Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal, which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.
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"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument.
"As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard.
"It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."
1. George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)
Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.
The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.
2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the Private Conscience (1962)
You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.
Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.
3. Evelyn Waugh, A Call to the Orders (1938)
Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.
The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines."
You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.
4. Michel de Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1595)
Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.
Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.
5. JM Barrie, Courage (1922)
If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector.
Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries [of the war dead] being blown across the links".
It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."
6. Truman Capote, The Duke in his Domain (1957)
Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?
This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied.
For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.
7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)
Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.
The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.
8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776)
Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence.
An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."
The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.
9. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)
For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable.
The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs.
All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.
10. AN Wilson, In Defence of Gay Priests (2003)
Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.
The Essays (French: Essais, pronounced [esɛ]) of Michel de Montaigne are contained in three books and 107 chapters of varying length. Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humours." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.
Montaigne wrote in a rather crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotations from Ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts such as De rerum natura by Lucretius and the works of Plutarch.
Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe himself with utter frankness and honesty ("bonne foi"). The insight into human nature provided by his essays, for which they are so widely read, is merely a bi-product of his introspection.Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he did not intend, nor suspect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle, prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject ."
Montaigne's essay topics spanned the entire spectrum of the profound to the trivial, with titles ranging from "Of Sadness and Sorrow" and "Of Conscience" to "Of Smells" and "Of Posting" (referring to posting letters). Montaigne wrote at a time preceded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant authors consistently attempted to subvert Church doctrine with their own reason and scholarship. Consequently, Catholic scholars embraced skepticism as a means to discredit all reason and scholarship and accept Church doctrine through faith alone. Montaigne never found certainty in any of his inquiries into the nature of man and things, despite his best efforts and many attempts. He mistrusted the certainty of both human reason and experience. He reasoned that while man is finite, truth is infinite; thus, human capacity is naturally inhibited in grasping reality in its fullness or with certainty. Though he did believe in the existence of absolute truth, an attribute which distinguishes him from a pure skeptic, he believed that such truth could only be arrived at by man through divine revelation, leaving us in the dark on most matters. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features, which resonates to the Renaissance thought about the fragility of humans. According to the scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, "the writers of the period were keenly aware of the miseries and ills of our earthly existence". A representative quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself."
He opposed European colonization of the Americas, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.
Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to. In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond defended Christianity. Montaigne also eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomistLucretius.
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."
In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically. Montaigne's essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.
English journalist and politician J. M. Robertson argued that Montaigne's essays had a profound influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, citing their similarities in language, themes and structures.
The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.
Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:
- A: passages written 1571–1580, published 1580
- B: passages written 1580–1588, published 1588
- C: passages written 1588–1592, published 1595 (posthumously)
A copy of the fifth edition of the Essais with Montaigne's own "C" additions in his own hand exists, preserved at the Municipal Library of Bordeaux (known to editors as the "Bordeaux Copy"). This edition gives modern editors a text dramatically indicative of Montaigne's final intentions (as opposed to the multitude of Renaissance works for which no autograph exists). Analyzing the differences and additions between editions show how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Remarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.
- John Florio (1603)
- Charles Cotton (1685–6)
- Later edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)
- George B. Ives (1925)
- E.J. Trechmann (1927)
- Jacob Zeitlin (1934–6)
- Donald M. Frame (1957–8)
- J.M. Cohen (1958)
- M.A. Screech (1991)
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1580). Essais de messire Michel de Montaigne,... livre premier et second (I ed.). impr. de S. Millanges (Bourdeaus). Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.
- ^"Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
- ^"Guide to the Classics: Michel de Montaigne's Essay". Observer. 2016-11-15. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
- ^Kritzman, Lawrence. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne's Essays. Columbia University Press.
- ^ abcdScreech, Michael (1983). Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. Penguin Books. pp. 1–5.
- ^Robertson, John (1909). Montaigne and Shakespeare: And Other Essays on Cognate Questions. University of California. pp. 65–79.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2003 (1987), p. 1284
- ^Les Essais (1595 text), Jean Céard, Denis Bjaï, Bénédicte Boudou, Isabelle Pantin, Hachette, Pochothèque, 2001, Livre de Poche, 2002.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1588). Essais de Michel seigneur de Montaigne. Cinquiesme edition, augmentée d'un troisiesme livre et de six cens additions aux deux premiers (5 ed.). A Paris, Chez Abel L'Angelier, au premier pillier de la grand Salle du Palais. Avec privilege du Roy. Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.