Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Essays, pieces, and posts

While watching the World Series tonight, I've been revisiting Perry Miller. For all of Miller's antiquated emphasis on "the uniqueness of the American experience," he can make a lot of sense, especially while watching this World Series. With all the brooding talk of "curses" and the apocalyptic surrounding the Red Sox (that blood spot on Curt Schilling's stocking looked a lot like the moon, if you ask me), not to mention the national anxiety and accompanying jeremiads swirling around the elections, the Puritans do not seem all that distant these days.

Miller is playful in the preface to his Errand in the Wilderness, in which he describes having an almost mystical "calling" to intellectual history while sitting on the banks of the Congo. There's a lot going on in that story (see Amy Kaplan for a must-read piece on Miller's epiphany), but what caught my attention tonight was Miller's mischievous jabs at the well-known publishing trick that Errand represents -- take a bunch of journal articles by a distinguished scholar, and then release them as an anthology with introductory comments by the author.
If for twenty-five years a man writes out of steady application to a single theme -- if, that is, the theme itself be sufficiently spacious -- he discovers that he has wrought out a consistency he could hardly have formulated at the beginning. Not that I have avoided publishing articles, and many sentences, which I wish I had not. I have failed myself much more often than have the scholars I emulate. A few of my more egregious lapses I have silently expunged for this edition. However, certain of my gaffes are so much a part of the record that, assuming the record be worth preserving, I let them stand, with prefatory warnings that readers may fully profit by my mistakes.

Omitting, for reasons both of space and policy, works of which I am downright ashamed, along with others that I recast into chapters for either volume of The New England Mind (The Seventeenth Century, 1939, 1953; From Colony to Province, 1952), I here put together those that seem to add up to a rank of spotlights on the massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.
At the conclusion of this second paragraph, an asterisk directs a reader to a footnote that wryly begins: "American scholarship is prone to idolize the footnote."* The last paragraph of the preface continues this pattern of ironic self-reflection:
There is a disposition among modern publishers, which extends even to university presses, to shy away from the word "essay." To call a collection like this a volume of essays is to curse it with the remembered pomposity of Emerson, the ponderousness of Macaulay. In the world of journalism, the approved noun is "piece." A piece is confessedly a mere exercise, not pretending to pronounce upon the universe. Yet in this usage there is a double implication: while a piece is unpretentious, it secretly prides itself on being workmanlike. And it meets a deadline. Though I have generally manufactured these studies for some sort of deadline, I still enjoy the luxury of revision. Even so, they are not transformed into essays. Wherefore, I am content to offer them, employing a few editorial comments to plead for their general coherence, as a compilation of pieces.
Miller settles for the word "piece" instead of "essay" to describe his errands from European culture into the "vacant wilderness" of America. But he breaks his own rule in the introduction for Chapter 7, because deep down he much prefers the dynamism of errands to the static solidity of "pieces." "This essay -- let me for once call a piece by that name, using it here in the original sense of an endeavor or an exertion that does not quite reach its goal -- has been unhappily construed by many readers ..."

Sometimes I share Miller's frustration that the genre of "essay" has so much disappeared from academe. Much could be gained if scholars, drawing on accumulated moments of instruction and reflection, could feel free to venture forth without the fear of loss. Let me venture, with no scientific proof, that academics rarely refer to their shorter works as "essays" any longer. While passing each other in the hallway, colleagues are more likely to refer, alas, to this or that "piece." They are even more likely to refer to an "article," which like "piece" is a reifying noun. Both names make scholarship sound like an article/piece of clothing, rather than the nervous but exhilirating process of dressing for a safari.

Like "essay" and "piece," "post" is both a noun and a verb. One of the reasons I began posting on this blog was because I wanted to "essay" -- to have a forum for publishing half-baked ideas, wild speculations, and meandering meditations, all of which are discouraged in "pieces." Yet I find that, in a very short amount of time, I have allowed my blogging habits to conform to the logic of the "piece." I have created for myself artificial deadlines, and veered close to thinking of blogging as workmanlike. You would not be aware of this, of course, because thinking that way actually makes me less likely to blog. It has created a bottleneck of "posts" that I do not write because they do not seem fully developed. I thus remind myself here that a blog "post" is a developing, a venturing forth, an errand into the wilderness.

Maybe the words "posted by" are part of the reason why I psych myself out of blogging, just as the word "piece" was problematic for Miller. I resolve, therefore, to rename the "pieces" on this blog "improvisations." Let me call "posts" by that name, even at the risk of their being misconstrued.

* Made you look, idolater!

Collective Improvisation:
Excellent. I found you through the Common-Place essay via the Chronicle, and I look forward to settling in for many enjoyable reading moments as I explore your work. Thanks! 

Posted by Gardner Campbell

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/13/2005 01:07:00 PM : Permalink  

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