Today is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne. Many literary historians credit Montaigne with creating and perfecting the art of the personal essay--although many of Montaigne's contemporaries found his digressions distracting.
I first started teaching the British Literature Survey class in 1992. I taught British Lit from the beginning to 1789, a dizzying task. I remember talking about Montaigne and the personal essay and seeing blank looks. Students could understand the road from the Mystery plays to Shakespeare to 18th century farces to the movies they loved. They understood how poetry had evolved. But essays? They hadn't really read essays and couldn't be convinced that essays, particularly personal essays, were important. Who cared what one individual guy thought about things?
My how life has changed. Now I have many students who want to refuse to read anything that isn't based in fact. They feel that a true story has more validity. They scoff at writers who "just make stuff up," as if it's somehow easier and therefore more dismissible.
I used to refuse to read memoirs, just generally, on principle, unless the author had actually done something interesting--and going down into a self-destructive spiral was not how I defined interesting. I loved to read memoirs by writers and collections of interviews with writers and other artists.
I still do, but now I'm watching those memoirs unspool in real time. I love hearing a poet talk about assembling a manuscript and then hearing that the manuscript will be published. I love seeing those steps: choosing a cover, assembling a book tour, planning individual readings. I have learned so much.
So, thank you Montaigne. Thank you for thinking that a regular person's insights were important enough to capture, that we didn't have to be a queen or a king to be worthy. Thank you for writing down your thoughts. Thank you for publishing them. Thank you for hacking out the trail that would be traversed by so many important people.
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