Issue 158, Spring-Summer 2001
In the most recent installment of these symposia--others have included Humor (136), Literary Biography (151), and Translation (155)--the following participants were invited to Casa Ecco on Italy's Lake como in May, 2000 to discuss the art of the essay:
DRUE HEINZ is the publisher of The Paris Review.
GEORGE PLIMPTON is the editor of The Paris Review.
JASON COWLEY is the literary editor of the New Statesman. His first novel, Unknown Pleasures, was published recently.
SIMON JENKINS writes a twice-weekly column for The Times of London and a weekly column for the London Evening Standard.
PAUL JOHNSON was associated with the New Statesman from 1955 to 1970. He has published thirty-five books, most recently A History of the American People.
LEWIS LAPHAM is the editor of Harper's Magazine.
TOM PAULIN is the author of a study of William Hazlitt, William Hazlitt's Radical Style. His latest book of poems is The Wind Dog.
CHRISTOPHER RICKS is Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. His books include Milton's Grand Style, The Force of Poetry and Essays in Appreciation.
LORNA SAGE was a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia. Bad Blood, a memoir, was published recenty. She died last year.
What follows is an edited version of last year's proceedings. The meetings, to which neither the public nor the press is invited, so that the atmostphere remains convivial and the conversation freewheeling, take place over a weekend--interspersed with trips on the lake and visits to restaurants in the hills. Usually, they are chaired by Grey Gowrie, former head of the Arts Council of England. He was unable to attend this particular seminar. His place was taken by George Plimpton, who starte dby reading some remarks sent by Lord Gowrie and then let the essayists take over.
I am not only apologetic but disappointed that a medical prohibition on traveling—soon, I am glad to say, to be lifted—prevents me from chairing this conversazione on 1 the essay. I am most grateful to George Plimpton for taking on the job. I need hardly add my gratitude—which we all share—to our presiding and contributing spirit, Drue Heinz, for the opportunity to meditate on that stubborn enduring literary form, the essay. Anyone over twenty-five, I suspect, and many younger, will recognize the form as the building block of their humane education. Examinations throughout the western world require you to reveal knowledge and 1 demonstrate that you can construct an argument around what you know at considerable speed. In English literature, in the eighteenth century, discursive prose moved from a preserve of the academies (where it still was based upon, and sometimes conducted in, Greek and Latin) to the wit and buzz, the scurrility even, of Grub Street and the coffeehouses. Opinion formers, chattering classes, rumor mongers: the dregs, perhaps, if you are scrutinized by them personally, but 1 no civilization can flourish long without drains. Mainland Europe was more attracted, and remains so, to the essay as manifesto or call to arms. Think of Zola's 1 l’accuse or The Communist Manifesto itself. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest and most influential essays ever written. We think of it as English (in inverted commas) but in spirit is it not more continental, like L'Enfant's layout of the city of Washington? Enviably at Ecco, you who are present will be too sensible to get bogged down by definitions. The essay form is too huge, too comprehensive to be easily caged, though a natural history might perhaps be outlined. Is not the Sermon on the Mount an essay? Are not St. Paul's Epistles essays? Modern inductive science was first explained to us by Francis Bacon and offers a direct line to the Origin of Species and Crick and Watson's 1951 paper on DNA. Nor need essays be in prose: Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel brought down an administration. And talking of politics, our prolific conversationalist Paul Johnson orchestrated ( or, if you are an opponent, exploited) a sea change in recent British politics with his 1970's essay "The Rise of the Know Nothing Left." Reverting to poetry, we don't read Childe Harold much nowadays but when Byron goes down market and produces Don Juan, an epic poem in tabloid newspaper style, our pulses race and we long to argue, as Auden argued, with that dead genius. To name three of my own favorite essayists-Paine, Burke and Isaiah Berlin-each owes his influence to the essay more than the book. Etymologically, the word essay embraces the concept of trying. Have a go.