"Montaigne was Montaigne, a mountain in more than name."
October 7, 2014 4:03 AM   Subscribe

It's said that even a century and a half after Montaigne's death, when the marquis d'Argenson subtitled a book with that word, Essays, he was shouted down for impertinence. Not a context in which many people would find themselves tempted to self-identify as "essayists." When the French do finally start using the word, in the early nineteenth century, it's solely in reference to English writers who've taken up the banner, and more specifically to those who write for magazines and newspapers. "The authors of periodical essays," wrote a French critic in 1834, "or as they're commonly known, essayists, represent in English letters a class every bit as distinct as the Novellieri in Italy." A curiosity, then: the essay is French, but essayists are English. What can it mean?
The Ill-defined Plot is an essay about the history of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
posted by Kattullus (8 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Previously on MetaFilter: Links to a bunch of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan available online.
posted by Kattullus at 4:05 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

A fascinating read. Thank you.
posted by YAMWAK at 5:12 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Utterly splendid piece! Mille grazie.
posted by Wolof at 5:52 AM on October 7, 2014

One never reads such elegant analyses of the works of Colline Taupe.
posted by fairmettle at 6:50 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

One never reads such elegant analyses of the works of Colline Taupe.

I point my pointy finger at systemic bias pointily enforced against shortish moles.

Is The Left doomed? Discus.
posted by Wolof at 7:07 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

JJS has been writing quite a bit lately, New York Times a few weeks ago and now this week in the New Yorker. I'm hoping that he releases a new collection of essays some time soon.

Thanks for the link, saved for later this afternoon.
posted by Fizz at 7:56 AM on October 7, 2014

Someone should write an essay on how it is impossible to write an introduction to an anthology of essays without mentioning the etymology of the word essay.
posted by oulipian at 8:03 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

That was fun! James VI/I is a bit of a favourite of mine, and I didn't know he'd introduced the word essay to English. Nor his probable links to Montaigne.

Mildy curious why this essay didn't mention 'assay', which the OED (*) tells me is largely cognate with essay in some meanings. The essayist seems several times to be preparing the stage for its entrance, but it stays in the wings.

(*) - I have just discovered, UK readers, that my library card gives me free access to the full OED online.
posted by Devonian at 8:06 AM on October 7, 2014

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