In 1754, when King’s College was established—Columbia University’s earliest manifestation—its first classes were taught by an essayist: Samuel Johnson. This essaying tradition at Columbia has continued unbroken, but not untested, until today.
In particular, American intellectuals at Columbia have questioned whether undergraduates are suited to writing substantive essays. Randolph Bourne, one of the United States’ most important essayists in the early 20th century, and a graduate of Columbia University’s class of 1913, dismissed the possibility that young people had the temperament, particularly intellectual courage, required by this genre. “The youthful essayist,” he writes in the month before his death at in 1918, “is afraid you will think he is unsophisticated, while the middle-aged doesn’t much care if you do.… The youthful essayist usually develops into the professional anecdotalist, with an active mind that is harnessed up to no real thinking but can only stream off from itself a futile current of incident” (506).
This is a strange—even a disheartening—sentiment to hear from Bourne, an essayist who never made it to sanguine middle age himself. He was writing, however, about the “light essay.” This “genteel” type of essay was epitomized in the 19th century in the work of Charles Lamb who influenced both Washington Irving and Sara Willis Parton (a.k.a. “Fanny Fern”) in their approach to the essay. Bourne was committed to the idea of the essay’s philosophical and political importance. He began to write and publish essays in The Columbia Monthly as well as the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate, wrote essays that were influential for their time and have enjoyed a lasting presence in American letters. “The Handicapped—By One of Them” (1911; 1913) is one of the first essays on the social, emotional, and political impact of living with physical disability. In “The War and the Intellectuals” (1917), Bourne alerts readers to the dangers of American thinkers tacitly approving the first World War, because they did not sufficiently consider what it asked us to rethink about democracy itself.
For all Bourne’s insight through the essay, he was wrong about its possibilities for writers early in their undergraduate experience. In fact, if Bourne were a first year student at Columbia today, I would expect him to seek out many opportunities for explorations of his ideas in public—he would blog prolifically (140 characters being too restrictive for a mind that liked to tease out trains of thought), and relish the chance to put his arguments to the test in essays and papers for class.
In The Morningside Review you will encounter essays that demonstrate the range of ways writers keep their audience in mind. It is no small feat to communicate one’s ideas to an imagined (and actual) audience of smart readers who are not familiar with the particular issues that concern oneself. It is more impressive when a writer is able to interest—and even implicate—readers in one’s argument. A primary goal of University Writing, the first-year course from which these essays have come, is to enjoin students even in their first months at Columbia to analyze and respond to contemporary issues. The essays in each edition offer examples of persuasive, thoughtful, and responsible thinking about questions under discussion both in academic contexts and the public sphere. The essayists in The Morningside Review do not simply express their opinions, but begin the heady process of entering into an existing intellectual conversation and exchange of ideas.
The Morningside Review also provides a space in which writers and readers can begin to see how the essay as a genre suits the work of a liberal arts education, since it accommodates a wide range of subjects, writerly stances, aesthetic experiments, and argumentative strategies. This publication showcases and celebrates the essay’s diversity, although we do emphasize essays that make their arguments rather more explicitly than those on the more implicit and elliptical end of the spectrum.
The Core curriculum at Columbia includes many famous essayists in its curriculum, including both Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon. How fitting then that as students begin their study here that they might find a space to conduct their own experiments in thinking in the only course at Columbia that is required of all first year students: University Writing. I am proud and fascinated of the work that students who are new to this form of writing have been able to accomplish with one semester’s worth of hard study of the genre’s requirements. When writers make their thinking visible and sharable with others on the page, it is no solipsistic act–the ideas are there because they are meant to be engaged by others.
As you consider the essays in this journal, you might find it interesting to see how even the most timely of or students’ arguments–that respond to key controversies of their day–the Jessica Lynch story, the Borat movie, the RiceTek patenting case feature ideas that are of lasting interest and merit. Essays in the world continue to be read long after their timeliness–their kairotic appeals–diminish, because in the presence of a thinker working carefully to craft an idea about a text well known or just discovered, we feel the thrill of a moment of invention. In essays these moments are not preserved or fixed but recreated, and the force of the best essays by writers regardless of their age is that of the “click”—the idea that was nascent and only dimly detected made visible and sharable with others. The art of the essay is alive and well at Columbia and we look forward to many more volumes of The Morningside Review to show us of what new essayists in our midst can contribute to the form.
With all best wishes,
Nicole B. Wallack, PhD
Director, Undergraduate Writing Program