Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Essaying to Be
On Reading (and Writing) Essays

Then I dare; I will also essay to be.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal

MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, reputed father of the essay, wrote at the end of the sixteenth century: “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately” (“Of Experience,” 3:13; 851). In this supreme venture, the trial, the effort, the essai, is enabled by, as it is embodied in, the form to which he gave a name: “The doing, the writing itself, is both a path to knowing and a path of knowing; as I write, I am ‘forming my life,’” and that, he concluded, “is the greatest task of all” (“Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers,” 2:37; 596; and Fakundiny, The Art of the Essay 678). “Self-fashioning” some have called this process, especially as the Renaissance engaged in it. Writing early in the seventeenth century, perhaps the second to do so in English, the young Sir William Cornwallis offered his essays as “an apprenticeship in self-knowledge” (Fakundiny, The Art of the Essay 13). Mine, wrote Montaigne in “Of Practice,” “is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me” (2:6; 272). What I write,

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