Dispatches | August 29, 2008

Yesterday in the NY Times books blog, Bob Harris posed the question of where one can find essays in 2008 on the order of the periodical essays of Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, De Quincey and other celebrated English essayists.  And, he says, it’s definitely not happening in blogs.


There are a lot of answers to that question, depending on how you interpret it.  If one asks, for instance, where are our Samuel Johnsons or William Hazlitts, the answer is not so obvious because essayists of that order are not writing the same kinds of essays—for a lot of reasons, partly cultural (the moralism of  a Johnson would almost certainly not gain a broad popular following–among the intellectual set, at least–in 2008), partly aesthetic (the quaintness of a Lamb or a Hazlitt is by current standards . . . well, quaint).  Broadcast media and now the Internet have created new venues for the types of commentary authored by the great Augustan and Enlightenment essayists, and with the arrival of each new venue, authors have molded their styles and subjects to fit (and, if possible, to bring in revenue. Surprise!)


If the vanished coffeehouse milieu of high-class gossip and literary inspiration that Harris remarks on has been replaced by the blogosphere, we can’t expect or demand that the blog be “like” the 18th-century essay.  In an age when publication on a worldwide scale, via the Internet, is instantaneous, we can’t exactly turn our literary/journalistic clocks back to a day when mass periodical publication in print (“mass” meaning primarily the literate population of London ) was the innovation of the moment. 


Articulate, even elegant, nonfiction is all around us: in commercial and literary magazines like The New Yorker, Harpers, the American Scholar, the Missouri Review and many others.  In the regular columns of premiere journalists.  In TV, film and video documentaries and radio essays.  And yes, sometimes in the blog, which is a really exciting new “genre,” if you think about it.  I mean, what can’t one say or do in a blog?


The personal essay has undergone an efflorescence in the past two decades.  We can personally testify to that fact at TMR when we tally the daily essay submissions that outnumber probably by ten times what we used to get in a week.  With the expansion of knowledge, the advancement of science and technology, increased specialization in every field and much greater cultural diversity, we will never again see great essays that much resemble those of centuries past (we might see bad ones that do, though).  I think it’s kind of exciting to wonder whether, and how, the blog is going to evolve, and if it will ultimately become the vehicle that Harris says it isn’t now, and what that might look like.