Winter 2000 • Vol. XXII No. 1 NonfictionJanuary 1, 2000 |

Reading the Charts: Elizabeth Hardwick and the Might of the Essay

Elizabeth Hardwidck and the might of the essay It's a fascination we have, related, I think, to American know-how and Yankee ingenuity, to pick up anything, a sewing machine or a light bulb or a pencil sharpener, and want to know who invented it. I had absolutely no idea what one did with a cotton gin, but by the third or fourth grade I knew Eli Whitney's name. We put our literary genres to the same test. Take the essay, for example. Hold one of those amorphous creations in your hands and, almost immediately, even the most casual reader, certain that the essay could only have come from some cranky imagination, wants to know what American dreamed up such a thing. Alas. Readers of William Gass in particular know the honor belongs to a Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne. Gass's unbounded excursus, "Emerson and the Essay," makes clear how aptly Montaigne titled his invention when, on 1 March 1580, he brought his two volumes into the world. The Essai, an "attempt" or "trial" or "endea

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