…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World
…Bloggers / Writers / Writers of Essays (essayists) / Men (and Women) of Letters… (readers too)
These are terms I’ve been pondering recently, OK, well, we can call ourselves bloggers here, but when we write to our blogs we become, well, writers. But if you do this, when you write in this way, do you consider yourself a ‘writer of essays’? I hadn’t until I read, in Volume 4 of Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopedia about “The Writers of Essays” (p.2969-2972).
I had always considered an essay to be something I was forced to write at school, college and university; never something I would opt to do, choose to do, or certainly enjoy. I always struggled to write enough words; in hindsight I was rarely writing on a topic I had sufficiently absorbed and I ended up picking apart what other people had said and copying and pasting stuff into my own order to make it pass as my own work. This wasn’t blatant plagiarism, I just didn’t know how else to do it; I never had my own voice, not like I do now. If I did then I doubt I would have had to resort to double-line spacing, font size 14, and 4cm margins. But it turns out I’ve been voluntarily writing essays, and enjoying it, beyond my inflicted, and self-inflicted years of education, if this 70+ year old Encyclopedia topic is anything to go by.
The author explains that the inventor of this “delightful form of literature” was a Frenchman called Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) but that the term “essay” was defined by a Dr. Johnson (Samuel Johnson, English writer and lexicographer (1709-1784)) and while I’ll reveal his definition shortly the piece in the Encyclopedia says there are several forms of essay,
“as a fragmentary sketch of history from the personal view of the writer, or as a criticism of books and their writers ; but the true essay is rather a brightly written sketch of some aspects of human life as it appears under the observation and thought of the writer. It tells how his wisdom and humour help him to see the world.”
In fact Wikipedia says that “[a]s with the novel, essays existed in Japan several centuries before they developed in Europe with a genre of essays known as zuihitsu — loosely connected essays and fragmented ideas.”
Many of us use our blogs to publish book reviews, or critique a movie, game, or TV show. Some of us share our observations of the world, human life or even the lives of animals. We might be travel writers on our blog, sharing our quirky way of seeing the world, sometimes through pictures or sometimes through written humour. In this regard we are among those earlier essayists; we might not be putting ink to paper but that’s only because our use of technology has changed (remember, a pen, a typewriter, or printing press are forms of technology too).
The certainty of certainties that many of our blog posts are essays (or that they have been without me realising it) is due to that definition by Dr. Johnson who said that an essay is,
“a loose sally of the mind – not a regular and orderly composition.”
This is a revelation and a half for me because it puts a helpful label on what I do at a time when I felt like an internal explanation was need. This is indeed how I largely write; just unleashing the contents of my mind as it ponders a particular topic, whilst trying to stay on topic and not meander off at too much of a tangent at any point; the stuff is typed up in the order it arrives at my conscious forefront and I have found little enjoyment in trying to put more order in the chaos that might ensue; sometimes I write lists of topic and try and combine topics before writing something up proper, but the very thought of building on what I have already produced leaves me stuporing in a pot of procrastination. It’s as painfully uncomfortable for my brain as trying to decipher a maths puzzle, something I feel my internal workings of my cranium are not geared for. This form of writing, the so-called essay, apparently served “the great Frenchman”de Montaigne well because “for anything he wanted to say, and its freedom and frank gaiety of spirit quickly carried it all over Europe as a much needed method of writing.” Now we have the internet to carry our frank gaieties all over the world, even if that isn’t quite our primary reason for writing, or our style.
It seems to me that while there might be hundreds or even thousands of people following a blog (of course only a small percentage of those are ‘true readers’ of that blog) some of us just have an almost insatiable desire to write, to share, or as I like to put it, waffle.
The author of the Encyclopedia piece goes on to write about William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and Leigh Hunt, amongst others. Earlier this year I read previously about Charles Lamb (and others) in this very volume (p.2469-2474) in a section on ‘Wordsworth and his Friends’. Coincidentally this was following a book by Alfred Ainger about Lamb in a book titled “Men of Letters” which I picked up during my cycling trip around Scotland and wrote about at that time. I had come across the book previously and wondered what a “Men of Letters” was; it sounded quaint; I imagined these gentlemen from a bygone age writing letters to each other and I couldn’t miss the chance to purchase the book again, even if it was a strange read for me.
I would like to add that when I read about another Frenchman, Voltaire (1694-1778), last year, one of his wives was a writer of letters, and I would therefore consider her to be a ‘woman of letters’. Certainly in this modern age there is little gender difference where the term is considered.
As a final observation and note, the Encyclopedia itself was originally published as a series of articles in fortnightly publications released over the duration of two years, and there are couple of other books I’ve been reading recently which either were originally released as a series of blog posts or, had blogs been around at the time, could have been; with short sub-chapters with blog-like headings that you can dip in and out of, indeed, a number of Charles Dickens’ books (I’ve read a couple of those too) were originally published as serial publications. Dickens’ success in this field began with Pickwick Papers which I finished reading this year, this was originally released in a series of nineteen issues over twenty months. Wikipedia describes Dickens as “an indefatigable letter writer” although perhaps not in the sense I’m thinking of… aside from writing actual letters a men of letters is “a male scholar or author”. In this modern day, whether we are male or female or have published a book or not is beside the point.
In some ways it turns out that the blog-style essay has been around for many centuries, it’s only the technology and the ability to reach a wider audience has changed; perhaps our desire to write like this hasn’t.
My previous post about Charles Lamb: following-the-white-rabbit
Samuel Johnson: www.quotes.net/quote/7917