Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It's a cool morning in Harmony, with the promise of heat--the sort of day that tourist bureaus advertise as "typically Maine" (plus blackflies, minus waves and lobster boats). I am celebrating this typically Maine day by hanging several loads of laundry on my new clotheslines and replanting the corn and sunflower seeds that rotted into the ground during frigid, rainy May. 

The birds are loud. I hear a thrush, a bluejay, a rose-breasted grosbeak, a small woodpecker, a chickadee, and others that I can't identify by sound. A slight breeze shifts the clothes on the line, and the air is scented with lilacs.

The essay I am writing is coming along very slowly. I wonder what my theme will turn out to be. It's such a shame that high school English teachers generally don't have the option of teaching students to write-to-discover. Regular school essays are mostly "think of a topic sentence; make everything else you write fit around it." But in the world of true exploratory essays, this is ass-backwards.

When I consulted the index of my 1939 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (edited by Christopher Morley, famous fellow Haverford College grad), I found these pithy remarks about essays and essayists. [Pithy is one of my least favorite words; it feels like a hair in the mouth.]

Authors--essayist, atheist, novelist, realist, rhymester, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of art. 
[This is Tennyson, from Lockesley Hall Sixty Years After, and I take umbrage at "the mortal shame of nature." Victorians can be so exasperating. But I am intrigued by the inclusion of atheist in the subcategory of authors.
Whenever we encounter the typical essayist, he is found to be a tatler, a spectator, a rambler, a lounger, and, in the best sense, a citizen of the world. 
[This is a fellow named Charles Townsend Copeland, born in 1860 and still alive in 1939, who published something titled The Copeland Reader and included said pithy remark in his introduction. At the moment, I don't have time to research him more thoroughly, though I like his comment much better than Tennyson's.] 
ESSAY--A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition. 
[Nicely defined, Samuel Johnson.] 
There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay. 
[Virginia Woolf, "The Modern Essay," in The Common Reader. I am now waiting for the Woolf-Johnson smackdown.] 
All the more pretentious American authors try to write chastely and elegantly; the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly, perhaps gently jocose but never rough--by Emerson, so to speak, out of Charles Lamb. 
[This is the snark of H. L. Mencken, from The American Language, published in 1919. It would be interesting to know which specific 1919 essayists he was deriding: perhaps Charles Townsend Copeland? P.S. Say all the mean stuff you like about Emerson; he can take it. But you'd better be kind to my Charles Lamb.]


Carlene said...

Now I'm curious: was Copeland's description an intentional homage to Addison and Steele?


Dawn Potter said...

My guess is yes. The spelling of "tatler" is kind of a giveaway.