What is an essay? Based on the current consensus of dictionary definitions and my own ongoing literary experiences, I would feel comfortable defining an essay as an analytical, interpretative, or occassionally informal literary composition, usually of a concise length though sometimes longer, which engages in a given topic often for the purpose of advancing an author’s thesis or point of view to her or his audience. Essays can be formal, informal, satirical, even poetic. Literature’s evolution has enabled the essay to accommodate the demands of the ages and assume the broadest or narrowest of subjects. Despite its past and present success, the essay is still one of the most underestimated, under-celebrated modes of human expression. Plainly put, our appreciation of the essay is not, this author believes, where it could or should be.
The essay sprouted from the simple needs of advancing ideas. Like any plant it grew taller and many branches, and the essay is a tree today in the forest of literature, one with strong, deep roots in the history of human expression. Many among us take solace in its shade or nurture it through writing and reading essays. It is of such enduring fiber that the essay will subsist indefinitely. Yet, with such a rich and vibrant forest of plants and creatures, the essay often blends into the background–partly due to its natural adaption to the environment of texts and critics across history, partly due to the sheer number of texts in existence today, and partly due to a lack of capable discernment on our part as students of literature. Our need to understand the essay is only exceeded by the form’s own need to defy set definitions.
... and imagery), without their repudiation of classicist regulations of literature, without their minute attenнtion to the individual and particular, ... easily traced to French influence, and it never assumed the stature and the originality it had in France. This is ... bourgeois as in Dombey and Son and in the partly autobiographical David Copperfield. Dickens’s greatest masterpieces, ...
Aside from all the scholastics that have dominated the essay form, there has still yet to arise a universal essay model that can at once typify the form for literary taxonomy and provide a clear example to future students as to what constitutes an essay. This is, I suggest, by genetic design and is a major reason why essays have out-survived countless other literary forms. It is this organic sense of composition and mutative capability that allows the essay form to survive another generation. In fact, while no two critics will agree as to the specific characteristics of the “ideal essay,” this is (to the literary taxonomist’s dismay) a very good thing indeed, as it allows the essay to retain its creative and personable attributes which form its essence.
For better or worse, our reality of essays stems mainly from early scholastic experiences, where as students we engaged the form having read first some excerpts of classic essays. Then teachers spoke of thesis statements, topic sentences, “funnels,” flow, and so forth. After that unit lesson we were asked to compose essays, which were often returned with red-inked sentences, words circled, teacher’s comments swarming in the margins. The process was to have taught us how to formulate ideas, present them in a logical manner, and terminate upon some gratifying conclusion that neatly wrapped everything up with calming closure. The majority of essays may in fact do this, sometimes without our knowing, but none of them follow the same format, even those written by the same author; the subjects engaged disallow it: Each essay must attune itself its subject and the tone with which the author wishes to present it. The phrase sui generis is aptly applied to the essay, as are the adjectives organic and free-form.
As a literary form, the essay enjoyed immense popularity and practice over the last few centuries. Its earliest proponents, including Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon, helped establish the essay as an enduring and endearing literary form. Conceived as an easy, expeditious means of disseminating facts and opinions representing the author’s perspective on virtually any given subject, the essay proved to be a prime medium among philosophers, critics, and writers alike. In the essay, one could deliver a metaphysical treatise or make people laugh. When expertly handled, the essay awakens the mind to undreamt possibilities, while in the wrong hands, it could unduly confuse or completely bore.
... The book unabashedly charts the author's struggle to find a way to write about what he saw in a ... important part of the fiction to follow. The author was going around and around in circles trying to ... So it goes" seems to come directly from the author and from the world outside the fiction of the ... proceed to read of Billy Pilgrim's life. The author also irrevocably creates himself as a character in the ...
There are many intricate and subtle aspects to the fine art of essay composition. Some example elements include
Delivering your topic with language suitable for the subject and the anticipated audience
Defining and advancing your thesis
Retaining a focus throughout the otherwise free text, avoiding seductive tangents
Supporting opinions and hypotheticals with concrete examples
Recognizing when you have sufficiently made your point
Concluding conclusively, leaving readers with a sense some progress has been made
Like free verse, the essay structure is formless until words give it substance and establish their own unique form. The above points considered, there are multiple pitfalls awaiting the leisurely essayist, who may be inclined to wander a bit further than the essay calls, doing so to the detriment of the text and ultimately the reader. So while it can be said anyone can write an essay, just as anyone can write a poem, there is a definite art about it, which is, nevertheless, anything but definite.
Over time, the form, length, purpose and style of the essay evolved, and today, when we utter the word, we do so with no single literary form in mind. Yet we essentially know what an essay is, why it exists, and why it is still regarded as a key element of written expression in contemporary literature. Essays may be formal or informal, highly erudite, rhetorically rich, or incredibly irreverent and satirical. With such varied practitioners as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Locke, and Mark Twain, the essay was destined for profundity, creativity and flexibility. Many authors have lent their voices to the form, continuing to do so through the present. It is less of a literary device today and more of a journalistic vehicle for ideas. Moreover, it is largely an occasional form with no considerable crowd of publicly recognizable devotees. In this regard, the art of the essay has declined dramatically in modern writing, and that is most unfortunate.
... second; and yet each, in a particular point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole. (Stephenson) ... have showed and illustrated via example that this form of writing can have a positive influence on beliefs, value ... of writers has no monopoly of literary merit. There is a sense in which Addison is superior to ... Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero is better than Tacitus ...
A prime motive for establishing this Internet site was to garner greater public awareness of the essay’s role and capability in literary history, possibly to inspire prospective authors to engage the form. And while the practice of essays may, in fact, be “alive and well” in contemporary writing, there is a sense that some of the art of the form has been lost to some degree. Perhaps it is because the only reason we, as contemporary writers and readers, overwhelmingly engage in essays merely to fulfill some scholastic or employment requirement. Perhaps the sense of essay writing has been resigned by key contemporaries solely to academia, invoking in its stead the infinitely more accessible journalistic format prevalent throughout popular publications today. The essay will survive on its own–certainly, as it is permanently ingrained in literary history–but to grow it requires active and creative practitioners and proponents. In rediscovering the lost art of essay writing we will reclaim one of the freshest, most revealing and investigative modes of human expression.