The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2006: 35.1
Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth. By G. Douglas Atkins. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
by C. D. Albin, Missouri State University – West Plains
If it is true that the essay, as writers from E. B. White to Annie Dillard have averred, is a genre often overlooked and little appreciated, then the form has found a loyal advocate, historian, and theorist in G. Douglas Atkins. The University of Kansas English professor is the author of a slim but probing volume—really an essay in itself—entitled Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth. Locating the genre's foundation in the Renaissance, with that period's transitional tension between the past and modernity, Atkins offers a portrait of the essay as the literary form most sensitive to time and the human being's experience within time. Ultimately, this emphasis on lived experience leads him to the ambitious and, by his own admission, controversial claim that the essay is essentially “incarnational.”
Such a term has obvious religious overtones, and Atkins intends that they be heard, but his method is more metaphorical than hortatory. By choosing “incarnational” as a primary modifier, he stakes a claim that the essay is “the point where meaning and experience cross, . . .the place where, it is legitimate to say, time and the timeless meet” (69). The claim is large, but to bolster it Atkins offers readings of a wide range of essayists, from seminal figures like Montaigne and Bacon to contemporary practitioners such as Cynthia Ozick, Richard Selzer and Scott Russell Sanders. These readings tend to focus on Atkins's perception of the essay as “the intersection of experience and meaning, idea and form” (5). The essayist, he argues, “becomes the crucible in which experience is tried and tested and meaning extracted” (6).
At first glance, such a notion could imply the dominance of autobiography in the composition of essays, since presumably the experience being tried and tested is that provided by the essayist's own life. Montaigne, who famously remarked that he was himself the material for his work, might appear to model the autobiographical approach, but Atkins is careful to distinguish between autobiography and writing that is genuinely “essayistic.” In the work of a true essayist, he argues, “experience is weighed and assayed for its value and meaning, which derive from reflection, meditation, or contemplation. Autobiographical writing absent reflection and such attempts to derive meaning is not essayistic” (68-69). Montaigne, therefore, is seen as one whose real subject is not his own life, but rather the process of examining that life. In contrast, Francis Bacon—Montaigne's near contemporary and the first English practitioner of the essay—is seen as a writer primarily concerned with the intellectual conclusions derived from self-examination and the artistic form in which these conclusions may be most effectively expressed. In contemporary parlance, Montaigne favors process while Bacon favors product. As a result, Atkins contends, the essay “hangs on a line between these two quite sturdy poles” (44).
Much of Tracing the Essay is shaped by this metaphor of a line stretched between two poles. Even the book's cover art, a reproduction of Paul Klee's Der Seiltanzer (The Tightwire Dancer), portrays a human figure balancing on a wire midway between two points. Behind the figure are two bisecting lines that resemble a cross. Thus, the foreground aptly illustrates Atkins's assessment of the essay as an art form that “lives in tension, pulled both formally and historically in contrary directions” (114), while the background alludes to his vision of the essay as incarnational.
In addition to portraying Klee's work on the cover, Atkins also credits him for advice relevant to the art of the essay. Artistic discovery, Klee posited, can occur when one simply takes “a line out for a walk,” a phrase Atkins deems “an apt description of the essayist's work” (73). In fact, he is so fond of the phrase that it becomes a frequent motif in his book, one he links to a number of essays in English and American literature (such as Hazlitt's “On Going a Journey” and Thoreau's “Walking”) in which leisurely wandering a locale on foot serves as an allegory for the inward exploration of experience. The slow pace of a walk, compared to faster methods of travel, is essential to the allegory's meaning. “I bear witness,” he writes, “that slowing down is key. It is what the essay does: what it teaches and what is required for achievement in the form” (79).
As Tracing the Essay concludes, Atkins takes pains to distinguish the essay from two related genres, fiction and philosophy. Fiction, he acknowledges, can sometimes resemble a narrative essay, or even philosophy, while the essay can resemble both. The relevant distinctions lie, he contends, in the treatment of experience. For him, fiction emphasizes experience; philosophy emphasizes reflection. The essay occupies the essential middle ground between the two: “What the essay gives us, uniquely I maintain, is reflection upon experience ” (149). If the distinction seems minor, he adds resonance a page later by asserting that the essay “focuses on achieved meaning (emphasis mine) to a greater extent than those other forms we typically call literature” (150).
The brevity of Tracing the Essay belies Atkins's ambition. Rather than writing an extended history of the genre or a meticulous survey of its practitioners, he has tried to penetrate deeply, seeking the form's essence. Although some readers may be cautious about the religious overtones of his argument, especially his contention that the essay is ultimately “incarnational,” others may find in his approach a new way of reading, teaching, and perhaps even writing essays. At the very least, one should come away with a new appreciation for the art of the essay and what is required to practice that art well.
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