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essay,relatively short literary composition in prose, in which a writer discusses a topic, usually restricted in scope, or tries to persuade the reader to accept a particular point of view. Although such classical authors as Theophrastus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch wrote essays, the term essai was first applied to the form in 1580 by Montaigne, one of the greatest essayists of all time, to his pieces on friendship, love, death, and morality. In England the term was inaugurated in 1597 by Francis Bacon, who wrote shrewd meditations on civil and moral wisdom. Montaigne and Bacon, in fact, illustrate the two distinct kinds of essay—the informal and the formal. The informal essay is personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and frequently humorous. Some of the greatest exponents of the informal essay are Jonathan Swift, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and E. B. White. The formal essay is dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. Significant writers of this type include Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, J. H. Newman, Walter Pater, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. In the latter half of the 20th cent. the formal essay has become more diversified in subject and less stately in tone and language, and the sharp division between the two forms has tended to disappear.
See studies by L. Fiedler, ed. (2d ed. 1969), C. Sanders et al. (1970), A. J. Butrym, ed. (1990).
a prose work of moderate length and unconstrained style expressing the author’s personal impressions and observations on a specific topic or question, without claiming to be a definitive or exhaustive treatment of the subject.
As a rule the essay proposes a novel and subjective view of something—whether it is an essay in philosophy, history, biography, current affairs, literary criticism, or popular science or whether it is of a purely literary nature. Stylistically, the essay’s distinctive features are its descriptive imagery, its aphoristic quality, and its conversational tone and vocabulary. The essay style has long been used in works where the author’s personality is in the foreground; for example, it was used by Plato, by the followers of Isocrates, and by Origen, Tertullian, Meister Eckhart, and Luther. A genre analogous to the European essay was developed in the East by such writers as Han Yü (eighth to ninth centuries, China) and Kamo Chomei (13th century, Japan).
The essay came into its own as a literary genre with the publication of Montaigne’s Essays (1580). Equally spontaneous and whimsical are the sermons of John Donne, with their paradoxically solemn tone. N. de Malebranche’s meditations and B. Fontenelle’s popular-science discourses are likewise infused with essayistic elements. The first English essayist was the metaphysical poet A. Cowley (1618–67), author of Several Discourses by Way of Essays. The essays of J. Dryden marked the beginning of English literary criticism.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the essay was one of the leading genres in French and English journalism. Important contributions to its development were made by J. Addison, R. Steele, H. Fielding, S. Johnson, Diderot, Voltaire, Lessing, and Herder. The essay was the predominant form used by the romantics—specifically, by Heine, Emerson, and Thoreau—in their polemical writings on philosophy and aesthetics. It was in English literature that the essay sank its deepest roots, as exemplified in the work of T. Carlyle, W. Hazlitt, and M. Arnold in the 19th century and M. Beerbohm, H. Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton in the 20th. In the best of their work, they improvise a covert dialogue with the general reader.
The essay has flourished in the 20th century; prominent prose writers, poets, and philosophers have turned to this genre in order to popularize the achievements of the natural sciences and humanities and to reach various types of readers. Among such writers are R. Rolland, G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells, H. Mann, T. Mann, J. Becher, A. Maurois, and J.-P. Sartre.
The essay is not a characteristic genre of Russian or Soviet literature; nevertheless, examples of essayistic writing can be found in A. S. Pushkin (“A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg”), A. I. Herzen (From the Other Shore), and F. M. Dostoevsky (The Diary of a Writer). In the early 20th century the essay form was employed by V. Ivanov, D. Merezhkovskii, A. Belyi, L. Shestov, and V. Rozanov. Soviet writers who have produced work in this genre include I. Ehrenburg, Iu. Olesha, V. Shklovskii, and K. Paustovskii.
In the 1970’s the most productive branch of essay writing has been that of literary criticism.
REFERENCESWalker, H. The English Essay and Essayists. New Delhi, 1966.
Priestley, J. B. Essayists, Past and Present. London, 1967.
Champigny, R. Pour une Esthétique de l’essai. Paris, 1967.
V. S. MURAVEV