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Attempt, endeavour, meditation

The essay is a European form, originating in the writings of Montesquieu and Bacon, but of late it has come to seem something of an American speciality. Certainly, there is no equivalent of, say, John McPhee, writing in the UK (McPhee’s books aren’t even published in Britain). And a big-name popular novelist like Michael Chabon wouldn’t suddenly produce two collections of essays in rapid succession (Maps and Legends, 2008; Manhood for Amateurs, 2009).

I have puzzled over whether there is something peculiarly American in the writing of essays. Ever since the Puritans there has been a confessional strand in American writing that does not sit easily with British writers; maybe that’s it. It may not be entirely coincidental that America also has a tradition of very personal journalism (Hunter S, Thompson, new journalism) that never took off to the same extent in the UK; America even has the concept of ‘creative non-fiction’ (see Richard Powers’ superb novel Generosity) which is more or less a contradiction in terms on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe that’s it?

But I don’t think so. I think the difference comes down to nothing more than the availability of publication.

In the UK you can write a political essay for Prospect or the occasional newspaper, you can write a literary essay (though more usually a review essay) for The London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement or the Saturday Guardian. But that pretty much exhausts the options. We don’t have the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books or Atlantic or Harper’s or … or … Magazines like The Strand or Blackwells or the various magazines produced by Charles Dickens that provided such a wealth of short stories and essays throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, have virtually all gone. Nowadays we have Granta, but that is trying, alone, to do the equivalent job of MacSweeney’s and Conjunctions and The Mississippi Review and heaven knows how many other such journals across the States. Yes, of course, British writers who have made a name for themselves already are pretty welcome in most of these transatlantic journals, but there is no place for anyone who might consider starting out as an essayist. And even those writers who like the essay form (as I do, for instance) are far more likely to wait until commissioned rather than write an essay on spec.


One of my Christmas presents this year was a copy of The Tree by John Fowles. It is a new edition of an essay originally published in 1979 to accompany a book of photographs. Fowles wrote a lot of such essays; I already possess volumes on Stonehenge and on Islands (the latter featuring photographs by Fay Godwin), but I had somehow missed The Tree.

Fowles is one of my two favourite mainstream novelists of the 20th century (the other is William Golding). I met Fowles once (at a party hosted by the formidable Livia Gollancz in the late-80s), but to my abiding regret, I never met Golding. Golding was am extraordinary novelist (is there anything to match The Spire or Pincher Martin?) but when he turned to the essay (The Hot Gates, An Egyptian Journal) the results are rather disappointing. Fowles was a similarly overwhelming novelist (The Magus blew my mind when I first read it, and The Ebony Tower remains one of my favourites) but when he turned to the essay he seemed to really find his métier. I had to read the novels first, but it was only when I discovered his non-fiction that I think I really began to appreciate not only the power and beauty of his prose but also the complexity of what he was trying to do.

(A word of warning: do not take these comments to extend to his volume of philosophical aphorisms, The Aristos, which easily beats out Mantissa as the worst thing he ever committed to print.)

The Tree is possibly Fowles at his very best, because it combines the two things that mattered most to him: nature and writing.

He begins by examining a distinction between himself and his father. Both of them loved growing things, but his father was besotted by his garden, an ordered and controlled place. There were trees in his suburban garden, apples and pears, that produced glorious fruit, but at the expense of being espaliered, pruned, trained. Fowles’ own garden in Lyme Regis was wild. There were trees, but they were left to grow at will. Whether the fruit was any good is irrelevant (he makes no mention here of ever reaping the harvest of his garden, though you do find references to it in his journals), it is untamed nature that he adores. He tells a story of when the family were evacuated to Dorset during the war: they had nature on their doorstep, filled with the trees and flowers that his father loved, but his father could not wait to run back to his tamed and ordered garden in the suburbs.

This distinction, between the wild and the tamed, between the natural tree and the espaliered tree, becomes the shaping metaphor of the whole essay. He extends this into a distinction between the act of acquisition and the thing acquired, between the act of creation and the thing created. And from this he goes on to talk about his own writing, which he sees as a wild and natural thing as compared to the pruned and espaliered writing of so many of his literary contemporaries.

Always the essay shifts, from that point on, between the wild place and the tended garden and writing. He tells about his father’s reaction to the success of his first novel, The Collector, a response full of doubt and uncertainty and distrust. Yet the father then produces a piece of his own writing, an attempt at a novel that John Fowles had known nothing about before. And it is, predictably, bad, too neat, too controlled, it is a garden not a wild place.


Have you ever read Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. If you have not, you should do so. No, more than that, you should go away right this moment and read it now, I’ll wait.

Mythago Wood is one of the most significant works of the English fantastic, more significant, I feel, that Tolkien and all his clones. At the heart of Mythago Wood is a stand of primeval woodland still extant and untouched, and within the wood (which proves to be many times larger on the inside than it appears from without) are to be found the rough, crude, ill-formed figures who would be smoothed and softened into the familiar characters of English mythology. The wild, again, as opposed to the tame. It is a powerful work that draws you inexorably into a new appreciation of what the fantastic can do.

Mythago Wood began as a novella in 1981, was expanded into a novel in 1984, and then gave rise to a series of other novels that were tangential to the original theme. The last in the sequence, Avilion, appeared shortly before his untimely death in 2009.

I feel that Holdstock must have read Fowles’s essay, which first appeared in 1979. Because in the final section of the essay Fowles writes about Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor:

But then suddenly, like a line of hitherto concealed infantry, huddled under the steepest downward fall of the slope near the bottom, what we have come for emerges from the low grass and ling: a thin, broken streak of tree-tops, a pale arboreal surf. For me this secret wood, perhaps the strangest in all Britain, does not really rise like a line of infantry. It rises like a ghost. (85)

Already, in this introduction, this secret, strange, ghost-like wood has much of the atmosphere that would emerge in ‘Mythago Wood’ only two years later. But then, Fowles tells us a little more:

In scientific terms it is an infinitely rare fragment of primeval forest, from some warmer phase of world climate, that has managed to cling on – though not without some remarkable adaptations – in this inhospitable place; and even more miraculously managed to survive the many centuries of human depredation of anything burnable on the Moor. Culturally it is comparable with a great Neolithic site: a sort of Avebury of the tree, an Ur-wood. (87)

Holdstock knew of Wistman’s Wood. I know this because when I read this passage to my wife, she recalled Rob talking about it. He recalled going there once with the idea of filming something in connection with Mythago Wood, but he had forgotten one of the most salient features about Wistman’s Wood: the ancient oaks that make up this preserved woodland are all stunted, none grows higher than five metres.

I don’t know if Robert Holdstock ever met John Fowles, but they would have had much in common. Both had a love of wild places, of the woodland over the garden. So we are left with this intriguing thought: did Holdstock read this essay? And did it feed into the ideas for Mythago Wood?

9 thoughts on “Attempt, endeavour, meditation

  1. Great post/posts. Mythago Wood sounds like something I need to check out.

    And I’ve noticed the same thing you have in terms of American essay writing, and I wonder if you might be on to something with the American confessional streak thing vs. British stoicism. Availability has something to do with it, certainly, but surely there’s something so American about the wave of memoir and essay and reality tv with tell all, bare all spirit that maybe scares off everyone on the other side of the pond with aspirations in self-reflection–even the Montaigne-style essay being lumped in with all the rest as a kind of American cesspool of narcissism.

    1. Thanks, and I do urge everyone to check out Mythago Wood. For anyone who thinks of fantasy as a safe, controlled, conservative literature, of good vs evil, of the rightful king restored, this novel will have a salutary effect. It is rough, crude, draws no distinction between good and evil, and goes right to the core of the human imagination.

      As for the confessional essay, we’re less stoic than we like to pretend, but we are very nervous about revealing ourselves. But, as in so many things, that trend is coming in from America. We now have far too many reality TV shows clogging up far too much of our schedules, and consequently more and more people are willing to do the most ridiculous and demeaning things in order to appear on the box and hence, they think, become a star. Whether this urge to self exposure will also bring in its train a new fashion for essay writing remains to be seen, but I rather doubt it. Those who want to expose themselves on TV don’t seem to have any interest or ability when it comes to exposing themselves in print; and vice versa.

  2. Well, let’s not forget about Montaigne, whose Essais provides at least one major model for the contemporary essay. There’s a really great piece by Phillip Lopate in Harper’s (January, 2011), wherein he discusses the formative influence Montaigne had on Emerson. According to Lopate, Montaigne’s essays “meander conversationally,” while Emerson’s are “chiseled, taut.” He also goes to great length talking about how Emerson’s journals, more than his essays, reflect Montaigne’s “organic, improvisational approach.”

    I think it’s accurate to say that the essay is used, and often abused, here in America, especially in its conventional so-called confessional modes. But for every hundred masturbatory tell-all there has to be at least one brilliant piece of literature by the likes of Lia Purpura, Annie Dillard, William Gass, Jenny Boully, Joan Didion, John D’Agata, and so many others, not to mention ones you can dig up from the grave from writers like David Foster Wallace and Guy Davenport.

    1. And there, John, you lay your finger on so many of the points I was trying to make in the “attempt” portion of my own essay: you reference Harper’s, for which we do not have an equivalent, and list eight great American essayists (which list could be doubled, tripled, without breaking sweat).

      No essays don’t have to be confessional (the best generally aren’t, though the best do usually have a very personal aspect); but providing a place for the confessional essay also provides a place for the other essays, the ones we most want to read.

  3. It would be interesting to distinguish the difference between personal and “confessional”. Franzen wrote the most beautiful essay in the new yorker about his complicated relationship with his mother, her death’s affect on him, and bird watching. It was deeply personal, but not “confessional”.

  4. Thanks Paul. It’s good to see Fowles brought up. I loved the Ebony Tower too, especially that mystery of the missing man. The story where the young ruffian burns the writer’s manuscript almost seems like a non-fiction piece. Did that happen?

    I’ve had some friends read Daniel Martin, but I did not make it through.

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