We commonly think of the essay as inferior to drama, fiction, or poetry. True, traditional anthologies of American and English literature put a "great" author's essays with his poems, as with Dryden or Eliot, or, if he is known only for his essays, like Lamb, with the poems of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, we likely consider the shorter non-fiction prose of poets or fictionists as afterthoughts, and the main work of essayists as feuilletons, stray leaves.
But even if our taste tends more toward Keats and Austen than toward Hazlitt and De Quincey, we can comfortably agree that the latter pair are not in altogether inappropriate company. Still, professors infrequently encourage their introductory classes to read Poe's and Lawrence's essays, say, some of which are as worthy and revealing of their authors and times as the stories and poems. We take gravely Wordsworth's and Coleridge's prose on the nature of poetry but plainly out of reverence for the poetry.
By thus depreciating the essay, we risk shrinking our sense of a writer's work. When we slight the essays of John Updike in favor of his fiction, for example, we lessen his stature, I submit, since the fiction does not range as widely in tone and thought and is not as consistent in quality. Astute critics have pejoratively described Mary McCarthy's short stories and novels as "essayistic," which should be an insight to the particular nature of her fiction rather than a downgrading of it. Updike and McCarthy, like John O'Hara and Cynthia Ozick, all masters of fiction, make it clear through their essayistic, critical prose that an alert, knowledgeable, deliberate intelligence underpins their art.
Most students and teachers of literature, and writers themselves, favor the imagined, the invented, over the reportorial, philosophical, descriptive, argumentative, analytical, anecdotal, autobiographical, ruminative. John Milton spoke of using his left hand for his prose. We know what James Joyce may have thought about the comparative power of drama, epic, and lyric, an obvious subject for an essay, not because of an essay but because of Stephen Dedalus's rambling remarks in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dryden wrote his famous "essay on dramatic poesy" as an extended dialogue among four gentlemen hanging out. Pope shaped his "essays" on man and on style as poems. Major essayists themselves, like Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag, eagerly pursued, and pursue, reputations as novelists.
Creative writing programs take it for granted that their main task is to teach the making of poems, stories, novels, plays, not essays, not even as dialogue or verse or interpolations in fiction. When departments of English reward non-scholarly, unfootnoted publication, they discount essays and other non-fiction prose.
Yet the essay has as long, as continuous, as distinguished a history as the other genres. We read Cicero's essays in the original along with the poems of Virgil, Horace, and Catullus; Aristotle and Plato with Homer; Bacon's essays with the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. We read Dryden's prose as attentively as we do his poems and plays, as it is likely his contemporaries did, and we read Johnson's and Swift's prose often with more edification than we derive from Johnson's poetry and drama or from Swift's poetry. Some read Eliot's essays more appreciatively than his poetry.
With the origins of modern journalism in the 18th century and the emergence of journals of opinion in the early 19th, literate readers have responded as seriously to the essay as to the other genres. In the heart of the 19th century, Carlyle, Mill, Huxley, Newman, and Arnold the essayist loomed as large for literate audiences as Trollope, Meredith, Browning, Tennyson, Arnold the poet, George Eliot, and, perhaps more arguably, Dickens. In the first decades of the 20th, Beerbohm and Shaw realized early recognition as essayists.
In the 20th, in …