Want a modern, Everyman perspective on the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French aristocrat who popularized the essay as a literary genre? “Hank” at Amazon.com will give you one:

“Montaigne is the epitome of a renaissance man. His views in most situations are more modern than yesterday. He speaks out for the virtues of women, carefully denounces war, subtly questions the more extraneous doctrines of Catholicism, and even denounces colonialism and promotes respect of racial and cultural differences. This is not a man one would have expected to find in the 1500s. But here he is.”

William Hamlin, a WSU Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of English who has written two books and numerous articles on Montaigne, is no Everyman, but he shares the opinion that many of Montaigne’s views are surprising for the time, calling them “so unusual that in some cases they are unheard of.”

For instance, Montaigne, a Catholic, argued for religious tolerance, even as religious wars raged across Europe. He also believed in sexual parity and that cruelty is on par with the seven deadly sins. On these issues and others, Hamlin said, Montaigne had a “natural willingness to doubt received views.”

That raises the question, at least in some minds, “What did Montaigne’s contemporaries think about his essays?”
In early April Hamlin was awarded a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship to explore that question.
One of 190 fellows chosen from among 2,600 applicants, he intends to examine letters, diaries, unpublished essays, commonplace books and early editions of Montaigne’s essays to explore how people from varying demographics — economic, social and religious — viewed Montaigne’s writings.
Insight and discovery

While scholars long have realized that William Shakespeare read Montaigne — and borrowed from him for several plays — very little is known about how less-famous Britons reacted to the unfettered French skeptic.

The Guggenheim award “is richly deserved,” said David Bevington, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and senior editor of “English Renaissance Drama, A Norton Anthology.”

“I really enjoy reading (Hamlin’s) work and I always learn something,” he said. “He is doing original research and coming up with new views.”

Finding new insights on essays that have been studied for 400 years isn’t easy, Bevington said, but Hamlin does it.
“He just reads those texts with rigor, acumen, intellectual breadth and scholarly insight.”

Another colleague, John Cox, DuMez Professor of English at Hope College in Michigan, said he is also an admirer of Hamlin’s work and supported his Guggenheim application. He wrote, in part, that the proposed project plays to Hamlin’s strengths.

“Will is equipped with the linguistic, archival and paleographic skills to undertake a reception history of Montaigne in the 17th century, and he understands the issues better than almost anyone,” Cox wrote. “He already has made some fascinating discoveries and I have no doubt he will make more.”

Hooked as an undergrad

First published in 1588, Montaigne’s essays were translated into English in 1603 by John Florio. At more than 1,000 pages, the essays are Montaigne’s attempts to better understand himself and his world.

Hamlin said he first encountered Montaigne in an undergraduate French class and was immediately hooked.

“I took an instant liking to him for his candid approach and originality,” Hamlin said. Later, Montaigne figured in his doctoral thesis which eventually became his first book, “The Image of America in Montaigne, Spencer and Shakespeare.”

“I’ve just continued to be interested in him ever since,” he said.
Some of Hamlin’s favorite Montaigne aphorisms

• Custom and education shape the chief differences between men and women.
• The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.
• Enjoyment lies chiefly in the imagination.
• Supercelestial opinions and subterranean manners are commonly seen in the same men.
• No man is a hero to his wife or his butler.