The Sanest Man Ever
The modern essay began with Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), a member of the minor French nobility, a Bordeaux vintner, a political official pretty much in spite of himself, who retired from public life at the age of 37 to read, think, and set down his thoughts in some of the best prose ever. He remains the acknowledged master of the form. It is a form that accommodates all sorts of approaches from all sorts of masters: the consummate shrewdness cloaked in blunt efficiency of Francis Bacon, the sonorous cogitation in solemn periods of Samuel Johnson, the rough-hewn majesty of Henry David Thoreau, the languorous but eviscerating drollery of Lytton Strachey, the antic bomb-throwing of Karl Kraus, the magniloquent cerebral torments of Albert Camus. The approach that Montaigne favored is very much in fashion today among practitioners of the so-called familiar essay, who tend to be far less adept than their great forebear: the ramble through the brambles in which one collects every burr that happens to stick to one’s person and then picks them off in no particular order.
Montaigne called his book Essais; the French essayer means to attempt, to try out, and the rather archaic English to essay is cognate. Montaigne was not trying to fix his thoughts in stone, to get things perfectly right once and for all; the Essays is the living record of thoughts on the move—strolling, ambling, stalking, galloping, pausing for reflection, doubling back to reconsider. Montaigne is not known for beginning with a particular end in mind. Detours grow divagations; oxbows sprout sinuosities. You could wind up anywhere from here.
About the Author
Algis Valiunas, a regular contributor, last wrote for us about Frederic Law Olmsted (March 2011).