Essays, Elizabeth Hardwick writes, are “just thought itself in orbit.” Writers who know how earthbound most thoughts are, who have struggled to heave, inflate, or prestidigitate an idea into self-sustaining flight, will quarrel with the word “just.” Otherwise, it is an apt description.

Its aptness is confirmed repeatedly in The Best American Essays 1986, published by Ticknor & Fields. Hardwick is guest editor for this, the debut volume in a planned annual series. She chose 17 essays, and a bright lot they are: Gore Vidal on Italo Calvino; Julian Barnes on writer worship; Anne Hollander on gender and clothing fashion; Gerald Early on jazz; George F. Kennan on morality and foreign policy; Stephen Jay Gould on the clam Trigonia; Joyce Carol Oates on boxing. There are also reminiscences — essayists spend a lot of time thinking thoughts about themselves — from John Wain, Cynthia Ozick, Robert Fitzgerald (Springfield’s least-known famous poet), and Alexander Cockburn.

Whether these pieces in fact constitute “the best” of the essays that appeared in the United States in 1986 is disputable. A few bored me, but I am obliged to acknowledge that each is a sound example of its type. Reading them, I was intrigued by a more basic question — not what it is that makes an essay good, but what makes an essay an essay. It seems more a matter of consensus than strict definition. Indeed, an essay is easier to describe in terms of what it isn’t. It is not a sketch, a review, a polemic, or any of the other ephemera that fill the space between ads in newspapers and magazines. Nor is it an article, which sacrifices expressiveness (the editor acting as headsman) to the need to convey mere information.

Neither is the essay an editorial. For one thing, editorials are expressions of institutional rather than individual opinions. For another, the pleasure in reading an essay is finding out how the writer thinks, while that of the editorial is learning what he thinks; the point of an editorial is to persuade, while that of the essay is to reveal. If the column offers only opinion, the editorial offers only conviction, and thus gives the reader all the pleasure of a belch without the meal. However, any of these species of prose can evolve into an essay under the mutating effect of imagination.

Nor can an essay be defined by style, although several of our present contributors have the knack for the deft phrase. (William Gass on cyclists in Beijing: “Cyclists are the street as water is the river. . . .”) But others impress by dint of argument or common sense rather than style. (Gould and Kennan belong on this list; both honor essentially 19th-century models.) Hollander undertakes to explain the new (active sports clothing as the current expression of a pastoral vision glimpsed in the 1960s that found “erotic appeal in the perceived androgyny of childhood”); Gerald Early reconsiders the old (in his case the old guard of jazz); while Donald Barthelme considers the ineffable: “If I wrench the rubber tire from the belly of Rauschenberg’s famous goat, to determine, in the interests of a finer understanding of same, whether the tire is a B.F. Goodrich or a Uniroyal,” he writes, “the work collapses, more or less behind my back.”

What thread ties such disparity together? Virtually every writer is tempted to essay an essay now and then, and more than a few have attempted to essay on the essay. In her introduction, Hardwick describes the essay as a “practical bit of prose” in which attention has been paid to expressiveness. Certain freedoms are claimed in the name of that expressiveness, not the least of which is the author’s presumption to speak his mind in his own voice. This is not the freedom granted to the tutor, but the right anyone enjoys to speak out and be listened to. Attracting an audience for the performance is not a matter of being right, as is often assumed by the resentful reader, but of being interesting even while being wrong — of displaying what Hardwick calls “individual intelligence and sparkle.”

This has been true for 400 years, since the days of Montaigne. (“This sacred name,” in Hardwick’s phrase.) Montaigne not only gave the essay its name but was in many ways its noblest practitioner. He asked of himself a thousand times, “What do I know?” and we still read him today because it was never the answer that mattered but the manner of his asking. As series general editor Robert Atwan explains in a foreword to the present volume, Montaigne understood the word “essay” as a verb. It described a process in which the writing spirit mattered more than the finished composition. “Montaigne may have been the first writer,” Atwan says, “to invite the reader to catch him in the act.”

It is no surprise therefore to open Guy Davenport’s new collection of essays and find that he too has been thinking about Montaigne. Davenport is a teacher and story writer who won an appreciative audience as an essayist with The Geography of the Imagination, a collection of 40 pieces published in 1981. His new collection is titled Every Force Evolves a Form, and it contains a further 20, disparate in form but showing a single (indeed singular) sensibility.

Davenport is revealing about Montaigne. He praises Montaigne and Plutarch (the inventor of the essay, he argues) as “men of the most honest introspection in the history of letters.” The rational reflection upon the inner life, Davenport laments, is a skill no longer taught in an era when introspection has become fatally confused with self-infatuation.

Many of the compliments he pays the Frenchman we may also pay Davenport. Like Montaigne, his “curiosity is omnidirectional.” In addition, Montaigne “read everything, quoted everybody, and sported an erudition that clearly had for its message that although he lived at a great remove from Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, nevertheless we Bordelais are right up with everything.” Substitute New York, London, and Paris for the ancient capitals of learning, and “Lexingtonians” — Davenport teaches at the University of Kentucky — for “Bordelais,” and you have fairly described friend Davenport.

A few of these pieces are pretty rarefied for those of us who dwell on culture’s lower pastures, but there are rewards enough for “that part of the American population called ‘knowledgeable,'” as playwright Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) once described us (with a hint of a sneer). (The quote appears in Early’s “The Passing of Jazz’s Old Guard” in Best American Essays.) Davenport has an eager and encompassing eye. His pieces are casual without being careless, a knack that can not be taught, since it is not a way of writing but a way of seeing. A consideration of this book or that idea will lead to considerations of other books and other ideas, all revolving around a central preoccupation, which is to know (quoting Davenport on the French sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss) “how culture crosses over from nature, how humanity has civilized itself.”

Davenport’s reconsideration of the painter Rousseau (“What Are Those Monkeys Doing?”) is typical: “Picasso could never get style out of his drawing. Rousseau could. Things themselves, tigers, flags, canals, moons, got into his paintings in styles they themselves demanded. Primitive painters are usually realists, devoted to the literal visually and to some ideal thematically. They are true poets in that they know no ordinariness, insisting on the right to see what they see to be in a painting. Shelley probably could not see a kettle, a chair, a pair of shoes. A tree was as important a presence for Rousseau as an angel for Joan of Arc.”

“Making It Uglier to the Airport” is a splendid diatribe cataloging — in his words and those of the authors of ten current books on urbanism and family community — the decline of the city, especially as hurried along by the automobile. “The ugliness of it all is visual migraine,” he notes. “Poland survived the Second World War better than my hometown in South Carolina.”

Davenport on such familiar figures as Yeats, Conrad, Samuel Beckett, Cervantes, and others manages to be both provocative and inevitable. His guest list also includes some less likely names, such as that of the Reverend Sydney Smith, 19th-century clergyman, wit (yes, it once was possible), medic, and Whig pamphleteer, who hired a female butler and once hung oranges in the trees on his estate in Somerset, for the beauty of it.

A talent for aphorism is not a dependable clue to wisdom, but it does suggest qualities of mind, if not qualities of thought. Some examples from Davenport:

“The American politician may be a psychological type, like the kleptomaniac, peeping tom, or exhibitionist.”

“The best books are old books rewritten. The tribe has its tales.”

“History must be human before it can give up any meaning at all.”

“We’re never so certain of knowledge as when we are dead wrong.”

“Napoleon, when the British nabbed him, was on his way to become an independent American farmer. I like to imagine him as having made it, as mayor of Cincinnati.”

“The New York Review of Books, that bastion of gratuitous meanness, has done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union.”

One could argue that gratuitous publication can also discourage good writing, to the extent that it gives undeserved prominence to the mediocre. The Graywolf Annual Three, devoted to essays, memoirs, and reflections, puts that point to the proof. Editor Scott Walker notes in a foreword, “Life comes down to some simple things,” to which the reader may be tempted to reply, “too simple sometimes.” Richard Ford stuns us with the insight that “influence on a writer is a hard business to assess.” Patricia Hampl takes us on one more stroll down the alleys of an Irish-Catholic childhood. (Although an unchurched reader, I have spent enough time with nuns by now to qualify for an eighth-grade parochial school diploma.) Suzanne Lessard’s ruminations on love and gender reach the depths one expects when a New Yorker “Talk” writer takes up such themes. There is yet another why-I-became-a-writer memoir, this one by John Berger. And Phillip Moffitt (“the dread Phillip Moffitt” in the view of Spy columnist Celeste de Brunhoff) introduces us to Appalachian women, who take their strength from the mountains.

Some of Graywolf’s selections teeter promisingly on the interesting. Terrence Des Pres’ philosophical detective story, “Reflections on the Death of John Gardner,” has its moments. But one of the tests of a good essay is that you finish the piece wondering how you had always managed to misunderstand the topic; most of these left me wondering how the writers had. The usually dependable Annie Dillard tells us that the young Christian fundamentalists she joins for a series of campus sing-alongs are just like everybody else except that they have a personal relationship with the Lord, which rather begs the question of their difference.

The taste of the editors determines the selection in such collections, of course, but commerce shapes their publication. (I suspect that the title for Best American Essays was insisted upon by the marketing whizzes at Ticknor & Fields, in the certain knowledge that the modern book buyer would not want a collection of essays that were merely very good.) In Graywolf I sense a reaching out to the semiliterate college graduate of the 60s and 70s for whom ideas and books remain suspect currency in intellectual exchanges, and who rely instead on a kind of barter in personal experience — people, in short, for whom the phrase, “I feel” will always be more trusted than “I know.” Publisher’s Weekly said that reading this collection was “like spending an evening in deep discussion with an old friend.” The problem is that old friends seldom teach us anything new, but usually only confirm what we already know, or think we know.

Which brings us to the pivotal issue of audience. It seems silly to worry about the death of the essay at a time when it enjoys a commercial renaissance. In fact it may be the form of the age, skeptical of fact and naively trusting of testimony, since it is personal, idiomatic, and argumentative. But the essay as a form of civilized conversation may indeed be in peril.

Donald Barthelme’s “Not-Knowing” in Best American Essays is a funny and knowing examination of the dilemma of postmodern writers. Barthelme notes the loss to language in our culture occasioned by the lack of any common references beyond those of TV and rock music. (How it happens that Americans are educated more and know less than any other people on the globe is discussed, among other places, in The Closing of the American Mind, the new book by the University of Chicago’s Allan Bloom.) An ominous beginning of that trend was noted by Guy Davenport years ago. In “The Scholar as Critic,” he recalled his own inquiry into the meaning of Olsen’s “Kingfishers,” a poem widely praised 30 years ago as beginning a new order in American verse. Davenport undertook the task, he wrote, “with the sense that I could not say that the poem [was] great until I understood it.” Other readers of the poem seemed less troubled by their ignorance, however, and urged students to appreciate it for the color of its words and its imaginative imagery, among other traits.

We may read in Davenport’s insistence on meaning the old-fashioned belief that a poem — indeed, all art must make sense in terms of the world, not in terms of the reader. He offered the poem in a course in postmodern lit “to show how a modern text makes demands on our knowledge.” This text certainly does; to read it “sensibly,” Davenport eventually learned, required some knowledge of Heraclitus, the history of Mexico, Plutarch, geography, ornithology, Pound’s Cantos, Albrecht Durer’s diary, archaeology and Mayan culture, Marco Polo, Rimbaud and Keats, the Bible and Shakespeare, French and Italian, and cybernetics. It is, he said, a poem that “insists on a literacy that the 1960s seemed to be denying, and proposing to get along without.” And deny it we have ever since, although it is arguable how well we are getting along without it. (We’ve already elected a New Age president in Ronald Reagan.)

Hardwick notes that essays are addressed to a public in which “some degree of equity exists between the writer and reader. Shared knowledge is a necessity.” What happens, then, when the only knowledge shared is of who is bedding whom on General Hospital? Hardwick may insist that the essayist need not stop to identify the common ground, to write after mention of Picasso, “the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.” But she does need to stop if she wishes to be understood by anyone younger than, say, 35. When Bob Greene quotes Addison, we may assume that it is David, not Joseph.

The Best American Essays 1986 edited by Elizabeth Hardwick, Ticknor & Fields, $8.95 paper.

Every Force Evolves a Form: Twenty Essays by Guy Davenport, North Point Press, $16.95 cloth.

The Graywolf Annual Three: Essays, Memoirs & Reflections edited by Scott Walker, Graywolf Press, $7.50 paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.