Can the Essay Still Surprise Us?
Suzanne Conklin Akbari Rethinks a Eurocentric Tradition
When I was about fourteen, I wanted to learn to type, so I got hold of a typing manual that explained where to position your fingers and included a number of typing exercises—short (and then longer) sentences that required your fingers to reach every corner of the keyboard. My mother had an old manual typewriter in the basement from her secretarial days, but I didn’t have to use it very long before my parents bought me an electric Brother typewriter.
As the sentences got longer and I got faster, I started to look for something else to practice with. I landed on a copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays—not her famous 1925 collection, The Common Reader, but a volume from 1977 with the curiously retro title Books and Portraits: Some Further Selections from the Literary and Biographical Writings of Virginia Woolf. This was perfect: the pieces were short but not too short, and the language was completely absorbing, full of unexpected phrases that were somehow completely right. For example, in an essay on a recent biography of a poet of the ‘Great War’: “No undergraduate of Rupert Brooke’s own age would have seen ‘his radiant youthful figure in gold and vivid red and blue, like a page in the Riccardi Chapel’; that is the impression of an older man,” I typed. “There would have been less of the vivid red and blue and gold, more that was mixed, parti-coloured, and matter for serious debate.” Even now, typing out those phrases feels like playing music. I can hear the words as I type them, in a rhythm that rises and falls, like a voice or a violin.
I skipped over Woolf’s short literary sketches like “In the Orchard” or “A Woman’s College from Outside”—the editor clearly trying to capitalize on the more famous A Room of One’s Own—to get to the book reviews, many of them originally published in the Guardian or the Times Literary Supplement in the 1910s or 20s. I loved typing out the essay on the seventeenth-century diary-writer Samuel Pepys, in which Woolf describes “the unstudied ease of the language, which may be slipshod but never fails to be graphic, which catches unfailingly the butterflies and gnats and falling petals of the moment.” I had not yet read Pepys’s Diaries, but Woolf both made me want to read him and feel that I had read him, because the flavor, distilled down to a fiery hot essence, like eau-de-vie, was already there in her essay. And having typed them out—having both performed and heard their song—they were inside me already, too.
But what were these essays? They were not analytical; they were not summaries; they were, maybe, responses or even replies, brought forth by contact with some other book. There were, in addition to the essays on English writers, a cluster on the Russians—Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov (which she spells “Tchehov”)—and a cluster on American writers—Emerson, Thoreau, Melville. The last of these was published on 7 August 7, 1919, commemorating Melville’s 100th birthday on August 1, though I did not notice that pleasing fact when I typed out Woolf’s essay forty years ago—pleasing, because I published an essay to commemorate Melville’s 200th birthday just last year. Mine was about Moby Dick, but Woolf’s essay is about Melville’s early works, especially Typee and Omoo; it includes a bizarre moment in the opening paragraph where Woolf tells us about something she does not remember:
“Was not some one talking about the South Seas? ‘Typee,’ they said, was in their opinion the best account ever written of—something or other. Memory has dropped that half of the sentence, and then, as memory will, has drawn a great blue line and a yellow beach. Waves are breaking; there is a rough white frill of surf; and how to describe it one does not know, but there is, simultaneously, a sense of palm trees, yellow limbs, and coral beneath clear water.”
What’s going on here? This is not analysis; this is not summary. We don’t learn anything about Typee. What we learn about is response: Woolf’s own, our own, maybe, as we respond to the narrative line of the essay. Here, Woolf is building on the essay as it had been developed by William Hazlitt, in the early nineteenth century. Like C.L.R. James, who in his brilliant political manifesto / cricket memoir Beyond a Boundary reflects a deep engagement with Hazlitt’s essays—especially the ones on boxing—Woolf braids together a clear-eyed overview of her topic with an individual, personal, and affective response.
Behind these writers we see the adventurous and solitary hand of Montaigne, whose three volumes of Essais were published in 1587. The first two volumes were published earlier, in 1580, and in 1587 Montaigne both added a third volume and returned to earlier essays in the collection—removing some, adding several, revising many. The Essais were, as they say, a work in progress. In this respect, they were a reflection—they are a reflection—of the man himself.
Montaigne explains how he began “essaying”: “It was a melancholy humor,” he writes, “produced by the gloom of the solitude into which I had cast myself some years ago, that first put into my head this daydream of meddling with writing. And then, finding myself entirely destitute and devoid of any other matter, I presented myself to myself for argument and subject” (“Of the affection of fathers for their children”; trans. Donald Frame). The French verb essayer means “to try,” “to attempt”; even “to try out.” Like the “Try-Works” of Melville’s Moby Dick, where clear pure sperm oil is melted down from the chunks of whale boiled in the ship-deck cauldrons, Montaigne’s essays are a place where the self is melted down into its pure essence—and yet Montaigne is different, in that the self is a chameleon, changing color from red to blue to green, from line to line, from page to page. The self is coming into being and changing in real time, as the reader moves through the essay.
In spite of all the promise and the exuberant freedom of the essay in the hands of Woolf and Montaigne, the essay of our day has become domesticated and, I hate to say it, often uninteresting. The three-part essay, the five-part essay, taught to high school seniors and college freshmen, is a formulaic dead end—a necessary training ground, perhaps, to develop writing skills, but with nothing beautiful or unexpected in it. Or is there? I have been surprised by the essay only twice.
The first time was when I had just started graduate school at Columbia in the late 1980s, in a seminar on “Seventeenth-century Texts” taught by Edward Tayler. In spite of the wide-reaching title, the seminar had only two core texts: John Donne’s “Anniversary” poems, and Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici—plus a wide range of supplementary works, from Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s De anima to the current (at that time) scholarship on New Historicism.
I’ve written about Tayler’s extraordinary teaching methods elsewhere, in essays on writing (How We Write, punctum books, 2015) and on reading (How We Read, punctum books, 2019), but here I want to describe his version of the three-part essay. He used to make us write one of these every couple of weeks, producing a handful of short essays over the course of the term, which was very different from the graduate school norm that prescribed one major research essay per course. Tayler would ask us to write one paragraph on a particular passage from Browne’s Religio Medici or a few lines from one of Donne’s ‘Anniversary’ poems; a second paragraph on a different passage from the same work; and then a third paragraph on, say, time. Or the self. Or death. Or truth.
It almost didn’t matter what that third paragraph was on. The thing that happened, the essaying, happened between the first two paragraphs and the third. This was some kind of imaginative leap into the unknown, where you would find something—something hidden, you didn’t even know what it might look like; it would be brightly colored, it would be vivid, that was all you knew. The first time writing one of Tayler’s essays, I was completely alarmed, I have to admit, by the format; I had no idea how to get from the specific—the close readings of paragraphs one and two—to the general (time; self; death; truth). He had said in class, though, just to start writing about that general thing, drawing on what had happened in the first two paragraphs to support the generalizations, and the third paragraph would come. And it did—in a startling eruption of interesting observations, unexpected connections, and almost musical words.
The second time I was surprised by the essay was a few weeks ago, when I read the 2019 essay collection Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. Their introduction, titled “Exquisite Vessels,” lays out a radically different account of what the essay might be—what essaying might do. Following Montaigne, they acknowledge that “to essay is to try, test, and practice”; “the form of the essay,” then, “is a fitting site for the experiential and sometimes painful work of seeking answers.” The “exquisite vessel” is both the form of the essay and the process by which it comes into being.
While this act of essaying can be understood within a canonical, Eurocentric lineage—Montaigne, Hazlitt, Woolf—Washuta and Warburton deliberately situate their collection not in terms of lineage but in terms of place, rooting it in the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island (North America). And while they draw on the language of Montaigne to describe the essay (“to try, test, and practice”), and while each of the essays gathered together in the collection is written by an individual author, individuality as such doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of what is being practiced here. The “exquisite vessel” may emerge from the hands of a single craftsman, but behind that individual is a world of relatives—human, animal, and plant—and a particular land.
Washuta and Warburton’s introduction unfolds the concept of the “exquisite vessel” in terms of the woven basket. It would be wrong to understand this basket as a metaphor or even an allegory for the essay, or even for the act of essaying: it is so much more than that. Following the Muscogee writer Joy Harjo and the Spokane writer Gloria Bird, Washuta and Warburton seek to “‘turn the process of colonization around’ so that Native literatures ‘will be viewed and read as a process of decolonization.’” That process is presented here as an act of weaving; the essays are baskets; collectively, they convey the form of the exquisite vessel. You can almost see the concatenated braids, the looping coils of branch and root.
Yet these essays, these baskets, are not all examples of a single form. Some of them evoke the “clam basket, which features wide spaces between woven cedar roots to allow water and sand to flow through while clams remain in the basket”; others call to mind the coiled basket, “woven so tightly that they can hold water.” while still others plait together “warp and weft.” The variety reflects the range of nations or tribal affiliations represented by the contributors, as well as their own individual natures, and each basket perfectly serves the nature of the place it emerges from—swiftly flowing river or ocean shore, woodland or desert. Individual and community, place and land, the passage of time, all are gathered together in the exquisite vessel, which is both one (the basket) and many (each kind of basket). Washuta and Warburton tell of the basket woven by the Suquamish elder Ed Carriere “through which he told and contained the story of his life.” Here, the materiality of the basket stands in the place of—or, maybe, foreshadows—the essay; each of “has often been of interest as an anthropological rather than a literary object,” and yet each of them stands alone as an exquisite vessel.
In her 2015 book Memory Serves, Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle describes how knowledge is sought collectively, in many Indigenous communities. People gather in a circle—or in a series of concentric circles, in a larger gathering, where those in the innermost circle are expected to speak, while the others act as witnesses and speak if needed. What is at the center of the circle is “that which is not seen, not known, what is cherished and hidden.” Together, through a communal act of speaking in turn, each person adding something that has not already been said, that thing at the center is sought, is made visible. So far, so good, in terms of western epistemology. To make hidden knowledge known is understandable; it is revelation. But what does it mean for that hidden knowledge to be “cherished”?
When I first read Memory Serves, and the first time I heard Lee Maracle describe how these circles work, I was completely confused by this idea of the thing that is “cherished and hidden.” Hidden—yes, I understood that. But cherished? This gap in my own knowledge and understanding is the same gap I stumble over in reading Washuta and Warburton’s collection. I can line up the essays in their volume (including Washuta and Warburton’s beautiful introduction) with Woolf and Montaigne, and say something about essays and the act of “essaying.” I can even pat myself on the back for bringing together canonical writers with Indigenous writers, widening the scope of how the essay is taught and studied in North American academic institutions.
But this would be—I hope this is obvious—exactly the wrong thing to do. On the contrary, what lining up the essays contained in Shapes of Native Nonfiction with the essays of Woolf and Montaigne does is to call into question the very basis of the western essay, so often taken for granted—and which even Washuta and Warburton acknowledge, in their comments on Montaigne. What would it mean to undo those assumptions? What would it mean to approach the thing that is cherished and hidden in a collective, shared way, as opposed to the individual introspection that produced the exuberant third part of the essay, in Tayler’s classroom? What would it mean to essay—to try, to try out—together?
Finally, what would it mean to decolonize the canon, specifically, the canon of essay writing puts Montaigne at its foundations and inscribes Woolf at the summit? Washuta and Warburton lay out a path for “the process of decolonization” through their account of the “exquisite vessel.” Yet we must also remember that decolonization, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have influentially argued, is not a metaphor; it is about land and water, real things in the real world. It is about reparations, self-government, and autonomy. We—by which I mean settler people, those who are not native to these territories—must be ready to give up things in order to embrace decolonization.
What would this require of us, in terms of the literary canon? Can we keep Montaigne and Woolf, even as we embrace the “exquisite vessel”? When we incorporate Indigenous writers into Eurocentric canons, it is not enough simply to add in a few writers. Instead, we need to think about how the inclusion of Indigenous writers—including their ways of knowing, their philosophies, and their ways of thinking about literary form—disrupts the very idea of “canon,” of “essay,” of “literature.” This necessary question is one that we have begun to ask through The Spouter-Inn literature podcast: what does it mean to have a canon? What is included, and what is excluded? What works are juxtaposed? Who speaks, and when? Who listens? What would it mean to be an active listener, a witness, instead of a passive one? What can books make us do—not just alone, but together?
If we imagine the circle described in Maracle’s Memory Serves, we could say that I have added something—if only a series of questions—to our shared effort to approach that which is “hidden and cherished” as we circulate the books we love, the essays we read. Washuta and Warburton, along with their contributors, have contributed a great deal to this effort. So listen carefully, be a witness; if you have something to add, Reader, add it. We can only try, essaying together.