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To that old ice-breaker question, “Which past era would you like to have lived in?” I answer, “the time of the British periodical essayists.” If I could live a Methusalen life, I’d choose to be born around the turn of the eighteenth century and keep my faculties about me until age 133 or thereabouts. That would put me in reading shape just as Addison and Steele began to publish The Tatler and keep me around through the heyday of Lamb and Hazlitt and De Quincey and Hunt. Well, if wishes were horses, beggars would read Denise Gigante’s wonderful anthology The Great Age of the English Essay, which revisits that bygone era and resurrects the writings of its top thirteen essayists.
Like the essay form itself, Gigante’s book is “leisurely”; it does not come “from any special stress of passionate impulse”; Gigante “does not create material so much as [she] comments upon material already existing” (Alexander Smith, “On the Writing of Essays” (1863)). Polemic is utterly absent, though argument, in subtle, dissimilated form, pervades the book: that life is best when it is examined thoughtfully; that the world will carry on its harried pace even as we step aside to observe and ponder; that our humble pursuits, which aim at no recognition or fame, will satisfy our souls far more than full-speed-ahead getting. This is a mindset largely absent from the twenty-first century, so it’s refreshing to see it displayed and celebrated. Some of the earliest British essayists sought to teach people how to live or what to do with their time. Maybe they were never quite successful on a large scale, but here they are again to nudge us again in the right direction, and Denise Gigante offers herself as selector and guide, culling from the vast reserve of samples and commenting on rarities that have fallen out of our common knowledge.
One advantage of an anthology such as this is that it allows us to get beyond the ever-present representative essays from each major writer. Of course, The Great Age of the English Essay reprints William Hazlitt’s “On Gusto” and “Dream-Children” by Charles Lamb. It selects from Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. But beyond those staples, the samples are broadly representative and almost entirely entertaining. From Addison, we read of Nicholas Gimcrack, the Virtuoso, a kind of bumbling but harmless collector, as Gigante notes: a foil for the essayist. Addison begins with what may be a typical “essay thesis,” which is to say, an inoffensive verity:
Nature is full of wonders; every atom is a standing miracle, and endowed with such qualities, as could not be impressed on it by a power and wisdom less than infinite. For this reason, I would not discourage any searches that are made into the most minute and trivial parts of the Creation.35
Samuel Johnson, likewise, offers tempered wisdom in his Idler essays, insights that “from the mint of genius” reissue old thoughts in fresh and new ways:
We all remember a time when Nature had so many untasted gratifications, that every excursion gave delight which can now be found no longer, when the noise of a torrent, the rustle of a wood, the song of birds, or the play of lambs, had power to fill the attention, and suspend all perception of the course of time.149
Oliver Goldsmith, a few years later, considers the great philosophical question that has kept the philosophers busy and will continue to keep them busy for all time:
Writers of every age have endeavoured to show that pleasure is in us, and not in the objects offered for our amusement. If the soul be happily disposed, every thing becomes a subject of entertainment; and distress will almost want a name.200
Which may be only another iteration of Alexander Smith’s teaching that “The world is to the meditative man what the mulberry plant is to the silkworm” (“Essays”). This, I believe, is why we need essays, whether written yesterday or three hundred years ago: to remind us of the truly fine things in life, and to do so in ways that are intelligent, not maudlin. An essay reminds us subtly that the world is wonderful, if only we make the effort to see past the patina of the familiar and the mundane. “As few men will endure the labour of intense meditation without necessity” (149), the essay offers itself as intermediary, a portal to pleasant surprises.
Even some of the essayists in the anthology are pleasantly surprising. Accompanying Samuel Johnson’s mid-eighteenth-century ruminations we find essays by Henry Fielding (whom we know for his novels), William Cowper (whom we know for his poetry) and Oliver Goldsmith (whom we know for his plays). Later that same century, we are joined by Henry Mackenzie and Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell. Their observations and meditations join with the essays of their better-known compatriots to establish a view of this exciting, bustling time, with its coffee shops and petty scandals, its genteel gents and their doffed hats. Whether considering common themes—conversation, indolence, the past—or relatively new ideas—hypochondria, bachelorhood, insects—their essays are a delight to read and consider, and Gigante’s editing brings them into our century.
This brings me to my next point: what might this bound configuration of pre-existing, non-copyrighted work offer a reader beyond what one finds at the Internet’s Project Gutenberg? Why should one shell out money for work that one could gather elsewhere, for free? Leaving aside the aesthetic questions (the feel of a book in hand, the smell of riffled paper), I conclude that Denise Gigante has done a great service not only in choosing such an excellent coterie, but in contextualizing the volume, the essayists, and each work she selected. Her introduction serves as both historical overview and theoretical overview of this protean form, which during the “Great Age” underwent some of its biggest shifts. Gigante is right to emphasize the democratic nature of essays, which may appeal to a contemporary reader who, despite strict specialization in labor, reads widely. When I read the editor’s ideas about the form, I feel to nod my assent and at times shout my “aye aye!” The essayists she describes are what I hope to be. They and their compositions are “conversational” and “desultory,” “introspective” and “rambling.” They “address readers as confidants” and “demand no specialized knowledge, political or philosophical.” They “steer a middle course through the seas of experience, providing practical information and insight and avoiding the treacherous region of abstruse research” (xxii).
If the anthology is deficient, perhaps it is in its treatment of women essayists. There is only one, Eliza Haywood (1693–1756), author of The Female Spectator and “The Parrot.” Gigante does list other women essayists in her introduction—Frances Brooke, Elizabeth Carter, Charlotte Lennox, Mary Delarivier Manley,—and I can list yet others—Fanny Burney, Maria Edgworth, Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft. Despite its thorough and engaging overview of the period in question, the introduction offers no rationale for selection or exemption. Perhaps offerings by Brooke, Carter, and the rest are less interesting because of their overt didacticism, or they’re less literary or less representative of the ideals of the essay genre. In any case, I am left with the hope that we may soon be blessed with an anthology of women essayists, not only of this period but of the one succeeding it.
Ultimately, we are blessed to witness this book’s publication, to return, through its pages, to a time long ago and to know men (and one woman) not only through their doings and their seeings, but through their thinking. The essay form seems alive and well, carrying on its meandering mandate, reveling in the revealing nature bequeathed by its forebears, wondering what next while remembering what was. The Great Age of the English Essay should grace the shelves not only of libraries and specialist scholars, but of readers everywhere.
Patrick Madden is Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University. He specializes in theory and practice of the personal essay and its sister genres (travel, aphorism, etc.) in literary nonfiction. His first book, Quotidiana, a collection of essays, was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. He has published individual essays in The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Portland Magazine, and many other journals, and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 and The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2.