Closer Readings Commentary

From Montaigne to E.B. White, Some Sound Advice on Writing the Personal Essay

Teaching composition or expository writing in high school is an enduring challenge, perhaps even more so today, when the rapid-fire exchange of Tweets among students can lie at the hub of daily communication before, during, and after class. Nuanced thought, however, requires a greater gestation period than the nearly instant gratification made possible on Twitter.

From Michel de Montaigne to E. B. White, writers have turned to the essay to persuade, elucidate, and entertain. Sometimes these writers may have painstakingly reworked their initial efforts, while at other times they may have made detailed observations and taken copious notes long before committing to paper and composing an essay—from the French, essai, a try, meaning in this context a first attempt or first draft. One commonality among all accomplished writers is the willingness—painful as it can often be—to revise. In fact, one might argue that Writing = Rewriting.

Personal essays from masters of the form, then, may serve as models of effective writing. Following are some thoughts on great essay writing, many gleaned from journalist Danny Heitman’s feature articles for NEH’s Humanities magazine.

With regards to Montaigne—the sixteenth-century Frenchman who, in his late thirties, withdrew from the world after a career as counselor of kings—Heitman writes: “Instead of penning an epic poem, a historical narrative, or an imposing treatise on government, a project for which he was eminently qualified, Montaigne decided to simply follow his thoughts wherever they led.” Easier said than done, perhaps, but the point is central to teaching the personal essay: Students should strive to make the content of an essay their own, constantly on guard against cliché and conventional wisdom. Heitman notes that American Ralph Waldo Emerson was also an admirer of Montaigne for his “willingness to see things clearly.”

Both Emerson and contemporary Henry David Thoreau were exceptionally accomplished essayists. As a writer and thinker, Emerson believed that “questioning orthodox belief was not only acceptable but vital.” Thoreau, for his part, kept voluminous notebooks he filled while on walks in the woods surrounding Walden Pond. As a result, he had plenty of personal observations from which to draw on later.

The politically engaged English novelist and essayist George Orwell had abundant experience in the field, too. In Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, he observed the bad habits writers can commit while expressing political views. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell observed that “many political words are . . . abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Falling into what he called a “pretentious Latinized style” and “question-begging” were other faults Orwell noticed. Writers’ lack of precision, he noted, contributed to a breakdown in thinking clearly: “The sloviness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Writing in the first person in plainspoken language is the bedrock of the modern personal essay. E. B. White had earned solid respect as a scribe at the New Yorker—primarily writing about Gotham itself—before moving to Maine and setting sail, editorially speaking, in a new direction, reflecting on the seeming minutiae of quiet farm life during the turmoil of world war. Heitman writes: “The homely reports from White’s farm to readers of his ‘One Man’s Meat’ essays in Harper’s Magazine seemed, at first glance, a far remove from the global conflagration causing so much suffering among millions of soldiers, sailors, and, civilians.” Additionally, writes Heitman, “the essays satisfied White’s longstanding desire to write in the first person—something that the New Yorker, with its fetish for the editorial ‘we,’ hadn’t allowed him to do.”

That White’s essays were compelling to so many readers in times of strife is testament the form’s potential of universal reach and appeal.

The following links provide additional insight from Heitman on the powerful pull at play in the personal essay:

  • How John James Audubon can be an inspiration for nature writing/writers.
  • How a passage in John Ruskin on a fly “becomes a way to consider the nature of human freedom.”
  • Lafcadio Hearn, as a reporter of political corruption and police brutality in nineteenth-century America, is a model for “personal journalism,” where the writer is the story.
  • Read Aldous Huxley for his skill as a travel writer, as well as for his dystopian warnings.
  • Why Virginia Woolf was a great observer of ordinary life.
  • Whatever your political views, H. L. Mencken can help you write about politics.
  • Read about Clifton Fadiman’s “seemingly casual erudition and self-effacing charm” and his “empathy with unassuming but intellectually ambitious Americans.”