‘The Ill-Defined Plot’ | The New Yorker

Essays can be such a delight.

In The Ill-Defined Plot, John Jeremiah Sullivan happily rummages around in the origins of the term.

In the words of Hugh Walker—whose English Essay and Essayists remains the most lucid single-volume work on the genre a century after its publication—the genre becomes the “common” of English literature, “for just as, in the days before enclosures, stray cattle found their way to the unfenced common, so the strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay.”

He finishes, if we (unjustly) exclude four entertaining, meaty footnotes, by setting the scene for the very first recorded use of “essayist”.

James [King James I] was sitting there in the theater. It was January of 1610. Donne and Bacon and Joseph Hall and the rest of the gang were in the audience too—they may have been, so let’s say they were. And the boys were performing Jonson’s Epicœne. It’s a lad who is playing, for the first time, the role of Sir John Daw, a knight. John Daw = Jack Daw = jackdaw, a bird that, like a magpie, likes to pick up and collect shiny things, such as classical quotations. Jack Daw may be a satirical representation of Bacon himself—more than one scholar has wondered. In the story, he has just been forced it doesn’t take much forcing to recite some of his work. The work is ludicrous. But his listeners, meaning by flattery to draw him into further clownishness, tell him that it possesses “something in’t like rare wit and sense.” Indeed, they say—sounding already like us, when we go on about the essay’s origins—“’tis Seneca … ’tis Plutarch.”

Jack Daw, in the silliness of his vanity, takes the comparison as an insult. “I wonder,” he says, that “those fellows have such credit with gentlemen!”

“They are very grave authors,” his little crowd assures him.

“Grave asses!” he says. “Meere essayists, a few loose sentences and that’s all.”

Essayists: that’s when it enters the world, with that line. The first thing we notice: that the word is used derisively and dismissively. And yet the character using it is one toward whom we’re meant to feel derisive and dismissive. A pretentious ass, trying to use a fancy French word that a French person wouldn’t use. A character, moreover, who may be jibingly based on the inventor of the essay, Francis Bacon. And on top of everything, the moment transpires before the eyes of the very monarch who had imported the word in the first place, initiating this long, weird dialogue. One senses that the king himself has to be implicated somehow in the nesting doll of Jonson’s wit.

How could we possibly trust any creature that comes into the world wearing such a caul of ambiguity? That’s “essayists.” Four hundred and four years later, they continue to flourish.


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