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Little Hybrid Thing

 

Ned Stuckey-French was an advisory editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and his essay on the essay, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," appeared in their first issue. He also served as a book review editor for Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and was a professor of English at Florida State University. His death from cancer in 2019 prompted a considerable outpouring of grief from his colleagues, who were deeply aware of his loss on both personal and professional levels. He had been working on a collection of essays and after his death his long-time friend John T. Price was enlisted by Ned's widow Elizabeth Stuckey-French and his friend and former professor Carl Klaus to prepare Ned's writing for publication. The collection came out this year and, as familiar as I had been with many of the selections there—Ned's work had been reprinted in Best American Essays several times over the years and I was aware that Ned had been both an outstanding nonfiction scholar and a memorable personal essayist—I appreciated the chance to have so much of his writing in one volume.

 

One by One, the Stars had been incomplete (and lacked that title) at Ned's death and a few of his earlier essays were added to what he had compiled. Among them was "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay" and once I'd made my way back to it near the end of the collection, I was reminded of the way Ned had managed to be simultaneously an authoritative scholar and a personable communicator. The essay refers to a variety of essayists—he points out early that the essay was established both by Montaigne, as "a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings" and by Sir Francis Bacon, as "a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize, and appreciate the 'truth'." He refers to a number of major essayists—George Orwell, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, Virginia Woolf—and such contemporaries as Philip Lopate, Douglas Hesse, David Lazar, and Scott Russell Sanders.

 

But for all his scholarship he also models the voice of the personal essayist. "A good way to begin drafting an essay is to explore a story that you yourself aren't quite sure about, a story that haunts you, a story you need to tell but you don't know why." He suggests, "The struggle is both to tell the tale but also to find your inner voice from that time (the voice of reflection) and your inner voice now (the voice of retrospection)." He quotes Joan Didion's observation about the need to "keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be" and concludes:

 

"An essay recaptures the voice of a former self and in so doing enables one's current self to talk about that former self, and then one or both of them, though most likely just the current self, talks to the reader about the lives lived by both selves." In the next paragraph he adds: "Got it?"

 

Later he quotes E. B. White's explanation: "The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast." Ned reminds us that White adds, "There is one thing the essayist cannot do, though—he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment for he will be found out in no time."

 

Ned's essay opens with a bountiful survey of competing terms applied to the essay and then subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) proceeds to demonstrate particulars of that range, from learned exegesis ("All genres are contaminated by other genres, and taxonomy itself is a subjective and relativistic exercise") to wry allusions ("It's slippery business. Our selves are and are not. They once were lost and now are found." That last sentence is a good example of his subtle humor, quietly echoing a verse from "Amazing Grace."

 

Carl Klaus and Ned had co-edited Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, published a year after Ned published his historical overview The American Essay in the American Century. In his commemoration of Ned on Assay, Klaus called "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" "A tour de force from its slangy opening to its concluding shot," "a verbal and visual adventure," and "a striking embodiment of Ned's inventive and inspiring approach to the essay." As I read—and reread—his great essay on the essay, I fondly felt Ned's presence rise from the page.

 

Notes:

 

Babine, Karen, editor. "'Never to be yourself, and yet always': Paying Tribute to Ned Stuckey-French," Assay Journal. 6.1 (Fall 2019).

 

Klaus, Carl H., and Ned Stuckey-French, editors. Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012.

 

Root, Robert. "The Death and Life of the Essay," review of The American Essay in the American Century by Ned Stuckey-French, American Book Review 33:2 (January/February 2012): 7.

 

Root, Robert. "On The American Essay in the American Century," Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 6.1 (Fall 2019).

 

Stuckey-French, Ned. "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," One by One, the Stars: Essays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022. Originally published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. 1.1 (Fall 2014).

 

Stuckey-French, Ned. The American Essay in the American Century. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

 

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