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Essay, a short work that treats of a topic from an author's personal point of view, often taking into account subjective experiences and personal reflections upon them.
Form and content
Essays are usually brief works in prose, but works in verse are sometimes dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1733-1734) and many voluminous works refer to themselves as essays (e.g. John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)).
Virtually anything may be the subject of an essay. Topics may include actual happenings, issues of human life, morality, ethics, religion and many others. An essay is, by definition, a work of non-fiction, and is often expository.
The essay as literary genre
The word essay derives from the French essai ('attempt'), from the verb essayer, 'to try' or 'to attempt', and the first author to describe his works as essays was French: Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres morales [Moral works] into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued to revise previously published essays as well as composing new ones.
Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Notable essayists are legion. They include Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Bagehot, George Orwell, and E.B. White.
To define the genre of essay is probably impossible, but the following remarks by Aldous Huxley, regarded in his day as a leading practitioner of the genre, may be of interest:
"Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne's Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Comédie Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay's three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. . . . And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers! . . . The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist" (Collected Essays, "Preface").
The essay as pedagogical tool
In recent times, essays have become one of the chief tools by which colleges judge the mastery and comprehension of material, and they are sometimes used as part of process by which the student body is selected as well. Academic essays are usually more formal and present the writer's own views as well as the comprehensive analysis of what has previously been written on a topic.
Many students' first exposure to the genre is the "five paragraph essay": a highly structured form requiring an introduction (concluding with a thesis statement), three body paragraphs, each of which presents a main supporting point, and a conclusion, which restates the thesis and summarizes the supporting points. The form is controversial. It does allow the student writer to put some structure in place, at a stage when the main concern is mastering more "tactical level" issues such as unified paragraphs, transistions, thesis statements, and so forth, but its simplistic structure severly limits the author's range of expression and has given generations of a students a stunted understanding of the richness and flexibility of the essay genre as a whole.
The non-literary essay
In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.
Theodor W. Adorno, The Essay as Form in: Theodor W. Adorno, The Adorno Reader, Blackwell Publishers 2000
- The Age of the Essay by Paul Graham
- Guide on How to Write University Essays, Courseworks, Assignments and Dissertationsby [Verena Veneeva]
- Essay eTexts at Project Gutenberg
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