Sunday, September 17, 2006

Essays and Encyclopedias

This evening I was commiserating over emails with my friend Laura Rosenthal, who has kindly agreed to be one of the respondents for the McKeon collective reading three weeks from now (October 3-5).

Laura and I are both making our way through McKeon's book, and I mentioned that I was also reading Clarissa with my class this month (not that I was looking for sympathy or anything). Laura, I discovered, was currently reading Sir Charles Grandison.

And my first thought was that people working in our field routinely contend with big books of criticism and even bigger books of fiction. The most remarkable part of this is how much we take this aspect of 18c studies for granted, even when our students don't.

Margaret Doody has a nice essay in the Cambridge Guide to the 18c novel, where she relates Richardson and Clarissa especially to what she calls the "encyclopedic" imperative of Enlightenment thought, an imperative unthinkable without the burgeoning technological and economic advances of print and print culture happening in Richardson's lifetime. This encyclopedic urge seems to lurk behind the most remarkable achievements of the European Enlightenment, not just Diderot and d'Alembert, but Gibbon and Bayle as well. And focusing on the collective intellectual exchanges of Richardson and his circle of friends is a nice way to describe the surprisingly open, temporally extended process of collective writing that helped create such a capacious text as Clarissa, even while Richardson busied himself with closing off some of those openings.

But as I thought further about the characteristic forms and genres of the Enlightenment, I also remembered many of these writers' elaboration of forms and genres at the other extreme: the periodical essay, the dictionary entry, the individual letter, or Fielding's and Sterne's chapter divisions. All of these indicate a mastery of the short form as it aggregates into something larger, or perhaps even when it doesn't. Addison's, Hume's, and Johnson's essays, for example, are wonderful examples of concentrated yet accesible thought, lucid largely because of their brevity and suggestiveness.

I know from my own experience that the shortest forms teach the best, because they fit snugly within our 14 week semesters. But is it possible to give students a deeper sense of premodern reading practices, which must have given at least some people the leisure to read and reread books on the scale of Grandison and Clarissa, not to mention the Decline and Fall? And what are your favorite examples (teachable or not) of the encyclopedic or essayistic writings of the long eighteenth?