“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” — James Baldwin
Michel Montaigne, patron saint of essayists, declared once that “Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” a line as true as it is deliciously politically incorrect. In the introduction to an encyclopedic collection of essays which he edited, Phillip Lopate notes, “The personal essay has an implicitly democratic bent, in the value it places on experience rather than status distinctions.”
That anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay (Random House, 1995), gave me the push I needed to get this blog rolling. I’d been raised in the school of thought that credentials gave one license to speak, but I realized along the way that often the most credentialed are the biggest windbags. The personal essay appealed to me because it was a direct line to the reader from the writer—as close to conversation as one could get in prose. It is the perfect form for the unabashedly curious and for those who do not know what they believe about something until they see it in writing—preferably their own.
William Hazlitt, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry have been my mentors. To read their work is to eat a loaf of dark, firm, warm bread. They are savory, not sweet; muscular, not soft; wise, daring, and transparent. Each of them is a virtual window thrown open to the world they have discovered, yet to read a paragraph of any of them is to hear a distinctive voice. When I began to write essays I strained to hear my voice, and then I saw that I would grow into my voice.
I began this blog almost two years ago because I wanted to see if I could write honestly and without pretense. Like the bear who went over the mountain I, too, wanted to see what I could see. And I wanted to put to use the books that waited patiently, silently, on my shelves.
I rarely had a subject in mind, but I usually had an epigram, something I’d come across in my reading, a sentence splendid in its isolation, waiting for companions. I used that sentence like Ariadne’s thread as I descended into the labyrinths of thought and passion. The pleasure in the work was to inch my way back to the surface, clutching what I had found. And sometimes, like David Crosby sang, “Beneath the surface of the mud. . . there’s more mud there. Surprise!” At those times I learned to be ruthless, dropping full paragraphs without tears and cutting a new path back to the thread.
The comments have been stimulating, the repostings have been gratifying, the stats on my audience have been intriguing. Next to the United States my biggest readership is in Russia—way up in . . . the double digits. Somewhere in Holland is a regular reader and also in the United Arab Emirates. I see readers from Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Hong Kong, and Brazil. “Of all things,” said John Dewey, “communication is the most wondrous.” Yes, it certainly is: at no other time in the history of the world have we had such possibilities of communication across cultures. What would Seneca have done with a blog or Montaigne with a regular online column? Would H. L. Mencken have tweeted his scathing comments or Mark Twain his sardonic bon mots?
So, thanks for reading and listening and responding! I’m stepping back for awhile, writing in some new directions, and going back to the well. If you’re subscribed to Wretched Success you’ll get notice of new posts as they appear.
See you on the other side of the mountain.