The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Critical Essays

The Essay-Sketch Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The second grand tradition dominating short prose works in the year 1800 was that of the essay, especially the periodical essay or sketch. One can trace full-fledged tales back to the evolution of language, but the essay or sketch can hardly have existed before the creation of a fairly sophisticated system of writing. In one form or another essays must have existed from the time the first writer attempted (the word “essay” comes from the French word meaning to try or to attempt) to capture in prose thoughts or feelings about some subject; alternately, the sketch must have begun when the writer attempted to characterize or to describe some subject in prose.

Most historians of Western literature recognize as the first great writer of sketches the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who, around 319 b.c.e., composed a book called Charactres ethiki (The Moral Characters of Theophrastus, 1616; best known as Characters); the work was composed of several short prose pieces, each representing some basic character or personality type. Theophrastus’s sketches had a tremendous influence on later writers of sketches, especially those in the seventeenth century: Joseph Hall, John Earle, Sir Thomas Overbury, and Jean de La Bruyère. These writers in turn influenced Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who in The Tatlerand The Spectator developed a number of more or less typical characters; the most important was Sir Roger de Coverley, a good-natured provincial squire with whom the...

(The entire section is 635 words.)