“The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”—Aldous Huxley
Therein lies its strength, and its weakness. Unless you’re contemplating philosophical discourses by Samuel Johnson or John Henry Newman, the very thing that makes the essay timely and appealing renders it obsolete within a short time. I was reminded of this while reading Shandygaff by Christopher Morley (1890-1957). This collection of essays is clearly a period piece, redolent of that exuberant learning that was the fashion of early 20th century letters. It’s hardly worth reprinting in toto, but a few pieces stand out. One is Morley’s description of that robust Anglo-French writer, Hilaire Belloc.
I remember some friends of mine telling me how they went down to Horsham, in Sussex, to see Hilaire Belloc. They found him in the cellar, seated astraddle of a gigantic wine-cask just arrived from France, about to proceed upon the delicate (and congenial) task of bottling the wine. He greeted them like jovial Silenus, and with competitive shouts of laughter the fun went forward. The wine was strained, bottled, sealed, labelled, and binned, the master of the vintage initiating his young visitors into the rite with bubbling and infectious gaiety—improvising verses, shouting with merriment, full of an energy and vivacity almost inconceivable to Saxon phlegm. My friends have always remembered it as one of the most diverting afternoons of their lives; and after the bottling was done and all hands thoroughly tired, he took them a swinging tramp across the Sussex Downs, talking hard all the way.
Morley’s tobacco lore is also amusing. As a boy he tried to make his own pipe and smoked dried bean-pods, hayseed, corn silk and tea leaves before graduating to cheap cigars that he sneaked during school recess. But he remains fondest of tobacco in a briar:
[T]he pipe rises perhaps to its highest function as the solace and companion of lonely vigils. We all look back with tender affection on the joys of tobacco shared with a boon comrade on some walking trip, some high-hearted adventure, over the malt-stained counters of some remote alehouse. These are the memories that are bittersweet beyond the compass of halting words…. Clocks run down and pens grow rusty, but if your pouch be full your pipe will never fail you.
After perusing Shandygaff I understand why the literary trifles of Christopher Morley (or, for that matter, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lamb and Charles Warren Stoddard) end up being carefully edited and packed into accessible anthologies. Otherwise forgotten gems would be imprisoned in forgettable editions. Yet there is something to be said for visiting these essays in their original habitat. One gets a better feel for the author’s personality, which can be lost in the sterilized compilation. It allows us to do some selecting of our own. After all, if essays date, so do anthologies, which explains why every generation produces new editions of collected works to cater to the latest tastes (or maybe it’s just so publishers can recycle the same old material!).