The Familiar Essay
The Familiar Essay
During a period spanning the entire nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, informal and discursive prose became a popular form of instruction and entertainment in England and North America, and the familiar or personal essay emerged as a distinct genre. Best represented by the works of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, the familiar essay has been explored from both historical and literary perspectives. Commentators examining the development of the essay have focused on its formal characteristics, the merits of its chief contributors, and its significance in world literature. The familiar essay is characterized by its brevity and discursive style. As the genre gained critical acceptance, attempts to arrive at a more functional definition of the essay proliferated, resulting in a division of essays into such categories as instructive, aphoristic, historical, literary, and familiar. Modern critics, however, have often found these classifications inaccurate, and many commentators agree that the term "essay," used indiscriminately for centuries in reference to philosophical, religious, political, and personal compositions, almost defies definition.
Sir Francis Bacon is generally credited with introducing and popularizing the essay in the English-speaking world. Influenced by the French essays of Michel de Montaigne, who first used the term "essais" (or "attempts") to describe his prose reflections on commonplace topics and occurrences, Bacon published Essays, Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion in 1597. For much of the seventeenth century, essay writing reflected Bacon's aphoristic style and incorporated elements of the commonplace book, the character sketch, and the personal letter. Thus, it gradually became less abstract and more familiar, appealing to a wider audience. The inception of the periodical magazine in the eighteenth century was instrumental to the development of the familiar essay. Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele's Tatler and Spectator, as well as Samuel Johnson's Rambler and Daniel Defoe's Weekly Review of Affairs in France, featured prose designed to entertain and instruct the English middle class. In addition to providing guidance in matters of wardrobe and proper behavior, Addison and Steele's periodical essays discuss such popular subjects as witchcraft and duelling, and satirize the aristocracy. Immensely popular during their time, the early periodical essayists are esteemed for introducing humor and less formal diction into the English essay. In the early nineteenth century, Hazlitt commented that the essays of Addison and Steele "are more like the remarks which occur in sensible conversation and less like a lecture. Something is left to the imagination of the reader."
The periodical essay was thus modified by Hazlitt, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas De Quincey, and other writers, many of them associated with the Romantic movement, who augmented the essay's scope and length, developing a highly personal voice. These writers produced some of the most popular and skillfully rendered prose works in English literature, addressing nearly any topic that came to mind. The typical familiar essay, whatever its theme, seemed to carry the reader into a personal conversation with a writer who was "tolerant, broad-minded, highly cultivated, endowed with the most enlightened views on art, eloquent, humorous, and very human," as Orlo Williams wrote of Hazlitt, adding, "his style is smooth and brilliant, yet he has the charm of seeming intimately conversational; he can soar on the wings of eloquence, yet his common sense is unimpeachable." Hazlitt is renowned for his familiar essays, such as "On Going a Journey," "Genius and Common Sense," and "Living to Oneself." Among the English familiar essayists Lamb is widely considered preeminent. His essays "Old China," "A Dissertation upon Roast Pig," and "All Fool's Day," are considered models of the nineteenth-century essay. In Britain, the familiar essay tradition was continued through the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Lynd, G. K. Chesterton (author of "What I Found in My Pocket," "Dogs with Bad Names," and several hundred others), and Hilaire Belloc, who published such familiar essay collections as On Everything (1909), On Anything (1910), On Nothing (1908), and simply On (1923). In the United States, prominent writers of the familiar essay included Oliver Wendell Holmes, creator of the avuncular highly opinionated speaker who holds forth in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858) and two other such collections, as well as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Agnes Repplier, among others.
Writing of the familiar essay became less widely practiced in the early decades of the twentieth century, though the prolific Repplier, Chesterton, Belloc, and Lynd extended the genre well into the 1930s and early 1940s. Increasingly, commentators have cited the utilitarian, fast-paced modern world, with its increasing loss of leisure time for reading and reflection, the modern reader's preference for information rather than knowledge, and the dearth of magazines inclined to provide space for familiar discourses as among the key factors contributing to the familiar essay's decline. In addition, critics have noted the perception of the familiar essay as an old-fashioned holdover from bygone days.
Charles Brockden Brown
The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings 1943
Horce Subsecivce. 3 vols. 1858-1882
Birds and Poets, with Other Papers 1895
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Friend 1818
George William Curtis
Prue & I 1892
The Uncommercial Traveller 1860
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Society and Solitude 1870
Twice-Told Tales 1837
Mosses from an Old Manse 1846
Table Talk, or, Original Essays on Men and Manners. 2 vols. 1821-22
The Spirit of the Age 1825
Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There 1850
Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table 1858
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table 1860
The Poet at the Breakfast-Table 1872
The Seer. 2 vols. 1840-41
Men, Women and Books 1847
Table Talk 1851
Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff Esq., and Others. 2 vols. [with others] 1807-08
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1820
Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared under That Signature...
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Definitions And Origins
SOURCE: "The Essay," in The Enjoyment of Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1935, pp. 38-61.
[In the following excerpt, Drew traces the development of the familiar essay from Montaigne and Bacon through the periodical essayists of the eighteenth century and on to the era of Robert Louis Stevenson.]
The essay is the simplest of all forms of literature, but with it we enter that world where we shall remain throughout the rest of this book, the world of the conscious art of writing. From the lowest to the highest, from the simplest to the most complex kinds of literature, we shall find henceforth that the enjoyment of it is always twofold. There is the pleasure we receive from the conscious stimulus of certain recognizable parts of our being: to our curiosity about the stories and situations of other human beings, to our emotions, to our intellectual faculties, to our moral nature, to our senses. The pleasure of sharing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of meeting Elizabeth Bennet, of being stirred by Milton or enraptured by the sheer music of The Eve of St. Agnes. Here we know clearly what it is that pleases us; we recognize both the cause and the effect of the sense of satisfaction. But in the other kind of pleasure which literature creates, we are clearly conscious only of its effect. Form works upon the consciousness as a whole; it stimulates...
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Overview Of The Genre
Arthur C. Benson
SOURCE: "On Essays at Large," in The Living Age, Vol. XLVI, No. 3423, February 12, 1910, pp. 408-15.
[Benson was an English educator and author. A prolific poet, novelist, and biographer, he is best known as an essayist. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the Cormhill Magazine, Benson approaches a definition of the essay and touches upon the accomplishment of several key writers of the familiar essay, including Lamb, Thackeray, and Stevenson.]
There is no word which it seems harder to define than the word Essay; it seems as difficult to describe as the quality of justice in Plato's "Republic," which turned out to be the one indefinable and essential principle that was left, like Argon, when all the other qualities that go to the making up of the state were subtracted. Similarly, when all other forms of human composition have been classified, the essay is left. Almost the only quality that it seems possible to predicate of it is comparative brevity, and even that is not essential to it, for such a book as the "Anatomy of Melancholy" is little more than a gigantic essay, when all is said. The difficulty is that the word has travelled so far from its original meaning, which implied something tentative and evanescent. Yet if the word can be applied to Macaulay's Essays, the original conception falls to the ground at once, for...
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Elements Of Form And Style
SOURCE: "On Familiar Style," in Romantic Prose of the Early Nineteenth Century, edited by Carl H. Grabo, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927, pp. 3-12.
[Hazlitt was one of the leading essayists of the early nineteenth century. Influenced by the concise social commentary of Joseph Addison's Spectator essays and by the personal tone of Michel de Montaigne's essays, Hazlitt developed what became known as the familiar essay. Characterized by conversational diction and personal opinion on topics ranging from English poets to washerwomen, his familiar style is best represented by the essays in The Round Table (1817), Table-Talk (1821-22), and The Plain Speaker (1826). While he also produced an important body of critical works, Hazlitt's familiar essays are the most esteemed and successful of his writings. In the following essay, originally published in the second volume of Table Talk (1822), he defines the familiar essay's style.]
It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod...
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Elements Of Content
SOURCE: "On the Writing of Essays," in A Book of Essays, edited by Blanche Colton Williams, D. C. Heath and Company, 1931, pp. 243-61.
[Smith was a respected nineteenth-century Scottish poet and familiar essayist. In the following excerpt from an essay included in his Dreamthorpe: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863), he writes from a rustic retreat of the familiar essayist's subject matter and wide-ranging habit of mind.]
Giddy people may think the life I lead here staid and humdrum, but they are mistaken. It is true, I hear no concerts, save those in which the thrushes are performers in the spring mornings. I see no pictures, save those painted on the wide sky-canvas with the colours of sunrise and sunset. I attend neither rout nor ball; I have no deeper dissipation than the tea-table; I hear no more exciting scandal than quiet village gossip. Yet I enjoy my concerts more than I would the great London ones. I like the pictures I see, and think them better painted, too, than those which adorn the walls of the Royal Academy; and the village gossip is more after my turn of mind than the scandals that convulse the clubs. It is wonderful how the whole world reflects itself in the simple village life. The people around me are full of their own affairs and interests; were they of imperial magnitude, they could not be excited more strongly. Farmer...
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The Cockneys: Hazlitt, Lamb, And Hunt
SOURCE: "III" and "IV," in The Essay, Martin Secker, 1915, pp. 36-47, 48-63.
[In the following excerpt, Williams discusses the accomplishment of the major nineteenth-century English essayists and posits the defining characteristics of the true essayist.]
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, by some miracle that has been variously explained, the civilized world, which had been modern before, suddenly became modern again after some eighty years of being old-fashioned. There is no need to recall the astounding wonders of that time—the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the mortal convulsions of Europe, the Romantic movement, the new fountain of English poetry, the beginning of industrialism and so forth. It is enough for our purpose to notice that, among other marvels, the English essay reached a perfection to be found neither before nor afterwards. This is not to say that more people wrote good essays: it was rather the case that fewer people wrote better ones. The stream that had formed that rather stagnant pool of fifty volumes was now divided into several channels. Political pamphlets and squibs carried off some of the waters; others went, with everincreasing flow, into the daily papers, which became more important, fuller and more literary, thus beginning the flood of occasional journalism which has swamped the essay in our own day. A third runnel...
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Status Of The Genre
SOURCE: "The Passing of the Essay," in In the Dozy Hours, and Other Papers, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894, pp. 226-35.
[Repplier was an American essayist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A prolific writer, she published thirteen volumes of familiar essays. In the following work, Repplier claims that reports of the familiar essay's death are exaggerated.]
It is the curious custom of modern men of letters to talk to the world a great deal about their work; to explain its conditions, to uphold its value, to protest against adverse criticism, and to interpret the needs and aspirations of mankind through the narrow medium of their own resources. A good many years have passed since Mr. Arnold noticed the growing tendency to express the very ordinary desires of very ordinary people by such imposing phrases as "laws of human progress" and "edicts of the national mind." To-day, if a new story or a new play meets with unusual approbation, it is at once attributed to some sudden mental development of society, to some distinct change in our methods of regarding existence. We are assured without hesitation that all stories and all plays in the near future will be built up upon these favored models.
To a few of us, perhaps, such prophetic voices have but a dismal ring. We listen to their repeated cry, "The old order passeth away,"...
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Benson, Arthur Christopher. "The Art of the Essayist." In Contemporary Essays, edited by Odell Shepard, pp. 14-25. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Discursive reflections on the essayist's role, concluding that "He [the essayist] works … on what is called the analytic method, observing, recording, interpreting, just as things strike him, and letting his fancy play over their beauty and significance; the end of it all being this: that he is deeply concerned with the charm and quality of things, and desires to put it all in the clearest and gentlest light, so that at least he may make others love life a little better, and prepare them for its infinite variety and alike for its joyful and mournful surprises."
Blunden, Edmund. Leigh Hunt's "Examiner" Examined. Cobden Sanderson, 1928, 263 p.
Examines the controversies and persons, including the principal English familiar essayists, who contributed to Hunt's Examiner from 1808 to 1825. Blunden reprints selections by or concerning Hunt, Lamb, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.
Brooks, Charles S. "Lazy Ink-Pots." In his Like Summer's Coud: A Book of Essays, pp. 183-93. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1925.
Exults in the joy of languid meditation and of writing essays on the subjects of one's meditation.
Freeman, John. "The English Essay—Francis...
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