Magazine article The Antioch Review

All Essay Issue: People, Places, and Prose

Magazine article The Antioch Review

All Essay Issue: People, Places, and Prose

Article excerpt

"A literary composition, analytical or interpretative in nature, dealing with its subject from a more or less limited or personal standpoint and permitting a considerable freedom of style and method. Though commonly essays are brief enough for reading at one sitting, the term is also applied to systematic works treating their subjects under a series of captions, as Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Occasionally poetic works bear the title, as Pope's Essay on Man (1733) and Essay on Criticism (1711). In general an essay is distinguished from a treatise or dissertation in being less systematic and formal, from a thesis in not being restricted to formal argument, from a history or biography in treating its subject in a single aspect rather than its whole scope."

Webster's International Dictionary (Second Edition, unabridged, 1959)


The essay--as a form--is taught in every college and university in America and historically has a high place among the literary arts. People still turn to Montaigne for wisdom, to Thoreau for reflection, to Joan Didion for a quick take on the culture, to Calvin Trilling for food advice, or to the late Stephen Jay Gould for science. The recent re-discovery by the New Yorker's Louis Menand of Daniel Boorstin's 1961 classic, The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream, (curiously, Menand left out the telling trailer line and only referred to the book as "The Image") suggests that the postmodernists had a major collection of essays right under their generational noses and scarcely noticed it because their eyes were cast across the waters to theoretical France and because Boorstin's politics were all wrong. Boorstin's "Image" was, in fact, a series of interconnected essays about technology, travel, and the leisured life, and just the stuff of your traditional essayist.

The standard classification system for the genre takes in the narrative essay, the descriptive essay, and the analytical or argumentative essay, but this taxonomy has been challenged by the arrival of the creative "personal" essay that has its roots in the journalism of the 1960s. In fact, essays have always come in all forms and about all subjects, and this special issue hopes to highlight its diversity and vivacity. Few writers set out to be essayists and few have staying power. H. L. Mencken was one of our finest essayists, yet his latest biographer, Terry Teachout, has been quick to point out how little he is read today despite his considerable talent and insights. George Orwell continues to be read, but one wonders, for example, whether Joe Queenan's recent collection, Balsamic Dreams (a sharp and Menckenlike attack on his own generation, the Boomers), will be read ten years from now.

Short-story writers rightly complain about the lack of outlets for their work and the lack of interest on the part of many publishers and agents in their short form. It is difficult enough for a writer to make a decent living by just writing short stories; however, the plight of the essayists is even worse. There are problems not just with pay and finding publications interested in the work, but difficulties surrounding length, subject matter, and audience. The recent interest in "creative non-fiction" may provide a respite for such stranded souls, but more fundamentally it attests to an enduring interest in the essay as a vehicle for creative self-expression and ideas.

Over the years the Antioch Review (like the American Scholar and some literary magazines) has been committed to publishing the essay. Some of our most reprinted pieces, such as Daniel Bell's "Crime As the American Way of Life" and Clifford Geertz's "Common Sense As a Cultural System," find their way into numerous classrooms, and wonderful Review essayists like Gerald Early, Sally Tisdale, and Bret Lott have found wide audiences for their work. …

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