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: 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: 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: 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 ...
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.