The Modern Essay
The Modern Essay
Michel de Montaigne is considered by most commentators to be the first essayist, introducing the form in 1580 when he published Essais, a collection of brief, informal prose pieces. Montaigne's title, which means "attempts," suggested the searching, sometimes rambling nature of his prose, which, although stylistically polished, was intended to present the author's discursive thought process as he investigated a variety of topics. Most of the characteristics that remain intrinsic to the modern essay derive from Montaigne's example: subjective point of view, informal tone, unstructured form, brevity, and an accomplished prose style. The essay has traditionally been a forum for writers to investigate and present their opinions, concerns, and interests from a personal point of view using a variety of forms, including letters, reviews, criticism, memoirs, nature and travel writing, philosophical and ethical meditations, and newspaper and magazine columns. The modern essay had its early exemplars in writers such as Virginia Woolf, J. B. Priestley, and A. C. Benson who, in 1932, asserted that "the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality." The varied and informal nature of the essay has led to much debate during the last century as to whether the form can justifiably stand as a distinct literary genre. In 1910, Georg Lukacs vigorously defended the essay as a unique and creative form of literature in the introduction to his Soul and Form. The last half of the twentieth century has seen a return of the personal element in the modern essay, with the emergence of New Journalists such as Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe, authors whose writing moves beyond reportage to provide personal perspectives and interpretations of issues and events.
Notes of a Native Son 1955
The Fire Next Time 1963
And Even Now 1920
A Peep into the Past, and Other Prose Pieces 1972
On Nothing and Kindred Subjects 1908
On Everything 1910
One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays 1955
Of All Things 1921
No Poems, or, Around the World Backwards and Sideways 1932
Benson, A. C.
The Upton Letters, by T B. 1905
From a College Window 1906
Beside Still Waters 1907
The Long-Legged House 1969
The Hidden Wound 1970
Chesterton, G. K.
Twelve Types 1902
Come to Think of It… 1930
The Common Man 1950
Slouching towards Bethlehem 1968
The White Album 1979
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 1974
Teaching a Stone to Talk 1982
The Annie Dillard Reader 1994
Eliot, T. S.
The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism 1920
The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England 1933
Lawrence, D. H.
Phoenix II 1968
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Mary E. Rucker
SOURCE: "The Literary Essay and the Modern Temper," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 317-35.
[In the following essay, Rucker outlines the evolution of the modern essay.]
Although a generic definition is conspicuously absent in the large body of periodical literature devoted to the essay between 1880 and 1950, many American and British journalists and essayists debated its viability and its capacity to express the modern sensibility. The issue underlying the debate was, ultimately, the function of art in an era of dramatic social change. The seemingly blithe humanism that allowed the essay to reach its apogee in the early nineteenth century was rapidly undermined by the deterministic sciences and by the colossal growth of technology and industry. Each of these developments tended either to deny or to undercut the validity of spiritual realities and the imaginative constructs predicated upon them. Not idealism but rather pragmatism and empiricism, systems of thought that focus upon the immediate, progressive, and existentially vital, became the focal point of politics, education, philosophy, and eventually the fine arts.
Granted that the bulk of the criticism of the essay was written by non-academicians whose concepts of the subject matter and style of the form were varied, this criticism nevertheless reveals...
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The Essay In The Early Twentieth Century
Arthur Christopher Benson
SOURCE: "The Art of the Essayist," in Types and Times in the Essay, edited by Warner Taylor, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932, pp. 3-12.
[Benson was an English educator and author. Although he was a prolific poet, novelist, and biographer, he is best known for such volumes of essays as The Upton Letters (190S), From a College Window (1906), and Beside Still Waters (1907). In the following essay, Benson offers an overview of the characteristics of the essay form.]
There is a pleasant story of an itinerant sign-painter who in going his rounds came to a village inn upon whose signboard he had had his eye for some months and had watched with increasing hope and delight its rapid progress to blurred and faded dimness. To his horror he found a brand-new varnished sign. He surveyed it with disgust, and said to the inn-keeper, who stood nervously by hoping for a professional compliment, "This looks as if someone had been doing it himself."
That sentence holds within it the key to the whole mystery of essay-writing. An essay is a thing which someone does himself, and the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality. It must concern itself with something "jolly," as the schoolboy says, something smelt, heard, seen, perceived, invented, thought; but the essential thing...
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Characteristics Of The Modern Essay
Scott Russell Sanders
SOURCE: "The Singular First Person," in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J. Butrym, The University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 31-42.
[Sanders is an American educator, fiction writer, and essayist. In the following essay, he discusses the personal nature of the essay form.]
The first soapbox orator I ever saw was haranguing a crowd beside the Greyhound station in Providence about the evils of fluoridated water. What the man stood on was actually an upturned milk crate, all the genuine soapboxes presumably having been snapped up by antique dealers. He wore an orange plaid sports coat and a matching bow tie and held aloft a bottle filled with mossy green liquid. I have forgotten the details of his spiel except his warning that fluoride was an invention of the Communists designed to weaken our bones and thereby make us pushovers for a Red invasion. What amazed me, as a tongue-tied kid of seventeen newly arrived in the city from the boondocks, was not his message but his courage in delivering it to a mob of strangers. It would have been easier for me to jump straight over the Greyhound station than to stand there on that milk crate and utter my thoughts.
To this day, when I read or when I compose one of those curious monologues we call the personal essay, I often recall that soapbox orator. Nobody had asked him for...
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SOURCE: "The Odor of Durability," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 146-52.
[Brown is an American poet and critic. In the following review, he commends the essays of E. B. White and John McPhee.]
Two of our foremost essayists have appeared almost simultaneously in retrospective volumes. E. B. White's selection from his own essays [Essays of E. B. White, 1977], is a companion to his collected letters published in 1976, and an anthology from John McPhee's dozen books [The John McPhee Reader, 1977], has been edited with great understanding and taste by William L. Howarth.
White describes himself alternately as essayist and as journalist. McPhee clearly considers himself a journalist. White being intensely personal and McPhee apparently impersonal, they have little in common but excellence and the same employer—the New Yorker, whose pages they have enriched and influenced. White's influence and enrichment, of course, are the greater; he is older by a generation.
White's position in the essay, indeed, is that of the schooner America off the Isle of Wight. "Who is second?" asks Queen Victoria. "Madam, there is no second." White has been our preeminent essayist so long that many would say there is no other. If you want to know what the modern informal essay is, you must read One...
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The Essay As A Literary Genre
SOURCE: "On the Nature and Form of the Essay: A Letter to Leo Popper," in Soul and Form, translated by Anna Bostock, Merlin Press, 1974, pp. 1-18.
[A Hungarian literary critic and philosopher, Lukdcs is acknowledged as one of the leading proponents of Marxist theory. His development of Marxist ideology was part of a broader system of thought which sought to further the values of rationalism (peace and progress), humanism (Socialist politics), and traditionalism (Realist literature) over the counter-values of irrationalism (war), totalitarianism (reactionary politics), and modernism (post-Realist literature). In major works such as Studies in European Realism (1950) and The Historical Novel (1955), Lukdcs explicated his belief that art is wasteful and harmful if not made consonant with history and human needs. The following letter, originally published in Hungarian in 1910, appeared as the introduction to a collection of Lukdcs' essays titled Soul and Form.]
The essays intended for inclusion in this book lie before me and I ask myself whether one is entitled to publish such works—whether such works can give rise to a new unity, a book. For the point at issue for us now is not what these essays can offer as "studies in literary history", but whether there is something in them that makes them a new literary form of...
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Johnson, Burges. Essaying the Essay. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1927, 317 p.
Collection intended to assist in teaching essay writing through a selection of exemplary essays. Samples of such early modern essayists as G. K. Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, and Christopher Morley are included.
Kazin, Alfred. The Open Form: Essays for Our Time, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961.
Collection of modern essays that demonstrates the variety of forms that the modern essay takes and the types of sources in which it can be found, such as biographies, collections of personal writing, popular magazines, and scholarly joumals.
Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1994, 777 p.
Collection covering the tradition of the personal essay including a wide selection of unabridged essays.
Boetcher Joeres, Ruth-Ellen, and Mittman, Elizabeth, eds. The Politics of the Essay. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, 230 p.
Collection of essays by radical feminist writers, activists, and political progressives, covering such topics as form, tone, and purpose in women's essays.
Butrym, Alexander J., ed. Essays on...
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