The American Essay in the American Century
University of Missouri Press 2011
Clio, Erato, Polyhymnia–among the nine muses of Greek mythology, there’s no muse for the essay. And that’s not only because the essay doesn’t appear, in name, until Montaigne publishes his first book of them in 1580. No, one gets the feeling that, even if Homer had composed essays about the wine-dark sea or rosy-fingered dawn, this literary genre, so often associated with five-paragraph structures and freshmen composition courses, still wouldn’t have a goddess representing it on Mount Parnassus. The essay, unlike the epic or the love poem, is just too pedestrian, too workaday and uninspired to find a place among the timeless arts.
That doesn’t stop Ned Stuckey-French from championing of the essay. In fact, for Stuckey-French, the middling nature of the essay is one of its very virtues. In his study The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), he gives us a vision of the essay as a genre that’s as plucky and adaptable as the American spirit itself, showing us how writers and readers reinvented it at the beginning of the twentieth century for a new nation, one teeming with Ford motorcars and weekly magazines and a growing middleclass, eager for writing that spoke to its fears and desires. Stuckey-French shows us how and why the essay, that creation of a Renaissance French aristocrat, becomes an American essay, a democratic genre, able to take the pulse of our bustling nation.
And if this social history of the essay weren’t enough, Stuckey-French has also published, with his co-editor Carl Klaus, an anthology of Essayists on the Essay (University of Iowa Press, 2012), a collection of writing that begins with Montaigne and takes us right up to the present, where the essay is once again adapting to a new world, one of web browsers and blogs, smartphones and video. And yet the essay lives on, undaunted, ready to take up the challenges of our new century.