'Essays – What To Write About?'
by Phineas Redux
The General Concept.
Disclaimer:— This essay is copyright ©2018 to the author.
Finding myself at a loose end I thought I would write an essay. So I sat down at my typewriter cum keyboard cum parchment and quill and started pondering — and pondering, and pondering. After all, what do you write about when you want to write about something? The subject, that's what's essential in essays – the subject. So—what?
There must be some rule of thumb in the matter; some standpoint you go to and then, from there, the world's your oyster as far as essay subject matter matters. The old-time essayists, that's the answer – what did they write about years ago, when essays were a hot topic? Let's see, let's see—
Richard Le Gallienne, somewhere around 1894, 'Life in Inverted Commas', a short essay – 'As I waited for an omnibus at the corner of Fleet Street the other day, I was the spectator of a curious occurrence. Suddenly there was a scuffle hard by me, and, turning round, I saw a powerful gentlemanly man wrestling with two others in livery, who were evidently intent on arresting him. These men, I at once perceived, belonged to the detective force of the Incorporated Society of Authors, and were engaged in the capture of a notorious plagiarist. I knew the prisoner well. He had, in fact, pillaged from my own writings; but I was none the less sorry for his plight, to which, I would assure the reader, I was no party. Yet he was, I admit, an egregiously bad case, and my pity is doubtless misplaced sentiment. Like many another, he had begun his career as a quotation and ended as a plagiarism . .'
Humorous, light-hearted, satiric, and tongue-in-cheek – that's one method, but could I keep such up over a whole essay? Who else?—
Alice Meynell, around 1896, 'The Colour of Life', essays; - 'Grass' – 'Now and then, at regular intervals of the summer, the Suburb springs for a time from its mediocrity; but an inattentive eye might not see why, or might not seize the cause of the bloom and of the new look of humility and dignity that makes the Road, the Rise, and the Villas seem suddenly gentle, gay and rather shy. . . It is no change in the gardens. . . Nor is there anything altered for the better in the houses themselves. . . It lay in the little border of wayside grass which a row of public servants—men with spades and a cart—are in the act of tidying up. Their way of tidying it up is to lay its little corpse all along the suburban roadside, and then to carry it away to some parochial dust-heap.'
Sentimental, sad, poetic, and slightly un-nerving – a little twee for an entire essay, I think – but then, I'm not Alice, am I? What else? — the odyssey continues—
Andrew Lang, about 1905, 'Adventures Among Books', essays; 'The Supernatural in Fiction' — 'It is a truism that the supernatural in fiction should, as a general rule, be left in the vague. In the creepiest tale I ever read, the horror lay in this—there was no ghost! You may describe a ghost with all the most hideous features that fancy can suggest—saucer eyes, red staring hair, a forked tail, and what you please — but the reader only laughs. It is wiser to make as if you were going to describe the spectre, and then break off, exclaiming, "But no! No pen can describe, no memory, thank Heaven, can recall, the horror of that hour!" So writers, as a rule, prefer to leave their terror (usually styled "The Thing") entirely in the dark, and to the frightened fancy of the student. Thus, on the whole, the treatment of the supernaturally terrible in fiction is achieved in two ways, either by actual description, or by adroit suggestion, the author saying, like cabmen, "I leave it to yourself, sir." There are dangers in both methods; the description, if attempted, is usually overdone and incredible: the suggestion is apt to prepare us too anxiously for something that never becomes real, and to leave us disappointed.'
Insightful, interesting, knowledgeable and educational – but could I do the same? Probably not; heigh-ho, to other regions, the search carrying on—
C. E. Montague, near enough 1924, 'The Right Place', essays; 'Along An English Road'— 'To know a country it is not enough to have seen some tit-bit of a place here and there. . . . you must come to know them as things connected and truly parts of a whole . . . That done, your knowledge of England will have a backbone, something central, columnar and sturdy. . . What is it, though, that we mean here by "knowing' a road? Not just seeing it once or twice from a seat in a car and having it on the word of your own eyes that the southern Midlands are mainly grass land and the Peak country rocky. There is a mean—to know it as people soon come to know the daily way home from a new place of work. . . That is how to know a great road; you know it enough when you can shut your eyes, call up a row of points upon it, and feel how, as you went along, your senses only quitted their hold upon each when they had the next to fix on. . . So the grasp that your senses have of the road is carried on to the end in a kind of rhythm. . . . A push-bicycle, I had felt, was the thing. You certainly see most when you walk, but you cannot walk to London in a day . . . By car the thing would be easy, but then travel by car is only semi-travel, verging on the demi-semi-travel that you get in trains. . . So the active form of pleasure had it. By 1.40 A. M. the miles had begun to draw out between my forsaken pyjamas and me.'
Descriptive, interesting again, and not too serious, though containing a serious message. That's the sort of thing I'd like to emulate—but could I? Oh dear, oh dear, who's next?—
Alexander Smith, close to 1863, 'Dreamthorp; Essays Written in the Country' — 'It matters not to relate how or when I became a denizen of Dreamthorp; it will be sufficient to say that I am not a born native, but that I came to reside in it a good while ago now, The several towns and villages in which, in my time, I have pitched a tent did not please, for one obscure reason or another: this one was too large, t'other too small; but when, on a summer evening about the hour of eight, I first beheld Dreamthorp, with its westward-looking windows painted by sunset, its children playing in the single straggling street, the mothers knitting at the open doors, the fathers standing about in long white blouses, chatting or smoking; the great tower of the ruined castle rising high into the rosy air, with a whole troop of swallows—by distance made as small as gnats—skimming about its rents and fissures;—when I first beheld all this, I felt instinctively that my knapsack might be taken off my shoulders, that my tired feet might wander no more, that at last, on the planet, I had found a home.'
Poetic again, but this time with a haunting tincture of the fantastic; this sort of writing captures the imagination—at least, it does mine. However, the journey goes ever on and on—
A. C. Benson, somewhere suspiciously close to 1905, 'The Thread of Gold'— 'I have for a great part of my life desired, perhaps more than I have desired anything else, to make a beautiful book; and I have tried, perhaps too hard and too often, to do this, without ever quite succeeding; by that I mean my little books, when finished, were not worthy to be compared with the hope that I had had of them. I think now that I tried to do too many things in my books, to amuse, to interest, to please persons who might read them; and I fear, too, that in the back of my mind there lay a thought, like a snake in its hole—the desire to show others how fine I could be. I tried honestly not to let this thought rule me; whenever it put its head out, I drove it back; but of course I ought to have waited till it came out, and then killed it, if I had only known how to do that; but I suppose I had a secret tenderness for the little creature as being indeed a part of myself'.
Insightful, baring the writer's soul, and pensive; not happy easy light reading but which teaches a lesson without quite being simply a lecture on morals. Old-fashioned now, and not the modern take on Life in general, I fear. So, what else?—
Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), within a kick, jump, and stumble of 1897, 'Limbo, and Other Essays',— 'In Praise of Old Houses'— 'My Yorkshire friend was saying that she hated being in an old house. There seemed to be other people in it besides the living . . . These words, expressing the very reverse of what I feel, have set me musing on my foolish passion for the Past. The Past, but the real one; not the Past considered as a possible Present. For though I should like to have seen ancient Athens, or Carthage according to Salambo, and though I have pined to hear the singers of last century, I know that any other period than this of the world's history would be detestable to live in. For one thing—one among other instances of brutish dullness—our ancestors knew nothing of the emotion of the past, the rapture of old towns and houses. . . And in this case, the causes that first occur to our mind merely suggest a number more. Of these there is a principal one, only just less important than that suggested by my Yorkshire friend, which might be summed up thus: That the action of time makes man's works into natural objects.'
A topic to stir the imagination, certainly—but how long can a reader be interestingly entertained by the author's musings on old architecture, however historical or grand? Hallo, who's this?—
Augustine Birrell, as near 1885 as makes no matter, 'Obiter Dicta',—'The Via Media'— 'The world is governed by logic. Truth as well as Providence is always on the side of the strongest battalions. An illogical opinion only requires rope enough to hang itself. Middle men may often seem to be earning for themselves a place in Universal Biography, and middle positions frequently seem to afford the final solution of vexed questions; but this double delusion seldom outlives a generation. . . . The Via Media, alluring as is its direction, imposing as are its portals, is, after all, only what Londoners call a blind alley, leading nowhere. . . . It is eminently desirable that we should consider the logical termini of our opinions. Travelling up to town last month from the West, a gentleman got into my carriage at Swindon who, as we moved off and began to rush through the country, became unable to restrain his delight at our speed. His face shone with pride, as if he were pulling us himself. "What a charming train!" he exclaimed. "This is the pace I like to travel at." I indicated assent. Shortly afterwards, when our windows rattled as we rushed through Reading, he let one of them down in a hurry, and cried out in consternation, "Why, I want to get out here." "Charming train," I observed. "Just the pace I like to travel at; but it is awkward if you want to go anywhere except Paddington." My companion made no reply; his face ceased to shine, and as he sat whizzing past his dinner, I mentally compared his recent exultation with that of those who in the present day extol much of its spirit . . and partake in most of its triumphs, in utter ignorance as to whitherwards it is all tending as surely as the Great Western runs into Paddington.'
Energetic, forthright, rather lacking in a spirit of live and let live, almost Puritanical, in fact. Oh well, everyone to their own, I expect. Oh goodness, who's this coming round the corner at a rate of knots?—a modern author; well, almost-but one with a decided bite—
John Braine, as approximate to 1974 as any date between Jan 1st and Dec 31st of said year will allow, 'Writing a Novel'— '. . . there are people writing first novels now who will break most, if not all, of my rules. Their novels will be accepted and their novels will be good novels. They may even be better novels than mine. . . you can be directly autobiographical, you can make propaganda, you can move dizzily backwards and forwards in time, you can be wrong about idiom, you can tack description on to each character like a cheap ready-made suit, you can wander in and out of the narrative making long involved statements about abstract ideas, you can write execrable prose, you can write an absurdly short novel or an absurdly long novel, you can even be experimental. You don't have to describe your characters at all. . . There isn't a fault I've named that you can't get away with. . . You can make up the novel as you go along, you can work only when you feel like it or under the influence of alcohol or whatever your favourite drug may be. . . And all that has as much to do with creative writing as as a graph in a sex survey has to do with actually making love. . . I always have in my mind the story of W. C. Fields in his juggling days, reading Hazlitt on juggling and discovering how clever he was . . how miraculous his co-ordination was, how the essence of juggling was a dance on the edge of disaster . . He read this with fascination and a growing sense of wonder; the next time he went on stage he dropped everything. . . Once the late Sinclair Lewis arrived at Harvard, drunk as usual (alcoholism is our main occupational disease) to talk about writing. "Hands up, all those who want to be writers!" he yelled. Everyone's hand went up. "Then why the hell aren't you at home writing?" he asked, and staggered off the platform.'
Oh! Oh! I see, that's how its done? No mystery about it at all—just buckle down and get to beating the crap out of your keyboard? Why didn't anybody tell me it was that simple before? Could have saved myself years of effort, pondering Life, Nature, Psychology, and the roots of all Evil; and here all I actually need to do is batter my typewriter into submission without mercy and I can't fail? Well, who'd a'guessed it—O.K., readers, sorry, but I've got a date with a keyboard that can't wait, see ya around—now, what subject should I choose for my first effort? Somehow, I can't tell how or why, I fancy Subject is probably important to writing an essay—now, I wonder where to start?