essay, relatively short literary composition in prose, in which a writer discusses a topic, usually restricted in scope, or tries to persuade the reader to accept a particular point of view. Although such classical authors as Theophrastus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch wrote essays, the term essai was first applied to the form in 1580 by Montaigne, one of the greatest essayists of all time, to his pieces on friendship, love, death, and morality. In England the term was inaugurated in 1597 by Francis Bacon, who wrote shrewd meditations on civil and moral wisdom. Montaigne and Bacon, in fact, illustrate the two distinct kinds of essay—the informal and the formal. The informal essay is personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and frequently humorous. Some of the greatest exponents of the informal essay are Jonathan Swift, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and E. B. White. The formal essay is dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. Significant writers of this type include Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, J. H. Newman, Walter Pater, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. In the latter half of the 20th cent. the formal essay has become more diversified in subject and less stately in tone and language, and the sharp division between the two forms has tended to disappear.

See studies by L. Fiedler, ed. (2d ed. 1969), C. Sanders et al. (1970), A. J. Butrym, ed. (1990).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Essays: Selected full-text books and articles

Encyclopedia of the Essay By Tracy Chevalier Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997
Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth By G. Douglas Atkins University of Georgia Press, 2005
FREE! The English Essay and Essayists By Hugh Walker J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1915
The Seventeenth-Century English Essay By Elbert N. S. Thompson; Franklin H. Potter Iowa University, 1926
Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy By Chris Anderson Southern Illinois University Press, 1989
Samuel Johnson and the Essay By Robert D. Spector Greenwood Press, 1997
New & Selected Essays By Denise Levertov New Directions, 1992
Literary and Philosophical Essays By Jean-Paul Sartre; Annette Michelson Criterion Books, 1955
A Many-Windowed House: Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing By Malcolm Cowley; Henry Dan Piper Southern Illinois University Press, 1970
Some Authors: A Collection of Literary Essays 1896-1916 By Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh The Clarendon Press, 1923
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