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Review of Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century

University of Missouri 2011

By Cassandra Kircher

The first time I read E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” it seduced me. I was in graduate school when a professor assigned it, and the essay brought back scenes from all the years I had once spent at a lake in northern Wisconsin. The same lake my father had gone to as a boy. The one where I hoped to take my own future daughter or son.  A place where swim trunks always hung drying on clotheslines and the long station-wagon ride to get there was as anticipatory as foreplay. Where all three of us kids slept in the cottage’s screened-in porch and fishermen waited hours before pull-starting their motors and heading in. Where thunderstorms kicked up white waves and we watched blueberries turn navy, though we never saved enough for a pie. Those summers were the season in my childhood, when my soul was steeped in nature, the lake around us one big womb, the blue heron an acquaintance decorating Boathouse Bay, the neighbor—Colonel Finn—sitting on his porch most days as if he were asleep. The newspaper over his chest, his head tipped way back waiting for a shave.

 “Once More to the Lake” nudged me into what White calls “the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.” The same essay, indeed all of White’s work, helped lead Ned Stuckey-French back in time, though in a less personal and sentimental way, to an understanding of White’s place in the essay’s development, especially in America from 1880 to 1940.  In The American Essay in the American Century, Stuckey-French places the essay in history and uses what essayists themselves say about the form to show how the genteel essay, grounded in highbrow culture and practiced by writers such as Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, Charles Lamb, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, was being threatened to “death.”  What follows is a fascinating whodunit, wherein Stuckey-French posits the Ford Model T, the suburban living room, consumer society, popular magazines, and a fast-paced modern life as possible murder suspects.  As Stephen put it in 1881, “we are too distracted, too hurried” for the personal essay.  By the turn of the century, magazine articles—dubbed “light essays” by Christopher Morley—all but choked out the genteel essay. A hybrid of literature and journalism, light essays were shorter and more ironic than their predecessors. Often structured with a clear beginning, middle, and end (not the rambling quality of the genteel essay), they reached the middle-class and middle-brow at the breakfast table and helped readers understand modern life.  Arguably, the light essay lacked style. Decidedly, Stuckey-French’s sleuthing helps readers map the personal essay during a transitional period of literary history.  

E. B. White is Stuckey-French’s hero, and in many ways, he is mine—not only did I swoon over “Once More to the Lake” all those years ago, but White’s work, as much as any other essayist’s, also attracted me to a genre that I hardly knew existed.  In The American Essay in the American Century, Stuckey-French makes White pivotal, featuring him in the last two chapters and arguing that he is the “greatest American essayist of the first half of the twentieth century,” a writer who gave birth to “a new kind of American essay—one that was awake and engaged, that could talk about Hitler and hogs, and still be enchanting.”  By connecting the personal essay to American political and cultural history, Stuckey-French untangles literary history to reveal an artist finding his own voice and experimenting with form yet still reaching a large audience and remaining political.  In short, an artist who rescues the essay.  

Stuckey-French uses White not only to help defend the personal essay, but also to defend teaching it in undergraduate writing courses by placing it in its historical circumstances.  The American Essay in the American Century ends with a rereading of “Once More to the Lake” that sets it beside the world war during which it was written.  It’s a reading that Stuckey-French claims “opens [White’s essay] up in new ways.  It becomes larger.” And it does—even for readers who already value its power. 

Cassandra Kircher teaches nonfiction at Elon University.  Her personal essays have appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, among others.