It may be no longer accurate to say that the personal essay is having a "moment." If we can judge by the increase in publications and writing programs that feature it, the genre is here to stay, and its practitioners are beginning to get the popular and academic attention they deserve. Excitingly, several Latter-day Saint writers are making national names for themselves as important voices (critical and creative) in this genre. One example is Brigham Young University English professor Patrick Madden, whose second collection of essays, Sublime Physick, has just been published by University of Nebraska Press. While Madden does not necessarily write as a Latter-day Saint, he essays from a Mormon worldview, gathering scattered knowledge from everywhere and, as he discusses in his earlier collection, finding the sacred in the quotidian.
One cannot review a collection of personal essays without addressing the nature of the genre. Nor, judging by this collection, can an essayist essay for very long on any subject without coming to the subject of essaying itself. As Madden himself points out, an essay is the story of the essayist's mind at work. Other masters of the genre (many of whom Madden quotes once, twice, or many times each during the course of the book) have variously described essaying as making honey from flowers (Montaigne, 201), the arrangement of a subject (Pascal, 136), new ways of knowing what is known (Martone, 200), the transmutation of a rude world into a finer one (Alexander Smith, 26), and self-analysis via writing (Michael Danko, 53). To these definitions, Madden adds his own: an essay is an observation on the passing of time (241), a deliberate enjoyment of the contact with others' thoughts (154), a form of writing interested in middles (39), and an abstraction obtained through the concrete (25).