The Modern Essay Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.