As a non-fiction literary form, the essay is sometimes left out when we consider literature—fiction, drama and poetry seem to get the bulk of attention. But the essay is a well-developed and commonly used form, and I’ve even heard claims (can’t remember where at the moment) that Mormons excel at the essay.
So what makes it different than other forms? Is there something about the essay that is more appealing or more conducive to Mormon thought? The following article might answer these questions to some degree.
The author is probably the Joseph Jenkins born in 1893 in Goshen, Utah who graduated from BYU in 1923 and who was later the principal at Highland Park School. Joseph and his twin brother Hyrum Jenkins both also attended Brigham Young High School, graduating in 1913. Both began teaching that same year, and both retired in 1957, with a total of 81 years in the school system between them (which merited an article in the Deseret News). Joseph married Bessie Pearl Iverson in 1916 and they had five children. In addition to this article on essays, Joseph wrote two additional articles published in the Improvement Era, both in a few years following this one.
by Joseph Jenkins
Too few of us enjoy the rich fields of life as expressed in the field of the essay. Too often are we prone to think that we are well trained in literature when we have a smattering of Shakespeare and Scott and a little of Kipling and Zane Gray. In this paper I shall set forth some of the values of essays and some of the reasons why more people should read to enjoy the rich fields found in our modern essay.
My reason for giving briefly the history of the essay, its scope, and its purposes, is to widen the range of understanding. Men are good; they may have good characters even though they may live a narrow life, but if we mix “genuine goodness” and obstinacy with ignorance we have a combination dangerous to society. Goodness of character is wholesome when based upon knowledge and activities of life. The essay is one of the means through which different kinds of life are seen and appreciated.
The thoughtful, leisurely readers who are willing to take time to think and to live, enjoy the modern essay. It may be thought of as an interesting bit of cloth from the goods of life delicately woven upon a unit idea. The pattern used depends upon the author. He constructs his own. It may be a bit of soliloquy as if some friend were speaking to us aloud the whimsical thoughts that come into his mind while resting and enjoying life on his porch of a Summer’s evening when the moon is half hidden by a cloud; or an evening in Winter before an open fireplace he abandons himself to the pleasure of satisfying reverie. The reader of such thoughts is caused to think and his thinking is in the realm of the natural and the personal. The essayist’s chief gift is an eye to observe and discover suggestiveness in common things. In these common things his mind will wander over realities of life; fortune, morality, death, and life.
Essays provide pleasant situations; provide memories of life now and of days passed; provide suggestiveness of common things and give pleasant and worthy opportunities for vicarious living. The wealth of materials is so vast that profitable situations can be had which will provoke responses worthwhile. The essay will provide in our training for pleasant and profitable evenings, stimulating reveries, vicarious livings, entertainment, and thoughts that may cause the reshaping of one’s life.
Morality does not take its rise only in knowledge. Life is not shaped by reason alone. Instincts and habits, envy, prejudice, and laziness play an important part. To trust behavior to instinct only is to rely upon an unsafe guide. Experiences become fruitful only when their meaning is understood. Character involves incessant growth. Essays help to interpret the experiences of others in such a way that the reader may be stimulated to undertake still more fruitful things.
Essays may deal with human conduct, with a beauty which heightens whatever truth may be conveyed. They may clarify moral understanding and touch the feeling. Through the essay men see a bigger world and a more useful world. Their imagery is broadened in range, a useful means to emancipate men from too excessive, thoughtless concern of self alone which is the cause of many moral failures.
Essays touch sympathies. People can learn through the historical essay to be “self-reliant with Ulysses, loyal with Faithful John, chivalrous with Gareth, and forgiving with Joseph.” Literature in the form of essay attempts to offer, in a setting and tone of beauty and interest, an interpretation of life. The common things become beautiful when we re-live them through the essay. Personalities shine forth through the essay; the interests of youth and of old age are painted in colors of beauty; life again is re-lived and the imagination is bathed in reverie.
Essays written by other peoples than our own and read by us will develop more toleration. Essays help to overcome provincialism. They reveal personalities. Sharp in his Character Education says, “Personalities that habitually exhibit strength and devotion to duty, arouse admiration and strengthen and often clarify the love of excellence, and so doing awakens of strengthens the desire to act in like manner.”
Essays take us into our own world through an interesting style. The essayists choose and portray the most interesting types of observations and life activities. They exhibit laws of life with great clearness. Moral thoughtfulness can be developed only by training students to study human life. The essay is one form of study of human life, and is an effective means of stimulating moral thoughtfulness. Emerson says, “Go with mean people and you think life mean.” One cannot go with nobility of personality as expressed in essay and think life degraded. In the quiet of one’s room one can read essays which give or stir thoughts of sympathy, not so much for qualities of “aggressiveness, progressiveness, or dynamic for we have that in abundance,” but for thoughts of sympathy for the qualities of poise, balance, peace, steadfastness, stability and the capacities of love for the common, the every-day, the beautiful, and the new.
Essays not only help us to live life vicariously, but they help to enrich our own experiences. Living over past experiences is not the finished good of any literature. This life is going on now, and essays will make it happier and more enjoyable by revealing to us the beauties of this world here and now.
Improvement Era, v29 n11
September 1926, p. 1095-1098
Jenkins is clearly a fan of the essay, and sees it as a way of promoting morality and as “one of the means through which different kinds of life are seen and appreciated.”
But he also addresses something of how the essay is different from other forms of literature. He suggests:
The essayist’s chief gift is an eye to observe and discover suggestiveness in common things. In these common things his mind will wander over realities of life; fortune, morality, death, and life.
Literature in the form of essay attempts to offer… an interpretation of life. The common things become beautiful when we re-live them through the essay.
I think Jenkins is on to an important pattern frequently found in the essay—identifying some little-noticed element of everyday life or of nature which then becomes a meditation on a significant question of our existence. The meaning of life is found in a mundane detail. Of course, not every essay is like this, nor is this pattern only found in essays. Still, the pattern occurs enough to almost be stereotypical of the essay.
Beyond this, while I like a lot of what Jenkins says, his statements can be as easily applied to all literature as they can to the essay. There are, I think, enough hints to believe that Jenkins sees a didactic purpose for literature, and it may be that the form of the essay makes that didactic purpose easier to accept, if not more persuasive. I think I almost expect that the author of an essay is trying to teach me or persuade me of something.
I included the first paragraph of the article in the excerpt above simply because of the second sentence, with its takedown of literary pretense. And elsewhere in the article, Jenkins includes a few gems that apply to life in general as well, such as the observation “if we mix ‘genuine goodness’ and obstinacy with ignorance we have a combination dangerous to society” and his warning:
Morality does not take its rise only in knowledge. Life is not shaped by reason alone. Instincts and habits, envy, prejudice, and laziness play an important part. To trust behavior to instinct only is to rely upon an unsafe guide.
Despite all the dubious claims Jenkins makes in this article, I do think he has identified something of interest about the essay and about literature.