Tracing the Essay

I have just finished reading G. Douglas Atkins’ history and description of the “fourth genre” – Tracing the Essay – and I hardly know where to begin. Certainly I won’t do it justice in this brief review, but I can at least offer you some of the ideas that most excited me. I selected it for a class in creative nonfiction after a quick skim; I knew it would be excellent because of the author.

Doug was the graduate coordinator in the English Department much of the time I was pursuing my M.A. and Ph.D. I never had the privilege of taking classes with him – at the time he mostly taught courses in areas I was not pursuing, such as literary theory. But he was a good advisor and I enjoyed the occasional conversation with him. On one of my return visits to KU, I stopped by his office for a few minutes to catch up, and he mentioned that he was no longer “doing theory” (he had written what I believe was the first “layman’s guide” to deconstruction in English), but had turned his attention to the essay. I knew that attention would be detailed and accurate and worthy.


I did not, however, come across any of his books when I first began teaching creative nonfiction – the essay. I found helpful texts and anthologies, and I loved the form and the class. Then I received the yearly department update last spring, and there was mention of a new book he’d written. I hit the web and found four on the essay, all of which I immediately ordered, two of which I then put on my course list for fall. I am joyfully making my way through them this summer. (Titles: Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth; Reading Essays: An Invitation; On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies; and Literary Paths to Religious Understanding: Essays on Dryden, Pope, Keats, George Eliot, Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and E. B. White.)

I can’t begin to summarize Tracing the Essay, a book which you must read if you love this form. You will learn to value the essay all the more highly as you delve into its origins and its tensions and its potential, all explored and explained with a deep love and respect for the form that does not preclude criticism of its excesses and shortfalls. I fear that my underlining and marginalia are not as helpful as they might be: there is more marked than unmarked. Here is a taste of what Atkins explores about the essay (in a list of its qualities near the book’s end): it is “exploratory, experiential, ‘lay’ [amateur] in texture, un- (and even anti-) dogmatic, modest in approach, conversational in tone (and address), personal and brilliantly artful, deeply reflective and intensely moral, and celebratory of the via media [. . .].”

Atkins makes much of the need for contemplation, reflection – time. Time to observe, time to read, time to reflect, time to write. We live in a culture which prides itself on its efficiency, and we take in that world through sound-bytes and google searches and think we know it – and ourselves. Yet we cannot know without reflection. Against this frenetic pace of “efficiency” the essay works, both in the writing and the reading, because it demands that we slow down, attend, explore, listen. “In providing reflection,” Atkins writes, “essays remind us of the urgency to slow down and savor life, certainly, but also to measure and weigh it, to try it and test it. Understood this way, reflection comprises an essential aspect of our ordinary living, part of the whole rather than addendum or supplement, and an aspect without which our lives are sorely diminished.”

Tension is a byword of the book, and much of it is an exploration of how the tensions Atkins describes are resolved (or not) in many different essays. Neither merely personal nor academic, neither fiction nor philosophy, the essay “hangs between” such “sturdy poles.” Because the essay begins with experience, one danger of it is self-absorption; because it teaches, another is the complete loss of self and experience in abstract theory. The self, Atkins explains, becomes the mediator of experience, not the subject of experience. He most highly values the familiar essay, because it moves farther “away from the perceiving self and toward the perceived world” than today’s more celebrated personal essay. “The familiar form of the essay,” he writes, “edges more than the personal toward the meaning the writer extracts from experience. Because the focus rests ‘on’ books or morality or friendship, self-consciousness is tempered and the temptation toward self-centeredness is challenged.” Elsewhere he says that the essayist “becomes the crucible in which experience is tried and tested and meaning extracted. The essay’s subject is not, then, the self, contrary to popular opinion, although the essay’s soil, or laboratory, is nothing but the self.”

Another byword of the book is incarnation. The essay, Atkins explains, is incarnational in form. It embodies – incarnates – experience in order to offer meaning, and he notes often the connection between incarnation as a universal principle and the Incarnation which is its ultimate example. In the final chapter, he addresses the tension inherent in exploring and celebrating the Ordinary at the risk of idolatry, of beginning to worship the creation, the Ordinary, instead of its Creator. The Christian understands that “the Extraordinary [. . .] appears in the person of Jesus Christ, God become man.” This does not, however, make the Ordinary and the Extraordinary equivalent, he warns us, “[any] more than meaning is identical to (mere) experience. There is an extra dimension to which experience, including experience of the Ordinary, gives us access. The trouble is, essays often do not [. . .] reach for that dimension [. . .]. Essays derive meaning, all right, but it is that meaning that remains on the level of the Ordinary and so does not attain that transcendent level, meaning that, in other words, does not transcend the Ordinary. Meaning is, in such an instance, etiolated and falls short of its potential – it is reduced.” Later, he adds, “Through this world we are – or should be – led upward to God.”

If you love the essay, read this book. If you wonder why the rest of us love it, read this book. If you write the essay, let yourself be challenged by this book in matters of form and subject and purpose.

Cross-posted from Inscapes

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