A Whole Life: Essay Collection as Miscellany
January 6, 2023 § 13 Comments
By Steven Harvey
The beech tree rising in our bow window finds its own shape without any help from me. It is a gift from my friend, the artist and naturalist Dale Cochran, who walked the woods with me before I built my house spotting which trees to keep. “Definitely that one,” he said pointing to the healthy beech sapling with a split trunk, each one about as wide as my arm, that I have watched bulk up mightily over the years. He was right. In the summer it sprouts lovely, light-green leaves that turn coppery in the winter and rattle in the wind, and the bark is a smooth gray with scars that mark any blow it has taken. The word “book” can be traced back to beech tablets where the ancients carved sacred texts in runes, and in German and other modern European languages the word for book and beech are the same. As I wrote the essays that eventually filled the collection called The Beloved Republic, the tree inspired me.
The Beloved Republic began as separate essays that over a quarter century of writing became a book. While I worked on it, I raised four children and enjoyed five grandchildren with one more on the way, taught at one college, played in one musical group with whom I still perform, and lived with my wife in this house where I have spent nearly half of my life. The book had no predetermined focus. While I wrote it, I became who I am, and it tagged along, and in the shadow of the tree that looms overhead, I slowly discovered what it was about. The essay as a form began in this desultory way, as a loose collection on random subjects that Michel de Montaigne called essais, the French word for attempts. Some of the finest collections in the past likewise grew organically out of the author’s life finding their shape over time. Many, like mine, began as magazine pieces and later, almost as an afterthought, were collected in books. This kind of nonfiction miscellany has fallen out of fashion, I fear. Contemporary readers and publishers apparently prefer a focused book that drives home one idea, predetermined or discovered early by the writer. These focused collections take the shape that the author consciously gives them in advance. Thoreau’s Walden with its theme of living deliberately boldly announced in its first essay is an example.
What I admire about the miscellany is that it is held together not by a vision, discovered early and pursued single-mindedly, but by a whole life. As essayists put together such collections written over decades, they do not explore a concept or a set of related concepts; rather, they reveal who they are, and, perhaps, why they are here. Like the beech, they grow into themselves over time. It is not easy going for the reader who has to begin anew with each essay and in this the miscellany is much like a book of poems, meant to be read slowly, but as in poetry, the rewards can be great as reader joins writer on a quest to discover willy-nilly what one life is about. There is an intimacy in this method, a sense that the parts are cherished, glowing by their own light without ulterior motive.
But if the writer is lucky, the sum is greater than its parts, and a vision, as well as a life, can emerge, and that is what happened for me in my book. The glue, the ultimately unifying discovery of The Beloved Republic, is the old idea that creativity is valuable in itself, a view that goes in and out of favor. In an age when the planet and its people face unthinkable, unspeakable horrors, the need for social relevance is obvious, but as I wrote, I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political. It generally brings out the best in us and helps us weather evil. Those who do this work form the “Beloved Republic,” a phrase E. M. Forster coined for the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. He described it as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” They are “sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They form an invincible army of losers in the service of love. My book slowly opening in surprises over decades can be read as dispatches from this beleaguered land. It grew into the idea and, like the beech, took its own, sweet time.
Steven Harvey is the author The Beloved Republic which won The Wandering Aengus Press Award and will be published in early 2023. His books include a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a book-length essay, Folly Beach, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. He is a founding faculty member at the Ashland University MFA, a Contributing Editor at River Teeth, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website. He lives in the north Georgia mountains with his wife, Barbara.
Yes to this: “I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political.” Thank you for a lovely essay on this early Friday morning.
This is beautiful and wise, thank you.
You approach to writing The Beloved Republic made me think of Keats’ term, negative capability, for the willingness to be comfortable in mystery, uncertainty and doubt, receptive to truth and beauty without pursuing them.
I’ll share this, and reread it.
This is absolutely my favorite on Brevity’s NF Blog! Your wisdom shines, reminding me of Montaigne’s essays – the humble exploration of ideas. Brava for this.
I look forward to reading your work.
Keep thriving, like your beloved beech.
I found as a mother and again as a teacher that these valuable professions were not enough to keep me stable unless I was also making.
Thank. you. This essay is lovely, and the message, wise.
So much to love about this. That art needs no illumination from exterior organizing principles. That because art is lighted from within, it creates an enclave safe from Forster’s “tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies.” That a life’s miscellany has the capacity to bloom over time into its own logic and surprises.
Thank you for sharing the simplicity of your wisdom. I look forward to The Beloved Republic (and your 3 older collections of essays). So happy to have discovered you and your writing. Thank you, Brevity editors.
After reading the article, I’ve just ordered the book!
On a day when the whole writing business seems not worth the bother, this post brought me back. It’s beautiful and wise. I can’t resist adding that my maiden name, Fagalde, means “Little beech tree” in the Basque language.
Simply lovely. Thank you.
Yes the American beech, a beloved tree in my backyard, felled in a storm only to unselfishless nourish a grove of saplings I now enjoy. We had bowls made from her strength of character so we’d never forget her majesty.
“plucky” – I may have to change my mind a pick a word, this word for the year, as well as this concept: “an invincible army of losers in the service of love.” Inspiring. Thank you!
Marketing slogans sell books, but they aren’t particularly good guides to life.