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).