The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Essay: A nonfiction composition that usually explores a single theme or topic. While essays may range from less than a single page to novel length, most are relatively brief. Most are also written in prose, but a few have been composed in verse, such as Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” (1711) and “An Essay on Man” (1733). The form developed in classical times, but the term itself derives from the French essai (meaning “attempt”), first applied by the French writer Michel de Montaigne to his 1580 collection of informal compositions. Montaigne’s use of the term essai was meant to reflect the uncertain and inquiring quality of his ruminations. The term entered English in 1597, when philosopher Francis Bacon applied it to the first edition of his famous work Essays. Its etymology reminds us that essayists make no claim to an exhaustive and technical examination of a subject, seeking instead to record their thoughts and ruminations for a general audience.

Essays are often classified as argumentative, descriptive, expository, or narrative, although the categories overlap. They may also be categorized as formal or informal. Formal essays, which are designed to declaim and instruct, are characterized by an impersonal, analytical examination of their subject matter and a dignified or solemn tone. Informal essays tend to be shorter, lighter, funnier, and more conversational than their formal counterparts and to make greater use of anecdotes and aphorisms.

Until the eighteenth century, most essays were published as collections in books. The development of the periodical in the early eighteenth century, however, made essay writing a more prevalent and popular form. It also had a standardizing effect, particularly on the informal essay, elevating the role of humor and restricting maximum length. In the nineteenth century, the formal essay was chiefly found in a handful of important literary magazines, and the personal essay, a type of informal essay stressing autobiographical content and often written in an urbane and intimate manner, emerged. The proliferation of periodicals — whether literary or popular, from the eighteenth-century Tatler to the present day New Yorker — has kept the essay in the forefront of literary genres.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Ralph Waldo Emerson, a formal essayist, is generally considered the dean of American essayists; Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is perhaps the best-known formal American essay. Noted exponents of the personal essay include three nineteenth-century Englishmen: Thomas De Quincey, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb.

Notable twentieth-century collections of formal essays by American essayists include James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955); Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966); and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1967). Journalist Calvin Trillin has published several collections of informal essays drawn from columns written for The Nation and Time, including Uncivil Liberties (1982) and Too Soon to Tell (1995). Humorist David Sedaris is a well-known personal essayist, with collections ranging from Barrel Fever (1994) to Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013).

Noted twenty-first-century essay collections include David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster (2005), John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (2011), Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably (2011), Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things (2016), and Annie Dillard’s The Abundance: Narrative Essays New and Old (2016). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists (2014) is a book-length essay adapted from her eponymously named 2012 TEDx talk.