gradually learned that my inability was not entirely a personal failure. What Wimsatt calls the “metaphorical treatment” was practically all I knew when it came to prose style, since that’s the way most critics I read approached the essay. And since nonfiction seems so content-dependent it was of course the most convenient way into the essay. If Addison and Steele write about the occasional silliness of performing Italian opera on the London stage, are their humorous complaints equivalent to the structure of their sentences? We want to say the essay is about Italian opera and we tend to ignore its grammar and syntax while we concentrate solely on their amusing attitude towards early opera. Writers who develop a characteristic prose style retain that style regardless of the subject they’re addressing. So in what way would analysing their prose techniques elucidate their thought?
     My guess is that the richest literary works—for example, those by Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Proust—yield the most potential for the critical examination of their formal properties. In canonical classics like Hamlet or Ulysses, which resist paraphrase, a careful attention to language and form is not only required but seems unavoidable. In other words, the more demanding the literary work, the more the “inseparability theory” holds. A convenient example can be found in the two opening lines of Hamlet:
Bernardo: Who’s there? 
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself. 
Although Francisco is the sentry on duty, it is Bernardo who asks the sentry’s question and in doing so momentarily plays the sentry’s part. This reversal of roles, though hardly noticeable at first, unobtrusively establishes a complex pattern of behavior and language that will be present throughout the entire play. How brilliantly this tiny exchange encapsulates larger dramatic issues is what ultimately makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.
     But many commendable works, including many canonical essays, don’t nearly rise to the literary level of a Shakespearean play and seem wholly discussable in terms of content , theme, and the “metaphorical treatment” of voice and tone. We can unpack the essayist’s ideas, get to the heart of the essay’s emotional dynamics, or debate the essayist’s ideology—all of these will tell us something about the essay, but they fall short of demonstrating critically how the essay’s form and content can be viewed as identical. Let’s suppose we come closer to linguistic data and identify discernible patterns of imagery or syntax. Such analysis may show how certain elements of the essay’s language reinforce its theme or topic, yet “reinforcement” still doesn’t approach “inseparability.” It is, however, a way for critics to signal they are paying attention to language.


As I struggled on a small scale to find a suitable, non-metaphorical way to discuss “form” and “style,” a young novelist and critic who would soon become one of the nation’s leading intellectuals was also grappling with the same problems, though on a much larger stage. This was the young Susan Sontag who in the early 1960s—after the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor (1963)—had begun a career writing essays and reviews for many prestigious critical journals. These essays would be collected by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in a 1965 book that still remains in print—Against Interpretation. The collection includes the titular essay, “Against Interpretation” along with “On Style,” “The Imagination of Disaster,” a number of book, film, and theater reviews, and the groundbreaking essay “Notes on Camp.” As a tribute to her critical popularity, the book was reissued by Dell in 1969 with a glamorous photo of Sontag on the cover; I’m hard-pressed to think of a comparable collection of serious critical essays published as a mass market paperback—and my beat-up copy is the third printing!

It seems like a coincidence now that Sontag spent a year as a visiting writer at Rutgers (1964-65) while I was a graduate student, and that I heard her read “Notes on Camp” when Partisan Review (then housed on the Rutgers campus) published it in 1964, yet I don’t recall reading her critical essays at the time. To read them now (I can’t for certain say “again”) is to realize how difficult it is to fully comprehend and articulate the nature of literary form. The issue of “style and content” permeates Against Interpretation, even though—as Sontag often acknowledges—the issue is an old one that appears to have been settled for decades. Here is how she opens her 1965 essay “On Style”:
It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each important writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely “decorative.” 
     Yet, she immediately admits that “in the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed.” And she continues: “Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature.” She then clearly states precisely what I discovered that same year in my critical paper on Addison: “to talk about the style of a particular novel or poem at all as a “style,” without implying , whether one wishes to or not, that style is merely decorative, accessory, is extremely hard.” How hard can that task be? It appears so difficult that Sontag herself, despite the implied promise of her own critical agenda, couldn’t pull it off. In most of her criticism of individual writers and particular literary works throughout Against Interpretation she often falls short of a discussion of style and often speaks of content alone. [2] One example: Her predominately negative review of the 1964 performance of Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” focuses on the play’s implausibility, incoherence, and “moral simplification.” She treats the play largely as “agitprop,” not as a work of art. Another example: In her negative portrayal of Ionesco’s work (he can’t be compared with “Brecht, Genet, and Beckett”), she mostly covers his themes and ideas.
     It’s surprising that someone who urged readers to focus on the aesthetic value of literary works was so immersed in Continental culture and therefore so dependent on translations. [3] In Against Interpretation, she includes a long, interesting critical essay on Peter Weiss’s The Deputy but Sontag did not read German (in fact, she never saw a performance of the play). So “stylistic” analysis of that work is out of the question. If you believe, as I do most of the time, that perceptive literary criticism requires a microscopic attention to language, It’s difficult to see how a critic could evaluate from an aesthetic perspective an important literary work expressed in an unfamiliar language. Without a perfect understanding of French—and sixteenth-century French at that—how can one write critically on Montaigne? I can discuss his life and ideas, and his notion of the essay, and his idiosyncratic method of thinking, but I can’t hear him the way I can hear Loren Eisley, Edward Hoagland, or Susan Sontag. I can’t register Montaigne’s individual voice, sometimes studious, at other times spontaneous, its particular inflections and intonations, and therefore, with my very limited French, I can have only a limited grasp of his style. Whenever I write on Montaigne I honor my limitations and, before quoting anything, I always laboriously consult the wonderful Pleiade edition of the Essais.
     But, though her work is exclusively in English, can I hear Virginia Woolf correctly? Can I attune myself to the refined Bloomsbury accent of her Edwardian essays and fiction? [4] Isn’t the same thing true—and even moreso—of Addison and Steele? Of course, I can’t hear their prose with the same acuity of a typical Londoner sitting down at his favorite coffee house with that morning’s’ Spectator. If, as we correctly say, there’s something lost in translation, isn’t it also true that there’s something lost in reading our own language over time. The wit and humor of a century ago seems forced and stale, and at times its insensitivity seems unspeakable. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that reading literature is always to some degree a matter of translation, as our native language is always changing. This is especially true of the English classics with their wide range of different “Englishes” from Chaucer, through Shakespeare and Milton, into De Quincey and Hazlitt, and then on to modern times. Of course, it’s hardly possible to hear Addison and Steele as did their original readers, but we can at least try to re-imagine their audience and how the Spectator’s prose style reflects the social world they inhabited.


You might say that this is what I tried to demonstrate in my essay on Addison: that his sentence patterns and tone of voice reinforced the social world he was attempting both to address and, more importantly, to create. A few weeks later, in a follow-up paper on Samuel Johnson I tried to get closer to the relationship between an essayist’s style and thought. It may be a distinction without a difference, but I felt on firmer ground making the connection less about form and content and more about the relationship between a writer’s prose style and his manner of thinking. Remember Newman’s comment: “Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language….” I focused on one of the central elements of Johnson’s critical prose—his abundant use of antithetical terms and phrases, a mode of expression he relies on so heavily that it came to be considered a highly artificial mannerism even in his own time. Critics liked to use the word “pompous.”
     Johnson’s mannerism is apparent in his appreciation of Addison’s style [5] I cited above: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Note that the antithetical terms I emphasized “familiar” and “coarse” and “elegant” and “ostentatious” (terms, by the way, that we also apply to social conduct—the “metaphorical treatment” won’t go away!), are closer to synonyms than antonyms, though the syntactical thrust of the antithesis makes us feel the terms are in direct opposition. Johnson’s oppositional vocabulary in this example and in general does not consist so much of off-the-rack idiomatic doublets, such as “life and death,” “public and private,” “past and present,” or the days and nights he uses in the same sentence, but are distinctions of his own making along a spectrum of synonyms. If one’s style is too familiar it can easily lapse into coarseness or vulgarity; an overly elegant style can become ostentatious.
     Why is something expressed one way and not another way? Why not simply say: “Whoever wants to attain an English style, familiar yet elegant, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Isn’t that what Johnson finds exemplary about Addison’s prose style? These two, nearly contradictory, terms are closer to antonyms and don’t share a spectrum of similar connotations (in fact, “familiar” has negative social connotations in itself that Johnson doesn’t stress at this moment). “Familiar yet elegant” would suffice to show the delicate balance Addison achieves in establishing a verbal presence at once colloquial and graceful; or, put another way, the terms describe the casual urbanity that came to characterize the essayistic style of The Spectator and that has long remained a rhetorical goal of most sophisticated nonfiction since.
     Then why introduce “coarse” and “ostentatious” into the description? The reason, It seems to me, is that Johnson not only wants to describe the positive qualities of Addison’s style but—by emphasizing the potential pitfalls lurking behind such a style—also wants to make certain his readers understand that his famous predecessor’s literary achievement did not come without a struggle. Johnson’s antithesis suggests that a “familiar” and “elegant” style can only be created by deliberately avoiding a “coarse” or “ostentatious” tone. In reading Addison we may be unaware of this tonal struggle but Johnson reminds us that it’s always in the background. Johnson’s advice that writers would do well to emulate Addison’s prose can also be read as a warning: the antithetical emphasis alerts us to what careless imitation might easily lapse into—that is, a coarse and ostentatious style.
     I won’t correct now what I failed to do in my paper on Johnson’s antithetical style and provide sufficient examples to establish my point. I’ll just say here that appropriate examples can easily be found on every page of Johnson’s voluminous works. I only want to show here how a close analysis of prose style might proceed and how it can provide a more empirical way to understand and appreciate the specific elements of language that objectively produce certain desired literary effects. Looking closely at syntactical patterns is one way to avoid the more subjective “metaphorical treatment.” I would say that the analysis of syntactic patterns, such as parallelism and antithesis, constitutes a formal analysis as applied to literary works. But whether it gets us closer to the significance of literary form or is in any way indicative of how form and content remain indissoluble seems to be another question.


1965—over half a century ago! And I’m still convinced that syntactic patterns remain a valuable resource for evaluating nonfiction prose. When I was writing the papers on Addison and Johnson I wonder if I would have thought the critical methods of 1912 would have still served me. Those methods were generally based on a philological perspective that by the 60s were being challenged by various branches of post-Saussurean linguistics. Still, throughout my graduate studies I regularly consulted The Philological Quarterly (founded in 1922) despite its obsolete scientism and the new wave of fashionable critical theories—such as Structuralism and Post-Structuralism—then emerging from the famous “linguistic turn.”
     But does any critical methodology inform the study of our contemporary essay? I wonder to what extent a close reading of prose style plays a role in essay studies today? When I come across essays on the essay, I still find a stubborn adherence to the “metaphorical treatment.” And, yes, to a consideration of “content” over an analysis of “style.” In many nonfiction MFA programs, as far as I know, essays are mostly written and workshopped, not critically read and studied as literature. And I suspect in undergraduate and graduate literature courses the essay—despite a recent revival of interest—still receives less attention than fiction, poetry, and drama, a situation that has changed little since 1965. (But this is impressionistic; it would be useful to have even an informal survey of undergraduate and graduate literature programs that offer courses that examine the essay historically or aesthetically, or spend a semester on an individual essayist).
     In her influential criticism, Sontag rarely addresses the art and craft of the essay. I assume that’s because she doesn’t regard it as a primary, significant form of literature. Like most critics after the rise of New Criticism, she accepted the prevailing view that essays were written about literature and were not in themselves Literature. She makes this apparent when she complains in “Against Interpretation” that critics for decades “have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else (my emphasis). She not only casually dismisses the essay here, but does so often throughout the collection. This dismissal is more blatant in her consideration of Camus in her 1963 review of his recently translated Notebooks:
One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. .But he is not. It might be useful here to compare Camus with George Orwell and James Baldwin....who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience. Both Baldwin and Orwell are better writers in their essays than they are in their fiction. This disparity is not to be found in Camus, a far more important writer. But what is true is that Camus’ art is always in the service of certain intellectual conceptions which are more fully stated in the essays.
When she claims that Orwell and Baldwin are better at writing essays than fiction, she is not in fact praising the essay but acknowledging it as a lesser genre, one better suited for “intellectual conceptions” than literary artistry. There’s an historical irony here that we can now see but Sontag obviously couldn’t: she, too, would become better known for her essays despite the publication of four novels, with the final one receiving the National Book Award for 2000. Like so many renowned essayists, she wanted her fiction to crown her career.


Sontag’s aesthetic agenda remains—to me at least—an unresolved issue. Especially as it relates to the essay. She’s “against interpretation” because she views the act of interpretation as a way of privileging content over form or style. “Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first.” As I said earlier, although she promoted a criticism that would truly respect literary form, she didn’t quite achieve that ideal. As I read her critical essays on literature, I can see “form” always knocking at the door of her thinking but never being admitted inside. I believe she felt she could only capture that elusive literary quality not in discursive prose but in experimental fiction. It may be that content can be explained but form cannot.
     Although sophisticated readers still pay lip-service to the inseparability of content and form, it appears to me that Sontag after all these years remains correct. We can’t seem to escape a critical dependency on content. In much of the way literature is taught and in much of its criticism, in practice, content is what matters. What is this story, poem, or essay about we ask? Though we may agree with Archibald MacLeish that “A poem should not mean/But be,” how do we intelligently talk about “be”? Is there an aesthetics of literary “being”? Can we read a poem we love and not ask what it means, either to ourselves or to the world? When I first came across Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I read it over and over and over. I had it memorized before I had it understood. I was mystified and intrigued with the words and images, but I wasn’t aesthetically satisfied until—with the help of R. P. Blackmur—I slowly puzzled it out. And then two things wonderfully came together: what the poem was ostensibly about and why it was expressed in the way it was.
     This isn’t to say that literature is mainly an enigma to be solved, though some works look more difficult on their surface than others (Wallace Stevens certainly “looks” more difficult than Robert Frost, or James Joyce than D. H. Lawrence). But some forms of literary expression (I think of the sentences of Gertrude Stein and the late Henry James) can be extremely demanding and when they are it’s a good idea to assume that the difficult expression is intentional and not a communicative flaw. That is, the difficulty has an aesthetic purpose; confusion can be as artistically purposeful as clarity. In his splendid 2006 book, Shakespeare’s Late Style, Russ McDonald (who died suddenly in 2016) explains the dramatist’s often difficult late style as his way to “direct the listener forward, toward expected comprehension.” The momentary perplexity produced by an occasional “syntactical thicket” thus contributes to dramatic suspense, as we await eventual explication.
     As readers, we are more conscious of a literary style the more mannered, convoluted, or unusual the language seems. And the more difficult or unusual the forms of expression, the more these will override the allure of content and push form and style to the forefront of our critical attention. To me, this is why it is easier to talk about fiction, drama, and especially poetry than about the essay. Most essayists, especially most modern and contemporary essayists, write in a plain (i.e, deliberately unmannered) style, following Orwell’s goal of “transparency” or what Roland Barthe in speaking of Camus termed ecriture blanche. Influenced by the enormous popularity of memoir, many personal essayists today write in a straightforward, sincere, and confessional mode meant entirely to evoke honesty and candor. There is no attempt to construct a “persona”—the narrator is identical to the writer. Such writing seems to speak for itself and to be impervious to literary analysis. When we encounter a confessional narrative that explicitly addresses the writer’s personal suffering-whether it’s a serious or terminal illness, incapacity, loss, oppression, abuse, addiction, or depression-what can we say other than how the content affects us? Who dares address the quality of writing? We praise the essayist for his or her or their honesty and courage.
     Critical approaches to the essay have for too long been content with content alone. As a genre, it has not developed a critical vocabulary equivalent in aesthetic terms to that enjoyed by the other genres. A large part of this, it seems to me, is due to a simple, incontrovertible fact: unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, the essayist can't make anything up. The essayist is restricted by a criterion of truthfulness and verisimilitude that is not demanded of the more “imaginative” writers. This criterion is relatively new; it did not apply to Addison and Steele—who invented an entire club of personalities and situations—or to Samuel Johnson and the many other periodical essayists of previous centuries. The demand for factual truth and accuracy grew largely out of the self-imposed standards of modern professional journalism and was applied first to news coverage. This, of course, seemed reasonable, but those standards soon became inflexible standards applied to all nonfiction; the old popular newspaper columnists—those literary heirs of the Spectator—with their casts of colorful local characters, quickly became a thing of the past.
     I still at times find it necessary to insist that the essay is a literary genre that should be read, appreciated, and evaluated as literature, not as record, report, document, case study, commentary or opinion. But many of us—instructors, students, essayists themselves—continually need to remember this when we talk about essays. Prose matters; sincerity, transparency—these, too, are aesthetic effects, as much so as Dr. Johnson’s calculated antitheses or Roland Barthes’ “writing degree zero.” It is heartening to see literary journals today that feature both essays and “craft-talk.” From nuts and bolts perhaps we can gradually construct a compelling aesthetics that will transform the essay into a genre as unrestricted as all the other forms of creative writing. It may be that to do this we will need to pry the essay loose from journalistic standards and conventions and be willing to accept a more imaginative interplay of both style and content.


[1] W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson, Yale University Press, 1941 (second printing 1963).

[2] To be fair, Sontag gets much closer to matters of form and style when she is writing about film. See the essay on Goddard in Against Interpretation. 

[3] Sontag herself wrote on translation in a little-known essay-address, “The World as India.” See

[4] Of course, the voice we “translate” from the words on the page is not identical to the writer’s literal speaking voice. Addison failed in Parliament because he was such a shy, diffident, and reluctant speaker. His essays performed what he couldn’t do in public. In criticism, voice is also being used metaphorically. But hearing Woolf’s actual voice and imagining how her essays might sound is possible thanks to a rare 1937 BBC recording:

[5] Published in 1781 as one of his Lives of the English Poets, Johnson’s essay on Addison can be considered canonical. At first it appears that he is an ardent admirer of the poet, critic, political figure, and essayist. But on a deeper reading, we see how often Johnson hedges his praise; we find in his biographical account of Addison not an enduring literary genius but a talented, pleasantly imaginative writer who took few creative risks and was content to stay within safe boundaries no matter which genre he worked in. In Johnson’s essay we see that Addison’s reputation, some sixty years after his death, was already in decline. As popular as he once was, Addison had serious critics unimpressed by his writing even in his lifetime. Johnson, uncharacteristically, devotes several pages to extensive disparaging passages taken from the critic John Dennis (1658-1734). Although Dennis was motivated partly by personal enmity toward Addison, Johnson finds much of the criticism just. But his method gives the impression that he personally did not want to go hard on Addison, so instead prefers to play the good cop to Dennis’s bad.


Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of the annual Best American Essays, launched in 1986. “Contented with Content” is part of a sequence of investigations he has been making into the history of critical approaches to the essay as a literary genre. An earlier contribution to Essay Daily focused on how the aesthetic principles of the New Criticism as promoted by John Crowe Ransom led to the essay’s diminished status throughout the mid to late twentieth century.

1 comment:

  1. There is much to chew on here for those of us trying to develop a critical vocabulary for the analysis of essays--or trying simply to make the case that essays deserve analysis in the same way that fiction, drama, and poetry do. To contribute to your wished-for informal survey of courses that examine the essay: I teach a course on "The Essay as a Literary Genre" that tries to examine the genre both historically and aesthetically. It's true that students are apt to respond initially to the content of the essays we read, but I try to encourage close reading that focuses on an essayist's frequently repeated patterns of expression and how those patterns might indicate "a habit of meaning" or "a persistent way of sorting out the phenomenon of experience" (phrases I've borrowed from Richard Ohmann's "Prologomena to the Analysis of Prose Style"). I've also found Richard Lanham's "Analyzing Prose" useful in guiding students to become better readers of essays. Your final thought on prying the essay loose from journalistic standards/conventions is intriguing. I'd like to see a discussion of what this might mean in practice taken up by essayists and readers of essays.