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The Familiar Essay

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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.

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