The Short Essay

Evolution isn’t only for the birds. Artforms also come and go, develop, mutate, expand, reach dead ends, or evolve into something new.

The short essay. I think that means spelling out an opinion, or writing about something as if you know what you’re talking about. Do we really know? Maybe. Maybe not.

Once upon a time, cuneaform writing evolved, apparently to keep records of how much grain was stored, then perhaps adapted to sending messages. Generally this would involve land, money, or women, most likely. At the time, hired guns called scribes were the only ones who could either read it, or inscribe it.

But with the invention of moveable type, things changed.

The possession of writing by certain people was a power tool. Writing evolved over and over again. The technology of the times were different alphabets (pictoral, syllabic), including numeral systems (Roman, Arabic), and materials on which to write (clay, papyrus, vellum).

Educated ancients thought science worth keeping, in Phoenician, Greek, and Roman times. Priest classes found writing powerful, and used it to store vast amounts of holy gobblygook, as is proper.

The development of syllabic alphabets made the use of moveable type feasible, and the Gutenberg press came into a world where writing mainly stored oral tradition. After printing the bible many times, the printer looked around.

You know how it is. Give a man a hammer, and he looks around for nails to pound. It was natural that the press expanded to print more and more and more.

As taxes, civilization, and engineering tamed the wilds and the roads, sending letters expanded, as did distribution of books. In between the letter and the book, emerged newspapers.

You gotta fill up a newspaper, right? Reporting news, the telling of stories (Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle), and the owner’s essaying to splain the world filled newspapers. Thus the essay. As literature became more accessible with the torture of young children- Oops, I meant the development of schools, then an appreciation of writing, and of essays expanded.

By the time of Marconi and Tesla, fiction of all types was flying around the world in books, magazines, and newspapers. Essays rode along. With Tesla’s invention of radio, and Marconi’s invention of radio, a new medium searched for content. Distributing news by radio worked well, and so did distribution of music and fiction. Thus the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, and the soap operas. Rural farm electrification in the 1940’s made radio universal in the USA.

Evolution continues. Evolution’s rule is that the old form doesn’t vanish. The old and the new exist side by side, and begin to separate in function, to specialize. Like the right and left sides of your brain (visual and language), the two completely nerve transmission systems in your body (fast and slow), and the two completely different circulatory systems in your body (lymph and blood), both the old and the new coexist, but now handle different tasks.

Thus, handwriting took over from verbal storytelling, specializing in long tales. Then printed writing emerged, specializing in news, fiction, and essays. Radio emerged, taking fiction from magazines and music from live venues. The magazines were left to specialize, and magazines today all focus on specialized subjects. Movies arrived to take drama from the stage, and in the 50’s, television took drama from the movies and the radio, leaving movies with spectacles and radio with music.

And the short essay? What has happened to the short essay?

Like the short story, this artform has languished. Oh, great short essays have been written. Look in any New Yorker, or any trade-oriented magazine, or political newspapers. But the short essay has not been widely appreciated in our time.

But perhaps this may be changing. Perhaps the short essay — such as this one you are reading now — has found a new home, on the internet, in the weblog.

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