The Half-Life Of An American Essayist

The Half-Life Of An American Essayist-73
You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage.For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays", is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term.

You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage.For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays", is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term.

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A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead: Essays"But all is not as it seems.

The subjects in The Oxford Book of Essays" to Mill on Coleridge, are engaged with texts, which is to say, with other minds.

For the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.

Maintaining that difference is an art, and not all of Sedaris’s epigones possess it.

The Half-Life Of An American Essayist

The key to the art is hyperbole: by exaggerating his experiences beyond plausibility, the comic essayist signals the terms on which we are to read him.Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling.What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name.Books of essays regularly turn up on the best-seller lists; many of their authors are stars on the radio, especially on the cult program “This American Life.” In the HBO show “Girls,” the character portrayed by Lena Dunham declared her ambition to become a writer and “the voice of my generation,” but she did not hope to write the Great American Novel: she wanted to produce a book of essays.Here as in so many of its details, “Girls” proves to be a faithful stenographer of its moment.The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances. The essay, traditionally, was defined by its freedom and its empiricism—qualities that it inherited from its modern inventor, Montaigne. ” Montaigne asked, and the essay is the form that allows both the “I” and the thing it knows equal prominence.For this reason, the essay could address any subject, exalted or trivial, as long as it displayed the mind of the writer engaged with the world.Sedaris says as much when he admits to appropriating the life stories of his partner, Hugh: “His stories have, over time, become my own. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser.When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.”Reading Sloane Crosley, who is a generation younger than Sedaris and often compared to him, one comes to appreciate how much control and skill goes into the creation of Sedaris’s persona, and how difficult it is to remain likable while admitting to all kinds of bad behavior.

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