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Short prose belongs to a long tradition

A few weeks ago I met a man who immediately impressed me with his insight, intelligence and discernment. And he accomplished that by saying only these few words:

“I enjoy reading your essays.”

I was momentarily startled with that observation, probably because it was so candid, complimentary and unexpected. But I thanked him and told him what I often say to those who approve of my work: “I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.” That is the truth. We talked briefly and went on our separate ways. It was later that day when I began to wonder about the use of the term “essay” to describe my writing. I am still curious today.

Do I really write essays? Is this an essay? While it was intended as a very flattering comment, I believe the term is a little too pretentious for current use and when applied to my specialty.

Oh, I’ve written an essay or two in the distant past, but I suppose I got my start in Mrs. Smering’s English class as a high school junior. Only she didn’t call them essays, she called them “themes.” A typical assignment would have been to “write a theme of 250 words on a place of interest you have visited in the city, or another topic of your choice.”

That was considered a difficult assignment because the student not only had to write 250 words, but also had to rely on his or her own experience, choosing either a place or a topic. The student also was confronted with the issue of length; 250 words was considered a fearful challenge.

My theme writing continued during freshman English in college and it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in Professor Cameron’s American Literature class that I was assigned to write an essay on a certain aspect of “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau. That may have been my first and last essay because, as upperclassmen, we wrote “papers.”

Somewhere along the academic highway, students of English were introduced to Charles Lamb, who died in his native England at the age of 59 in 1834. He is still remembered for his commentary and observations published in periodicals of the day in a format called Essays of Elia. That was his pen name. Lamb has been honored for polishing that short prose model and elevating it to a separate literary category.

I learned about Charles Lamb in school, but as an adult I never considered myself and my writing to be even remotely related to Lamb and his Essays of Elia. However, there is an abundance of columnists and commentators at work today whose professional ancestry can be traced back to Lamb’s work. Article length is a major difference, with the Elia essays running thousands of words and today’s columnists averaging 600 to 750 words. Most publishers today establish length limits because space is more limited than was allocated in Lamb’s day. Also, current readers are impatient, favoring shorter pieces.

Topics are different, too, although some of the Elia titles sound as if they would fit right in with my topics, which have always defied easy definition. Here are some samples: A Chapter on Ears; A Dissertation on Roast Pig; Newspapers Thirty-Five Years Ago; Mrs. Battle’s Opinion of Whist; Popular Fallacies; The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers.

This observation about the Essays of Elia, written two centuries ago, made a special impression on me: “The personal and conversational tone charmed many readers.” That sounds like a worthwhile goal, charming as many readers as possible as often as possible.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

11/25/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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