We commonly think of the essay as inferior to drama, fiction, or poetry. True, traditional anthologies of American and English literature put a “great” author’s essays with his poems, as with Dryden or Eliot, or, if he is known only for his essays, like Lamb, with the poems of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, we likely consider the shorter non-fiction prose of poets or fictionists as afterthoughts, and the main work of essayists as feuilletons, stray leaves.
But even if our taste tends more toward Keats and Austen than toward Hazlitt and De Quincey, we can comfortably agree that the latter pair are not in altogether inappropriate company. Still, professors infrequently encourage their introductory classes to read Poe’s and Lawrence’s essays, say, some of which are as worthy and revealing of their authors and times as the stories and poems. We take gravely Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s prose on the nature of poetry but plainly out of reverence for the poetry.
By thus depreciating the essay, we risk shrinking our sense of a writer’s work. When we slight the essays of John Updike in favor of his fiction, for example, we lessen his stature, I submit, since the fiction does not range as widely in tone and thought and is not as consistent in quality. Astute critics have pejoratively described Mary McCarthy’s short stories and novels as “essayistic,” which should be an insight to the particular nature of her fiction rather than a downgrading of it. Updike and McCarthy, like John O’Hara and Cynthia Ozick, all masters of fiction, make it clear through their essayistic, critical prose that an alert, knowledgeable, deliberate intelligence underpins their art.
Most students and teachers of literature, and writers themselves, favor the imagined, the invented, over the reportorial, philosophical, descriptive, argumentative, analytical, anecdotal, autobiographical, ruminative. John Milton spoke of using his left hand for his prose. We know what James Joyce may have thought about the comparative power of drama, epic, and lyric, an obvious subject for an essay, not because of an essay but because of Stephen Dedalus’s rambling remarks in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dryden wrote his famous “essay on dramatic poesy” as an extended dialogue among four gentlemen hanging out. Pope shaped his “essays” on man and on style as poems. Major essayists themselves, like Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag, eagerly pursued, and pursue, reputations as novelists.
Creative writing programs take it for granted that their main task is to teach the making of poems, stories, novels, plays, not essays, not even as dialogue or verse or interpolations in fiction. When departments of English reward non-scholarly, unfootnoted publication, they discount essays and other non-fiction prose.
Yet the essay has as long, as continuous, as distinguished a history as the other genres. We read Cicero’s essays in the original along with the poems of Virgil, Horace, and Catullus; Aristotle and Plato with Homer; Bacon’s essays with the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. We read Dryden’s prose as attentively as we do his poems and plays, as it is likely his contemporaries did, and we read Johnson’s and Swift’s prose often with more edification than we derive from Johnson’s poetry and drama or from Swift’s poetry. Some read Eliot’s essays more appreciatively than his poetry.
With the origins of modern journalism in the 18th century and the emergence of journals of opinion in the early 19th, literate readers have responded as seriously to the essay as to the other genres. In the heart of the 19th century, Carlyle, Mill, Huxley, Newman, and Arnold the essayist loomed as large for literate audiences as Trollope, Meredith, Browning, Tennyson, Arnold the poet, George Eliot, and, perhaps more arguably, Dickens. In the first decades of the 20th, Beerbohm and Shaw realized early recognition as essayists.
In the 20th, in the United States, literary notables like H. L.
Mencken, Wilson, E. B. White, Lionel Trilling, known primarily as essayists, enjoyed equal stature with contemporaries in fiction, drama, or poetry. Yet they never got the formal honors or popular acclaim accorded to Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, J.P. Marquand, Margaret Mitchell, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Carl Sandburg, James Gould Cozzens, Saul Bellow. Only Nobelists Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Neill, and Eliot might readily be placed above these distinguished essayists.
The essay is paradoxical, however, in not requiring that its practitioners be literary persons, high artists. Among notable modern essayists have been scientists, screen writers, lawyers, journalists, editors, economists, actors, academics, politicians. The essay form is universally accessible and, more relevantly in accounting for its lesser esthetic status, infinitely malleable. Fiction and poetry are normally held to more constricting rules.
If we consider those who so splendidly specialize in the United States today in periodic essay writing (whatever we may think of their opinions or personalities), e.g., George Will, Murray Kempton, Mary McGrory, Jonathan Yardley, Joseph Epstein, Russell Banks, Maureen Dowd, Clive James, Christopher Hitchens, James Wolcott, William Safire, I would venture that at the end of the 20th century larger and more estimable audiences than ever read essays more regularly and with greater regard than they do poems, short stories, novels, or plays.
In short, the essay has become the preeminent genre of the later 20th century. While newspapers and other journals continue to retrench or disappear, major newspapers, weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly periodicals, academic quarterlies retain their readership and sometimes grow while they continue to publish essays of every kind, from neatly shaped columns of under a thousand words to expansive, discursive, chapter-long works. All in some measure embody the traditional subject matter, mode, and manner of the classical essay. By contrast, the publishing of the other genres continues to diminish.
The essay may owe its modern ascendance, perversely enough, to the technological advances expanding the reporting of events. We need more talking and writing heads today, on radio and television, in journals of opinion, and on newspaper editorial pages, to help us apprehend and comprehend the enlarged and enhanced panorama of the modern world, simply to pick out shadows and details fully, to receive that world in its infinite coloration and complexity. Daily we can choose from a surfeit of sources to learn about large and small occurrences everywhere, not only on the planet but in space, about the factors which led to them, and about the persons involved. Even the Microsoft Corporation, whose existence is inseparable from computers, “publishes” a web site “magazine,” Slate, dependent on print essays.
Inspired by print media, the audio-visual ones have expanded and intensified our absorption with the physical and cerebral pleasures. They cater to the Hellenic delight in the sensual, sumptuary, and esthetic as well as to the Hebraic passion for study, analysis, and judgment.(I here extend Arnold’s definitions of Hellenic and Hebraic.) Serious television reflects ancient ranges of Greek and Roman theater (Aristophanes, Plautus; Sophocles, Seneca), Talmudic and classical commentary (Torah; Plato, Cicero), mostly in compacted half-hour servings. Life has become a television cabaret, my friends, and also an adult education seminar.
The essay brings to its examination of and commentary on the contemporary world its amalgam of literary powers. It combines tactics and strategies of drama and lyric, to apply Stephen Dedalus’s formulation, and is in effect likely to be more objective than novels and more personal than poems while including aspects of both. Like the novelist, the essayist enters into the discourse through commentary and reflection, and, like the poet, with emotional responses. Unlike the dramatist, however, the essayist normally makes no pretense of sustained, divine-like detachment. Always present in the work, the essayist cannot pretend to neutrality or distancing. Since the essay ultimately deals with fact, the essayist must acknowledge external, verifiable reality. The essayist writes about persons, places, events which are understood to have records and to retain mystery while the fictionist is free to invent and shape these as art allows. The essayist anatomizes a territory that already exists, that cannot justly be recast, revised, or blurred. Unlike the poet, who must in the end only be completely true to an inner self when putting himself on the page, the essayist must be true to a world outside.
Gore Vidal and Irving Kristol capture the extremes and variety of the essay form today, politically, from left to right; stylistically, from impressionistically offhand, personal, and anecdotal to neat, precise, closely reasoned, philosophically and politically influential. Vidal takes his place with television shows and journals of revelation that focus on the vocational activities and private gambols of personages; Kristol, with somber assemblages discussing phenomenology and epistemology, the meanings of all sorts of current happenings, discoveries, revelations, hypotheses. Vidal works in the mundane, mortal precincts marked out by Addison, Steele, Lamb, Beerbohm, transmitting his idiosyncratic responses to such persons, places, and enterprises as paperback publishing, movie making, Garbo, Santayana, Hollywood, London, Paul Bowles, Capote, Dietrich, Philip Rahv, Bellow. Kristol explores the prominences occupied by Carlyle, Mill, Marx, Babbitt, Galbraith. His essays fall under such rubrics as “Race, Sex, and Family,” “From Adversary Culture to Counterculture,” “On Capitalism and the Democratic Idea,” the kind of subject addressed in think tanks and in graduate political and social science seminars. Their most recent collections (Palimpsest by Vidal; Neo-conservatism by Kristol) highlight the scope of the 20th-century essay.
The individual, detailed masks of Vidal and Kristol that emerge in their collections of essays, in themselves, say much about the thought and activity in the middle and high brow communities of our time where taste and opinion is shaped. These books offer not only summations of the careers of the two men but a generous and attractive array of the contemporary essay, from frivolous to profound. Both works purport to be memoiristic, which is to say selectively autobiographical, although Vidal is more insistently and completely so and fills out the middle pages of his book with an enthusiastically personal photograph album. Kristol’s book is largely impersonal with the exception of the first autobiographical chapter, prepared for this volume perhaps to justify its subtitle, “The Autobiography of an Idea.”
No devoted observer of our time would ignore either writer, Kristol for the influence he has had on thoughtful political practice and commentary, Vidal for the data and revelations, prurient as well as proper, he has provided on the lives of the famously and infamously rich, powerful, and beautiful. Vidal offers glimpses in abundance of major maneuvering behind the scenes in the entertainment and political worlds.(His essays remind us that his play The Best Man, about a national nominating convention, remains one of the more keen and plausible representations of conduct among presidential candidates.)
Diametrically different in their expression and content, the parallels between them are piquant.(I hope I offend neither by my setting them side by side.) Both served overseas in World War II; both are now in their 70’s, Kristol the elder by five years. Both wrote extensively for journals of opinion, occasionally for the same ones; both have expressed extreme points of view at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Vidal’s old fashioned liberalism is a virtual mirror at times of Kristol’s new conservativism. Both are political sophisticates and have enjoyed the intimacy of leaders of the nation. Vidal has run for office as a Democrat (unsuccessfully); has genealogical threads to the Gore political dynasty; and was socially intimate with the Kennedys. Kristol has been close to senior Republican eminences, some of whom he helped to power, and one of whom is his son.
Their backgrounds were once thought to be irreconcilable, and they still appear conflicting: Gore, Mayflower WASP; Kristol, immigrant Jew. Kristol is a strikingly representative alumnus of the City College of New York, once thought of as the working class Harvard: broadly knowledgeable, skilled in confrontation, cocky in his certitudes. Vidal, who did not go to college, is a typical autodidact, defiant and defensive in his beliefs and assertions, although his fashionable preparatory school years have given him a patina of elitist confidence edging on arrogance. To make his living and reputation, Vidal has turned out movie scripts, Broadway plays, novels, and essays. Kristol has concentrated on writing essays and editing. Kristol is matter of fact about his Jewishness; Vidal, mysteriously, strains a wispy case that the family name may have Sephardic Jewish ancestry, making him, I suppose, some sort of juif malgré lui. One difference, of perhaps more importance than might first appear, is that Vidal is a bachelor while Kristol has been married his entire mature life to an “academic intellectual,” to apply Kristol’s own classification (at the time of the publication of this book, 53 years).
(I wave off the charges of anti-Semitism levelled against both, Vidal for his putting nasty remarks about Jews in the mouths of nasty characters and for criticizing Israel and some of its supporters on some matters, Kristol for defending extremists on the Christian right who push stupidly simplistic slogans that often smack of anti-Semitism. Both men are too complicatedly humane and capacious to be reduced with such a label.)
Most striking is the polar differences in their styles as essayists. Vidal is given to endless, barely relevant digression, repetition, and the lingering over delicious and malicious, though never quite Proustian, morsels of remembering. He is more conventionally lively and gossipy, dropping more names from his various careers, even from his adventures in the New York and London communities of academe and publishing, Kristol’s natural habitats.(It is remarkable how their circles overlapped, with names from Partisan Review and Columbia University, for example, occurring in the personal passages of both books although neither “Vidal” nor “Kristol” is listed in the other’s index.)
Vidal has had vaunted relations, from contentedly open to troublingly closeted, with celebrated men and women, and with passing acquaintances. He recounts in detail risible amatory encounters, once rejecting a carnal overture from close friend Tennessee Williams with “Don’t be macabre.” His candid report of an interview with Dr. Kinsey is high comedy. He defends pornography and has written what has fairly enough been described as such; Kristol has famously attacked pornography (without specific reference to Vidal).
In his display of attitudes, Vidal is playful; pleased with his pop celebrity, self satisfied in his forebears, friends, companions, associates, lovers, relatives; a scoffer, a cynic, an indiscriminate iconoclast; an urbane contrarian, adversarial by reflex and instinct; a fashionably well-spoken rebel; an intellectual dandy; a posturer without affectation, eager for and contemptuous of applause; self-conscious and touchingly apologetic about presuming to have solemn opinions; grudgingly attentive to the amenities; impatient of fools and foolishness but also modestly tentative in judgment; often uncertain, accommodating, yet suddenly, almost nastily fierce and pugnacious; at times somewhat louche; mischievously ready to violate decorum; in sum the supercilious yet sensitive, candid commentator on the several worlds he has moved through, enjoying his practiced application of the elegant, mannered watchfulness of Addison and Steele. Here is a typical passage from Vidal, displaying some of his various talents:
We are in a room with large plate-glass windows overlooking the East River; on every side there are fellow survivors of the forties. . . Most of the original cast is more or less recognizable, particularly Saul Steinberg, who must be ninety. But Terry Southern is now large and unlike the lean, sharp youth I first knew, while Norman Mailer is now as wide as he is tall, but, despite deafness, he is still seriously in motion with his seriously handsome wife at his side. Ken Galbraith, tall and ghostly white, joins us for a moment: We recall with mock importance, that we last met at Gorbachev’s plenum in the Kremlin, where the second Russian revolution had been announced, and Mailer, who had sat next to me in the great hall, disbelieved Gorbachev, but I believed him because he had used the sacred word revolution for what he was doing, sacred because it had always meant 1917, when the world was supposed to have been reborn once and for all; to use the word again really did mean a new revolution, and so it is coming to pass. Shortly before Chou En Lai died, he was asked whether or not, all in all, the French Revolution had been a good thing. “Surely,” he said, “it is far too soon to tell.”
Vidal exploits the confidential, chatty powers of the essay. He could be prattling away at our side on a stroll, at lunch, over cocktails. He seems always in the midst of a joke he can’t wait to share, a hilarious, insider’s revelation, most often a putdown. We are all equal to Vidal in our humanity although he frequently makes sharp and revealing evaluations. He dismisses the dull and offensive Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, while admiring the ingratiatingly candid Duchess. Diana Trilling’s pretensions amused him hugely while Lionel’s aura subdued him into thoughtful awe.
Vidal enjoys routine living, the fun and excitement of both outrageous and subtle, silly and stern experience. He is forever responsive, seldom indifferent, the perpetually irrepressible adolescent. His complaint about Evelyn Waugh was simply that Waugh refused to remember who Vidal was however many times they were introduced. Seated next to Waugh at dinner, who continues to ignore him, Vidal finally makes a rude noise into Waugh’s ancient ear trumpet, causing him to drop it in frantic alarm.
But Vidal is also able to pause to examine his life soberly and unsparingly, assessing himself and others by gracious standards. He struggles to affirm that the good and fulfilled life need not ever be corrupt, uncivil, contemptuous of other ways and values, constricted, illiberal, incapable of steadfast dedication, infirm in ambition, solipstically self indulgent, oblivious to mortality. Vidal’s surface of lightness overlays a deep regard for the genuine and the good. A certain purity shines through his classical liberalism.
Going to Kristol from Vidal is like going from John Milton’s “L’Allegro” to his “Il Pensoroso,” from the realm of the joyous and celebratory to that of the brooding. In his writing, Kristol emerges as the dedicated ideologue; rueful ironist; entrepreneurial mover in the purlieus and milieus of the contemporary, self-regarding intellectual world; maturely tolerant and happy confessor of youthful political radicalism; somber destroyer of old orthodoxies and ebullient creator of new ones; adroit balancer of tradition and novelty; acutely, mercilessly logical analyst of political clichés; a man genially conscious of his trivial shortcomings (“I don’t do television”); a thoughtful, tolerant yet trustworthy, appraiser of unlikely persons and causes; an easy friend; comfortable in his conservatism; deferential of the verities; casually but surely confident about his formidable talents, powers, and accomplishments; staid, buttoned up, in charge of his manners and morals.
Like Vidal, Kristol conveys a hard headed but appealingly sensible admiration for truth. The reminiscing first chapter is in part a happy tribute to the power of networking, both calculated and serendipitous. Kristol found himself over the decades in the right company at the right time, repeatedly taking important, attractively pioneering positions in his essays, from those in Commentary to those in The Wall Street Journal, steadily moving up the tree of success. Sidney Hook, the astringent New York University professor of philosophy, a powerful and indefatigable string puller in the anti-Stalinist circles after World War II, helps get Irving, first, the directorship of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, then, the co-editorship of Encounter, the new magazine published from London by the committee, and, finally, an endowed professorship at New York University.
At its best, Kristol’s writing is wise and important. It is almost always efficient, whistle clean, stolid, solid, seemingly effortless, transparent. Only when it overreaches, as in trying to absorb Einstein or to analyze Jewish humor, does it lapse into wooliness. It tends to be memorably aphoristic, like the following extracts from the chapter “About Equality”:
I think it possible to suggest that the decline of the belief in personal immortality has been the most important political fact of the last hundred years; nothing else has so profoundly affected the way in which the masses of people experience their worldly condition. But even today, the masses of people tend to be more “reasonable,” as I would put it, in their political judgments and political expectations than are our intellectuals. The trouble is that our society is breeding more and more “intellectuals” and fewer common men and women.
Professors are genuinely indignant at the expense accounts which business executives have and which they do not. They are, in contrast, utterly convinced that their privileges are “rights” that are indispensable to the proper workings of a good society. Most academics and professional people are even unaware that they are among the “upper” classes of our society. When one points this out to them, they refuse to believe it.
If we regard Vidal as an inveterate jester, a freely ranging satirist, we see Kristol as a learned, bemused, focussed but relaxed rabbi. Kristol is a sermonizer, strict, nearly dark, at times quite Talmudic (or at least, neo-Talmudic) in his commitment to relentless reflection, granitic conclusion. He seeks large formulations, like his distinction that while all Americans enjoy civil rights in general, the right to a government job isn’t one of them, a distinction that became crucial during the Joe McCarthy hysteria. I still find definitive his insight that Jews have so often been thought to be either “superior” or “inferior” to a nation rather than simply of it.
(At this point, I should perhaps “declare interest.” Irving edited one of my early contributions to Commentary. We got along well: I remember particularly how gracefully he accepted my changes to some of his. About the time I joined Commentary as an associate editor, he left to become executive secretary of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and we had a few, cordial contacts after that. I’ve not met Gore Vidal, but he once approvingly cited in The New York Review of Books the gist of an anonymous letter of mine that was printed in that journal sympathizing with his grievance that he had never become the subject of a dissertation.)
Both men finally emerge as good humored and civilized, if “civilized” may include their opposing extremes of tone and attitude. Both are ambitious in their reach to understand their time, Vidal overtly, inclusively, strenuously, Kristol reservedly, selectively, tendentiously.
Vidal’s glibness may be balanced by Kristol’s penchant for easy generalization. Vidal seems to me at times taken in by what passes for searching and informed comment although he can clearly enough discern the hollow and pretentious. Kristol seems to scorn the word “intellectual” itself although he uses it often, not least to describe himself. At times, ironically, he means it to be taken as virtually synonymous with “liberal” or “leftist” or “faddish,” all epithets these days, although he also seems to wish to preserve its honorific character. His problem may be that with many others he still takes “intellectual conservative” (or “conservative intellectual”) as something of an oxymoron.
Kristol’s toying with “intellectual” is especially baffling and slack since the emphatic thrust of “neoconservatism” is that it is, has to be, both generally intellectual and specifically antiliberal. The way the term is sometimes used, the new dogma might as reasonably have been called “neoliberalism” although the “conservatism” suffix happens to carry a more favorable cachet right now.
The ambivalence of Vidal and Kristol toward intellectuals is similar to the mix of esteem and mistrust one senses in our time for “experts,” “specialists,” “scholars,” “professionals.” In an indiscriminate levelling of all hierarchies, too many have begun to suspect even the value of experience, which after all has an objective weight. These are the days, my friends, when we exalt plain citizens everywhere, unsophisticated novitiates, as in the call for term limits for Congressmen and tenure limits for professors.(See the article by Louis Menand in The New York Times Magazine on a parallel subject.)
Vidal and Kristol, veteran professional writers, want first to be understood to be ordinary men, amateurs, lovers of the worlds they have chosen so masterfully to comment on for us, less than scholars but more than reporters. They can thus be applauded for the ranging selectivity of their viewings and admired for their unanchored perceptiveness. An unsparing yet respectful, affectionate, self-pleasing, somewhat arbitrary scrutiny of man’s doing and thinking has always been the grail of the crafty essayist’s quest.