Encyclopedia of the Essay

Encyclopedia of the Essay

Encyclopedia of the Essay

Encyclopedia of the Essay


The Encyclopedia of the Essay is the first reference work entirely devoted to the essay as a genre.

Coverage begins with Montaigne, the first essayist, and stretches forward to Addison and Steele, The Spectator and The Tatler, Marivaux, William Hazlitt, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Robert Musil, Theodor Adorno, Nouvelle Revue francaise, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and across the ocean to Emerson and Thoreau, E.B. White, The New Yorker and Harper's, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion -- while also looking back to classical and medieval precursors.

More than 400 writers from around the world are included, along with geographic surveys that provide an historical framework, entries on types of essays, and entries on important single essays. Entries on closely-related genres such as letters, journals, treatises, sermons and reviews expand and explore the fluid boundaries of the essay as genre.


An encyclopedia of the essay sounds at first like a paradoxical enterprise: how can the essay's elusive multiplicity of forms and themes be contained within the systematic scope of an encyclopedia? The essay is often characterized by its spontaneity, its unpredictability, its very lack of system. Yet precisely these qualities have made it the little noticed (though much practiced) of the literary genres, and hence the most in need of some kind of comprehensive guide. Of course there can be no complete mapping of such a diverse literary form: to define all of its varieties and enumerate all its practitioners would take a much larger volume than this. Nevertheless, the Encyclopedia of the Essay does bring together the essential information for exploring this protean form of writing, and each entry has a section of suggestions for further reading.

The Encyclopedia does not apply a rigid, exclusive definition of what is or is not an essay, nor does it aim at exhaustive cataloguing of every author who has ever written an essay. Rather, it provides several types of entry as ways to access the vast and heterogeneous field of essayistic writing: 1) generic -- considerations of different types of essay (moral essay, travel essay, autobiographical essay, for example) and different adjacent forms (aphorism, chapter, feuilleton, sermon, and so on); 2) national -- entries on the major national traditions (French, British, Japanese, for example); 3) individual -- entries on those writers who have produced a significant body of work in the genre. In addition, there is consideration of 4) the significance of periodicals in creating a market for essay writing, and entries on particularly important journals, along with 5) a few entries on especially significant single essays. Those interested in the theory of the essay are referred to the entries on Lukács, Adorno, and Bense -- curiously, in view of the fact that the European essay first established itself in France and England, the theorists of the genre have come mainly from the Germanic cultural sphere. The four main categories of entry -- formal, national, individual, and periodical -- give four different routes into the territory of essayistic literature.

Despite the huge variety of its forms, there are certain features which recur often enough to give the word "essay" a specific though not rigid meaning. Generally it is used of nonfictional prose texts of between one and about 50 pages, though in some cases book-length works are also called essays. The term also frequently connotes a certain quality of approach to a topic, variously characterized as provisional and exploratory, rather than systematic and definitive. The essay can be contrasted with the academic article, which is usually a contribution to a recognized discipline and to a collaborative inquiry, previous inquiries being taken account of by means of quotations and footnotes. The essay tends to be personal rather than collaborative in its approach . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.