Virginia Woolf had to reassure the public in 1922: “Oh, yes dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair,” even as journalists crowed over the death of “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” “Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead,” John Leonard observed in 1982. “This is always said in essays.”
The essay doesn’t die. It’s too protean. It only grows more indispensable as it learns to mimic, then amplify, our senses. The essay is a way of seeing through language, and in language. It grasps and sifts — recall its cognate “assay,” the distinguishing of base metals and gold. And if we like our art forms promiscuous and free, it obliges. Joan Didion turned it on to doubt in the 1970s, admitting in her collection “The White Album” that writing about her experience “has not yet helped me see what it means,” and an already supple form became even more elastic. The “lavender-scented little old lady of literature” has loosened her stays. –via NYTimes.com.