“A loose sally of the mind”—that was Dr. Johnson’s crisp sally about Montaigne’s great literary invention. John Gross, editor of this generous collection of essays in English, mentions the genre’s variety, its “intimacy and informality,” its “civilizing force.” His efforts remind us that wit, poignancy, literary flair, and sparkling erudition may also belong to the craft and unsullen art of the essay.
Former editor of 'The Times Literary Supplement and author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Mr. Gross has selected well over a hundred essays by nearly as many hands for this companionable volume. The breadth and curiosity of his selection suggest that, in the person of Mr. Gross, anyway, the man of letters has not altogether fallen. Most readers will find some familiar favorites in this expansive garland; virtually all will encounter at least a few new names and fresh pieces by familiar names.
Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, William Hazlitt, Henry and William James, Max Beerbohm, G. K. Chesterton, Joseph Epstein, and Gore Vidal are here, as are John Earle, Thomas Fuller, W. H. Hudson, and other lesser-known practitioners. There are admonitions and advisories (“How the Distempers of these Times should affect wise Men,” Owen Felltham, c. 1620), literary pieces like Thomas De Quincey’s classic “The Knocking at the Gate in ‘Macbeth,’” and bagatelles like Leigh Hunt’s amusing complaint, “Getting Up on Cold Mornings.”
Mr. Gross has provided something for every mood and fancy. There are eloquendy indignant pieces like Dr. Johnson’s fulminations against debtors’ prisons; lucid biographical summaries like Lord Macaulay’s assessment of Lord Clive’s career; and astute, commonsensical recommendations like Walter Bagehot’s “Dull Government.” (“Dullness in matters of government,” Bagehot observes, “is a good sign.") There is William James’s famous blast against academic fatuity, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” and the historian Lewis Namier’s brilliant “Symmetry and Repetition”: “The effort which people put up to avoid thinking,” Namier begins, “might almost enable them to think and to have some new ideas.” Nor should one neglect Clive James’s devastating review of Juclidi Krantz’s Princess Daisy, one of the funniest critical salvos I have read. And if, by chance, you have ever wondered gratefully why insects do not grow to the size of lobsters, J. B. S. Haldane’s charming piece “On Being the Right Size” will tell you. In “Aes Triplex,” Robert Louis Stevenson offers sound advice to those burdened by thoughts of mortality. Dismissing divines who reduce “life to the dimensons of a mere funeral procession” as well as “melancholy unbelievers yearning for the tomb,” Stevenson sensibly proposes “a good meal and a bot-de of wine” as an effective “answer to most standard works upon the question.” “Although few things are spoken of with more fearful whisperings than this prospect of death,” he observes, “few have less influence on conduct under healthy circumstances.”
Perhaps my favorite discovery was Ambrose Bierce’s “Disintroductions,” which expresses the (utopian?) desire that “some great social force, say a billionaire, would set up a system of disintroductions” to dissolve inadvertent or irritating acquaintanceships. It would work like this:
Mr. White—Mr. Black, knowing the low esteem in which you hold each other, I have the honor to disintroduce you from Mr. Green. Mr. Black (bowing)—Sir, I have long desired the advantage of your unacquaintance. Mr. Green (bowing)—Charmed to unmeet you, sir. Our acquaintance... has distressed me beyond expression. We are greatly indebted to our good friend here for his tact in repairing the mischance. Mr. White—Thank you. I’m sure you will become very good strangers.
I hope that in the next edition of this delightful book Mr. Gross will have space to provide some brief biographical and bibliographical information. I also hope that Oxford will engage a competent proofreader to correct the many typos that got by. Mark Twain once wrote that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated. Yet not, I feel sure, as exaggerated as dating his bitter essay “Thoughts of God” “early 1990s” suggests.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 9, on page 79
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