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The following essay is adapted from the introduction to "Best American Essays 2014," which will be published this week.
It is a curious fact that the word essayist showed up in English before it existed in French. We said it first, for some reason, by not just years but a couple of centuries. France could invent the modern essay, but the notion that someone might seize on the production of these fugitive-seeming pieces as a defining mode was too far-fetched to bear naming. Rabelais had written Pantagruel, after all, and people hadn’t gone around calling themselves Pantagruelists (in fact they had, starting with Rabelais himself, but the word meant someone filled with nonjudgmental joie de vivre). Had a Bordelais born with the name Michel Eyquem titled his books Essais in the 1580s? Fine—Montaigne was Montaigne, a mountain in more than name. One didn’t presume to perpetuate the role. France will cherish his example, but the influence it exerts there is partly one of intimidation. In France the essay constricts after Montaigne. It turns into something less intimate, or at least less confiding, becoming Descartes’s meditations and Pascal’s thoughts. It’s said that even a century and a half after Montaigne’s death, when the marquis d’Argenson subtitled a book with that word, Essays, he was shouted down for impertinence. Not a context in which many people would find themselves tempted to self-identify as “essayists.” When the French do finally start using the word, in the early nineteenth century, it’s solely in reference to English writers who’ve taken up the banner, and more specifically to those who write for magazines and newspapers. “The authors of periodical essays,” wrote a French critic in 1834, “or as they’re commonly known, essayists, represent in English letters a class every bit as distinct as the Novellieri in Italy.” A curiosity, then: the essay is French, but essayists are English. What can it mean?
Consider the appearance of the word in English—which is to say the appearance of the word—in the wintertime of late 1609 or early 1610, and most likely January 1610. A comedy is under way before the court of King James I of England, at the Palace of Whitehall in London, or maybe at St. James’s Palace, where the prince resides, we’re not sure. The theaters have been closed for plague, but there must be diversion for the Christmas season. Ben Jonson has written a new piece, Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, for his favored company, the Children of the Whitefriars, boy actors with “unbroken voices,” several of whom have been “pressed”—essentially kidnapped (sometimes literally off the street, while walking home from school)—into service for the theater. For most of them it’s an honor to number among the Children of the King’s Revels. They enjoy special privileges.
January of 1610: James is forty-three. The biblical translation he has sponsored is all but done. John Donne stands there in his late thirties with a pointed beard, holding a copy of his first published book, Pseudo-Martyr. He wants to give it to James, hoping in part to flatter him into forgiving past wildnesses. “Of my boldness in this address,” he writes, “I most humbly beseech your Majesty to admit this excuse, that, having observed how much your Majesty has vouchsafed to descend to a conversation with your subjects by way of your books, I also conceived an ambition of ascending to your presence by the same way.” Galileo squints at Jupiter through a telescope he’s made and finds moons (he can see them so faintly they look like “little stars”) that evidently obey no gravity but Jupiter’s own, suggesting that not all celestial bodies circle the earth, a triumph for proponents of the still-controversial Copernican theory of heliocentrism, but one that raised an important modification to it as well, for Copernicus had placed the sun at the center of the world, whereas Galileo was sensing that there might be no center, not one so easily discerned. James receives a dispatch about it from his Venetian ambassador. “I send herewith unto His Majesty the strangest piece of news,” it reads, “that he has ever yet received from any part of the world,” for a “mathematical professor at Padua” had “overthrown all former astronomy.” What is opening is what the French thinker Pierre Borel will in another half a century call “la pluralité des mondes”—the vista we see with the Hubble. Sir Walter Raleigh sits in the Tower writing his Historie of the World, begging to be sent back to America, saying he’d rather die there “then to perrish” in a cell. We’re at the court of the Virginia Company, which days before has published a pamphlet, a True and Sincere Declaraccion, extolling the virtues of the new colony, that “fruitfull land,” and struggling to quiet horrific accounts that are starting to circulate. Across the Atlantic in Jamestown it’s what they’re calling “this starveing Tyme.” Of roughly five hundred settlers, four hundred and forty die during this winter. Survivors are eating corpses or disappearing into the forest.
James draws our notice here not for being king—not as shorthand for the period, that is—but because he plays a significant if unmentioned part in the evolution of this slippery term and thing, the essay. We may imagine him as a stuffed robe-and-crown who gives a thumbs-up to the Authorized Version and fades into muffled bedchambers, but James was a serious man of letters. He fashioned himself so and was one, in truth. Not good enough, perhaps, to be remembered apart from who he was, but given who he was, better than he needed to be. He held scholarship in high esteem, while himself indulging certain sketchy ideas, among them the power of demons and witches. In his youth, in Edinburgh and at Stirling Castle, he’d been at the center of a loose-knit, homoerotic band of erudite court poets, dedicated to formal verse and the refinement of the Middle Scots dialect, his native tongue. Most of what King James wrote was translated into plain English before being published, but one text—because it took for its subject partly the use of Middle Scots for poetic purposes—got published in the original language. It consisted mainly of poems but contained also, in the most remarked-upon part of the book, a nonfiction “Treatise” of twenty pages, laying out “some reulis and cautelis”—precepts and pitfalls—“to be obseruit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie.” The title of James’s book? Essayes of a Prentise.
This book was first published in 1584, a full thirteen years before the appearance of Francis Bacon’s famous 1597 Essayes, traditionally held to mark the introduction of the essay as a formal concept into English writing. Granted, Bacon doesn’t quite hold up as the first English essayist even when we do omit James: some person—we’re not positive who, but almost certainly an Anglican divine named Joseph Hall—had published a collection of essays a year before Bacon, titled Remedies Against Discontentment,* and it’s likely that one or two of the “later” writers—William Cornwallis or Robert Johnson or Richard Greenham—had already begun writing their pieces when Bacon’s book came out. Even so, Bacon is the greatest in that little cluster of late-sixteenth-century English essayists and would seem to possess the clearest claim to the word in English. Yet King James’s book had preceded them all by more than a decade. Indeed, when James published his Essayes of a Prentise, Montaigne was still publishing his own Essais (the Frenchman was in between volumes I and II).
The most available conclusion for leaping to is that James is using the word in a general sense. An “essay,” we’re frequently told, means an attempt, a stab. Perhaps King James had been saying, self-deprecatingly, “I’m a mere prentise [an apprentice] here, and these are my essays, my beginner’s efforts.” It makes sense. The poet Jérôme d’Avost was using it the same way at the same time in France.
What if, however, King James had Montaigne in mind instead? On the face of it, the idea seems far-fetched. Montaigne’s book had been published just a few years before James finished his. An English translation would not appear for another twenty years. Doubtless there existed English men and women who’d already heard about the book, perhaps even seen it, but what are the odds that one of them was the eighteen-year-old king of Scotland?
Rather good, believe it or not. James’s tutor in the 1570s, the years during which Montaigne was composing his first volume of pieces, happens to have been a man named George Buchanan, a Scottish classicist and Renaissance giant who’d spent part of his life in France, where his poetry was much admired (“Easily the greatest poet of our age,” said his French publishers, an opinion echoed by Montaigne, among others). Buchanan was placed in charge of young James’s education and made on his pupil a lifelong impression of both respect and fear, deep enough that decades later, when James saw a man approaching him at court who looked like Buchanan, he started to tremble (Buchanan had drunkenly beaten the hell out of the boy James on at least one occasion).
James was not the only pupil of Buchanan’s who never forgot him. There had been another, in France, in the 1530s and early ’40s. For several years George Buchanan had taught at the Collège de Guyenne, in Bordeaux, and one of his students there, a young boarder who also came to him outside of class for private instruction, was a local boy named Michel Eyquem. The boy, whose precocity in Latin astonished his professors, was also a talented actor and performed in a few of Buchanan’s plays. Buchanan even considered him something of a favorite student and, running into Montaigne at the French court many years later, honored him by saying that their time together had inspired certain of Buchanan’s subsequent theories of humanistic pedagogy. Montaigne returned the compliment by praising his former teacher more than once in the Essais. They were well aware of each other, these two men, and remained so. And precisely as the younger was starting to publish in France, the elder became the tutor in Scotland to King James. Who, four years after Montaigne’s Essais were published, published his own Essayes.
What was it, then? Could this appearance of two books titled Essays—the first two ever titled that way in any language, and within a mere few years of each other, and written by two men who shared a childhood teacher—really be a coincidence? Or was it the case, as seems vastly more plausible, that the two were connected somehow—that King James knew of Montaigne, or at least knew of his book (but probably both), and was appropriating the word from him? And if that’s true, why is James’s book rarely, if ever, cited in histories of the essay form, from England or France?
Partly it’s that the work consists mostly of poems, so it wouldn’t have come into anyone’s mind to link it with Montaigne, apart from the title. On the other hand, the book does include, as mentioned, a piece that today (or in 1600) would be described as an essay, the “Reulis and Cautelis” treatise. And that piece—unsurprisingly, given the bare adequacy of the king’s poetry—became by far the best-known part of his book. In fact, at some point later in the sixteenth century, the work appears to have been republished (or rebound) not as the Essayes of a Prentise but instead as Reulis and Cautelis, such that its true title could have remained unknown even to one who spotted the work in bibliographies or catalogues.
I wish to argue—or should say, this being an essay, float the suggestion—that something other than either coincidence or appropriation is going on in James’s use of the word as a title. Namely, misinterpretation. Or maybe it’s more correct to say simply interpretation. James had an acknowledged gift for languages, after all, and the greatest teachers in the world. No one is accusing him of not knowing what essai meant in French. The problem is, it meant lots of things—in French, and already in English by then too—but the king in his title seems to have battened on and emphasized one sense above all others, winding up with a usage of the word that differed slightly from what Montaigne had intended. The choice can be seen to have exercised an invisible but crucial effect on the evolving English conception of the essay.
French scholars have been debating what precisely Montaigne meant by essai for going on half a millennium, and I don’t pretend to be qualified to intervene in that discussion. I’ve read about it, but as an interested and biased practitioner, not a linguist. Rest assured that when the French see us walk up to the front of our classrooms and intone the familiar explanation, “An essay … from the French essai … meaning ‘attempt’ ” (as I have watched professors do, as I have done in turn before students), ruthless Gallic laughter is occurring on some level.
You can read about the Latin roots of the word, exagere, exagium, words that come from the context of Roman coinage, which have to do with measuring and weighing. A sense of “drive out” or “swarm” supposedly knocks around in there somewhere (a swarm of thoughts, like bees, fast and done?). There was the phrase “coup d’essay,” meaning, according to a contemporary bilingual dictionary, the “maister-peece of a young workeman.” And yes, there was also, simultaneously, King James’s sense, of “a beginning, entrance, onset, attempt … a flourish, or preamble, whereby a tast[e] of a thing is given.” That was undoubtedly present, in both Montaigne’s France and his title—but it was not the primary shading, not what Montaigne had foremost in mind (in his ear) when he took that word, essais, as a description of his work.
We know what the primary meaning was not only because it comes first in period dictionaries (though it does), nor because it pops up most frequently in period usages (though it does), but also because it’s the sense Montaigne himself, when using the word outside of his title—that is, elsewhere in his books—tends to employ, not in every single case but in the vast majority of them. It’s the sense of “a proofe, tryall, experiment.” To test something—for purity, or value (going back to coinage; the essayeur was “an Officer in the Mint, who touches everie kind of new coyne before it be delivered out”). There was the essay de bled, the “trial of grain,” in which the wheat was carefully weighed, a custom Montaigne may have had in mind when he wrote: “Je remets à la mort l’essay du fruict de mes estudes” (“I put off until my death the essay of the fruits of my studies”).
The Rabelais scholar E. V. Telle, in a 1968 essay titled with delightful transparency “A Propos du Mot ‘Essai’ Chez Montaigne,” pointed out that the usage most ready to mind for many of Montaigne’s readers would have come from a university context, in which before a candidate’s examination for some degree, placards would be posted reading essai de jean marin or whoever it was. The students were tested, probed, essayed, to find out if they really knew their shit. Montaigne was toying with that meaning too—he would essay himself and his own “jugement” (as he repeatedly writes), become his own essayer. Wasn’t this his great guiding question, Que sçay-je? (“What do I know?”) Which he seems to have meant both literally and in our idiomatic sense (You really think I’m gonna die? “Seems like it, but what do I know?”).
This is not to say that Montaigne meant this and not that by Essais, but to understand that the above-sketched polysemia of the word was precisely what he was up to with it, and indeed the reason he chose it, for if a book would be a true mirror, it must always reflect back in the direction from which it’s approached. He will leave not one but many doors open to his readers. You may enter him through his likable talkativeness, his confessional, conspiratorial intimacy (he remains one of the few writers in history to have possessed the balls to admit he had a small penis), through his learning, through the possibly unreattained depth of his psychological soundness, through the consolation he offers in times of sorrow—come whichever way you want, the door is there in the writing, and it’s there in the title. It could even be said that Montaigne comes to you. After all, we often write that Montaigne invented a form—and it’s true—but he did it by adapting others, one of which was the epistolary. For as long as there had been writing there had been books that are presented as a letter to someone, fictional or real, and under this guise, essayistic experiments were perpetrated. Montaigne makes a single bold edit. Instead of Dear Sebastien or whatever, it was Dear Reader. It was you.
Nevertheless, at the center of it all, when you’ve peeled back every visible layer, there dwells this binary, this yin / yang, this Heisenbergian flickering between two primary meanings, between a stricter definition of the essay (the proof, the trial, the examination) and a looser one (the sally, the amateur work performed with panache, the whatever-it-is). The duality was noticed and articulated by one of Montaigne’s earliest and most important readers, François Grudé, or, as he was better known, the sieur de La Croix du Maine. In his influential Bibliothéques, a kind of literary-biographical digest, he included Montaigne and praised him. This was in 1584, when the latter was still alive and writing (also the year in which King James’s book came out). Grudé had read only Montaigne’s first volume, but on that evidence alone put him into a company with Plutarch. Grudé gets credit for being one of the first people to realize that Montaigne was Montaigne. In 1584, among the lettered, the majority report on the writer was: lightweight, garrulous, and—interestingly for us—a woman’s writer.** But Grudé got it, got that there was something very serious happening in the Essais, that here was a man inspecting his mind as a means of inspecting the human mind. Helpfully for us, Grudé gets into the meaning of the word, of the title, just a few years after Montaigne had introduced it (the first thing they noticed about it was the ambiguity!). He writes:
In the first place, this title or inscription is quite modest, for if one takes the word “Essay” in the spirit of “coup d’Essay,” or apprenticeship, it sounds very humble and self-deprecating, and suggests naught of either excellence or arrogance; yet if the word be taken to mean instead “proofs” or “experiments,” that is to say, a discourse modeling itself on those, the title remains well chosen.
What’s marvelous to observe is how this original dichotomy, which existed fully formed in Montaigne’s mind, between the looser and stricter conceptions of the essay—the flourish and the finished, the try and the trial—transposed itself onto the one that existed between France and England. If the French will largely repent of the essay’s more casual and intimate qualities (and even its name), in the wake of Montaigne, England runs into their arms.*** Something in Montaigne’s voice, the particular texture of its introspection, opened a vein that had been aching to pop. Ben Jonson describes a literary pretender of the day, writing: “All his behaviours are printed, and his face is another volume of essays.” And notice, it’s clear from the start that the definition of essay the English are working with is the looser one, the one having to do with apprenticeship. That original tuning note King James had struck. Or perhaps one should say that the emphasis is on that signification, with the other one, the more serious one, now switching places and assuming the role of subfrequency. It isn’t a unified national definition or anything like that; there are many definitions, as earlier in France, but they all strike that apologetic tone. In fact, in the first English attempt to pin down this odd new creature, the essay—William Cornwallis’s “Of Essays and Books,” from Discourses upon Seneca, published in 1601 (the year in which Robert Johnson defines his own Essais as “imperfect offers”)—Cornwallis, with a comedy both intentional and un-, begins by arguing that Montaigne had actually been misusing the term. Whereas the English were using it correctly, you see. “I hold,” he writes, “none of these ancient short manner of writings, nor Montaigne’s, nor such of this latter time to be rightly termed essays, for though they be short, yet they are strong, and able to endure the sharpest trial: but mine are essays, who am but newly bound prentice.”****
From this initial mushroom ring of essayists that crops up on the island around 1600, an infestation spreads. Then comes the Grub Street explosion, and the essay is an eighteenth-century pop form. There are millions of pages of gazettes and daily journals and moral weeklies to fill. The word becomes a blazon for the early Enlightenment. It’s the age of what Thackeray will christen “the periodical essayists of the eighteenth century.” England becomes a nation of essayists every bit as much as it was ever one of shopkeepers, and the essay becomes … whatever we say it is. In the words of Hugh Walker—whose English Essay and Essayists remains the most lucid single-volume work on the genre a century after its publication—the genre becomes the “common” of English literature, “for just as, in the days before enclosures, stray cattle found their way to the unfenced common, so the strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay.”
But always with that original note hanging in the air, as both counterblast and guiding horn. Not King James’s note, Montaigne’s. The singularity. The word with its fullest, richest, Tiresian ambiguity, and the example of the writer himself, both his rigor and his cheek. The modern essay–the form we continue to play with—develops not in any one country but within a transnational vibrational field that spans the English channel. It assumes many two-sided forms: trial / try, high / low, literature / journalism, formal / familiar, French / English, Eyquem / Ockham. The vital thing is that the vibration itself be there. Without it you have no “essays,” you have only the Essais.
James was sitting there in the theater. It was January of 1610. Donne and Bacon and Joseph Hall and the rest of the gang were in the audience too—they may have been, so let’s say they were. And the boys were performing Jonson’s Epicœne. It’s a lad who is playing, for the first time, the role of Sir John Daw, a knight. John Daw = Jack Daw = jackdaw, a bird that, like a magpie, likes to pick up and collect shiny things, such as classical quotations. Jack Daw may be a satirical representation of Bacon himself—more than one scholar has wondered. In the story, he has just been forced (it doesn’t take much forcing) to recite some of his work. The work is ludicrous. But his listeners, meaning by flattery to draw him into further clownishness, tell him that it possesses “something in’t like rare wit and sense.” Indeed, they say—sounding already like us, when we go on about the essay’s origins—“’tis Seneca … ’tis Plutarch.”
Jack Daw, in the silliness of his vanity, takes the comparison as an insult. “I wonder,” he says, that “those fellows have such credit with gentlemen!”
“They are very grave authors,” his little crowd assures him.
“Grave asses!” he says. “Meere essayists, a few loose sentences and that’s all.”
Essayists: that’s when it enters the world, with that line. The first thing we notice: that the word is used derisively and dismissively. And yet the character using it is one toward whom we’re meant to feel derisive and dismissive. A pretentious ass, trying to use a fancy French word that a French person wouldn’t use. A character, moreover, who may be jibingly based on the inventor of the essay, Francis Bacon. And on top of everything, the moment transpires before the eyes of the very monarch who had imported the word in the first place, initiating this long, weird dialogue. One senses that the king himself has to be implicated somehow in the nesting doll of Jonson’s wit.
How could we possibly trust any creature that comes into the world wearing such a caul of ambiguity? That’s “essayists.” Four hundred and four years later, they continue to flourish.
* The authorship of the Remedies has been wondered about since it was written, and its obscurity depends heavily on our failure to crack its “Anonym[o]us” mask. But a linguist at Princeton, the New Jersey–born Williamson Updike Vreeland, discovered that the book was Joseph Hall’s more than a century ago, and published the information in his Study of Literary Connections Between Geneva and England Up to the Publication of la Nouvelle Héloïse (1901). Vreeland didn’t care about Bishop Hall, not much—he was interested in the book’s translator, the zealous Swiss Calvinist Theodore Jaquemot, who rendered at least a dozen of Hall’s books into French—but Vreeland had gone to the library in Geneva and seen the only known French copy of the Remedies, titled by Jaquemot Remèdes contre les mécontentements, and it read right there on the title page, “Traduit nouvellement de l’anglais de révérend Seigneur Joseph Hall … 1664.” Sixteen sixty-four: Bishop Hall was seven or eight years dead by then—Jaquemot didn’t need to worry about protecting his friend’s identity. Plus, once you introduce Vreeland’s evidence, other things line up: Hall, it turns out, favored the phrase “Remedies Against” in the chapter heads of his later books, the ones he claimed; and he knew fairly well the man to whom the book is personally dedicated, Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general under Elizabeth I. The Remedies is all but certainly Joseph Hall’s. But Vreeland, not really caring about Hall and maybe not even knowing that the Remedies had long been considered a frustratingly mysterious book, didn’t broadcast the discovery, and it’s safe to say scant few scholars of English came across his study, so this tiny datum has hunkered there since 1901, waiting for the magic of just the right database and search-term combination to conjure it forth. Well, you might say, who cares? Fair enough. Probably hardly anyone anymore. But sometimes a little fact like that will ignite a constellation of things, the way you can make a strand of Christmas-tree lights come on by replacing one burned bulb. Specifically, this is how it becomes intriguing: Bishop Joseph Hall, though largely forgotten, is major. I won’t wear you out quoting four-hundred-year-old accolades. Suffice it to say that his impact and influence in and on his own time were enormous. They called him “the English Seneca.” He argued with Shakespeare in taverns and quarreled with Milton in print. He resolved spiritual controversies. He pioneered multiple prose forms in English, among them the satire, the dystopia, the Theophrastian character sketch, and the Neostoical meditation. In the 1650s, when he was old and fallen from power and sick—suffering from, among other ills, “strangury” (painful, constricted urination)—he was attended and his life prolonged by a younger, admiring friend, the writer-physician Sir Thomas Browne, who went on to quote from Hall in his own work. Thomas Browne closed Hall’s eyes. Alexander Pope read Bishop Hall. Laurence Sterne knew Bishop Hall’s sermons and used them. But most significant of all: Francis Bacon knew Hall, and is highly likely to have read his Remedies. A year later, Bacon publishes his own Essayes. Granted, Hall hadn’t used that word in his book. He’d used Discourses. But the formal and stylistic overlap between the two productions is huge. Which means we need to consider the likelihood that Joseph Hall is, if not the father, at minimum a coparent of the English essay. There is more to be learned about him.
** An at-the-time disproportionate-seeming number of Montaigne’s earliest readers were female, and he was made fun of for it. He dedicated several of his pieces to women and boasted that he would come to know more about that sex than any man before, because his book would become a tiny Trojan horse that would carry him even into their bedrooms, even into their toilettes. Among his most passionate early defenders, and his first posthumous editor, was the great Marie le Jars de Gournay, whom he called his fille d’alliance (something between a goddaughter and a female apprentice). Good on this topic is Grace Norton’s Montaigne: His Personal Relations to Some of His Contemporaries, and His Literary Relations to Some Later Writers, which mentions the “peculiar interest Montaigne has inspired through all generations in women.”
*** Read Pierre Villey’s Montaigne en Angleterre for both a tour de force treatment of this subject and an amusing instance of the French attitude to it, which is (or was for a long time) that we English are a little bit weird about Montaigne. Every country treasures him, but England has loved him. In the nineteenth century we tried to claim him, Villey points out, by seizing on a claim he makes, at one point in the Essais, that his father’s family was descended from one situated in England and that he could recall seeing, as a boy, English relics in Eyquem family homes. Genealogies were drawn, more wishfully than carefully, tracing Eyquem back to Ockham. That would explain the English fixation on Montaigne, our drive to emulate him. _He was really ours. _
**** Notice the self-canceling doubleness of even his syntax there. Those other pieces can’t be “essays” (looser meaning) because they’re strong, and able to endure the sharpest “trial” (stricter meaning). Cornwallis seems to be winking at us there, letting us know that he knows that the whole problem of the word is a linguistic ouroboros. Takeaway being, 1601 and you already have the ironic essay about essays.