Contemporary English Literature

By Mark Longaker; Edwin C. Bolles | Go to book overview
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OTHER PROSE 1890-1950

IN VICTORIAN hands the essay had become almost exclusively formal and didactic. Between Leigh Hunt and Stevenson only Thackeray and Alexander Smith kept alive the tradition of the familiar essay. But when in the eighties and nineties a lighter type of literary periodical began to supplant the ponderous reviews there was a brisk revival of the informal essay in all its varieties: familiar, satiric, apprecitive, and picturesque. The field of the essay then became once more, as it had been in the seventeenth century, a literary Everyman's Land which all might, and did invade at will. Thus the twentieth century, rich in general prose writers, has comparatively few essayists in the strict sense of that classification, and has seen a general relaxation of the formal distinctions of the various types of the essay.

Essay writing in the eighteen-nineties was marked by the estheticism and preciousness of style that permeated the entire "Decadence" and that were derived chiefly from Pater Renaissance. The arts of pagan Greece or neopagan Italy interpreted with exquisite discernment inspired a great deal of work that was polished and charming but too fragile for survival. Above the general level of beautiful triviality rose Oscar Wilde Intentions ( 1891), Maurice Hewlett's Earthwork Out of Tuscany ( 1895), the early essays of W. B. Yeats, and those of Lionel Johnson, collected in Post Liminium ( 1912). Above all rose Max Beerbohm, a young Oxonian brilliantly impudent in The Yellow Book, affecting to be passé in 1895, and delicately reminding the public

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