The topical essay is generally one written in response to a newsworthy event, and hence has within it the ephemerality of daily journalism. What distinguishes it from regular journalism is often its attention to prose style, and just as often its search for wisdom within the facts of the event being written about. Often the news event is the pretext for the essay rather than the true or ultimate topic of engagement.
The term “topical essay” is not commonly used. More often, essays of this type have been termed “periodical essays” or, since the 1960s, “literary journalism.” Newspaper and magazine columns frequently fall into this category as well. No matter the name, though, the 20th century has seen a surge of essays written in response to world events well outside the writers’ lives. With the coming of World War I, the formerly popular and dominant familiar essay came under attack as too genteel, too irresponsible, too lacking in the insight and wisdom that a contemporary readership craved and even needed to help it make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Agnes Repplier, in her 1918 essay “The American Essay in Wartime,” argued that the “leisure and reflection” that had long been key to the personality of the essay was no longer justifiable. “To write essays in these flaming years,” she claimed, “one must have a greater power of detachment than had
Montaigne or Lamb.” Yet, the roots of the topical essay are in the 18th century, in English newspapers which routinely combined current news with sharp political commentary. In the early 1700s, there were upwards of 18 newspapers being published in London– including Daniel Defoe’s A Review of the Affairs of France (1704–13), which combined news, political moderation, wit, and social comment, and helped mold the audience for the more famous series of topical essays in Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Tatler (1709–11) and Spectator (1711–12, 1714). Steele referred to himself and Addison as “weekly Historians,” and their essays won broad acclaim for their vivid depictions of the social life of the period. They were criticized as being trivial (by Jonathan Swift, for example), but both men, seeking to bring “philosophy out of the Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges,” believed that to sell their papers they had to base their “lucubrations” on areas of current interest. Many critics today, however, argue that the political, social, and religious topics in Addison and Steele’s essays are outdated only in matters of style, and that the insights offered in them pushed them well beyond the limited life of ephemeral journalism. Numerous imitations sprang up after Addison and Steele, including, most famously, Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60).
In the 19th century Ivan Turgenev’s “Kazn’ Tropmana” (1870; “The Execution of Tropmann”) was a forerunner of literary journalism; the writer implicated himself in the barbarity as a semi-willing voyeur of the public guillotining. (George Orwell made the same sort of portrayal in “A Hanging”  and “Shooting an Elephant” —both essays intended to criticize British imperialism.) Other 19thcentury literary journalists include Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. In the 20th century the form became defined by pieces such as Ernest Hemingway’s reporting on bullfighting, Joseph Mitchell’s portraits of characters from the Bowery and the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan, A.J.Liebling’s essays on boxing, and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Many of these writers chose as their subjects what may have seemed at the time common and ordinary—not at all topical. Yet their essays often captured the feel of their times in ways that more autobiographical or Personal essays rarely did. Much of John Steinbeck’s writing in the late 1930s, for instance, was devoted to reports on the Dust Bowl migrants, which would “break the story hard enough so that food and drugs can get moving…” His literary journalism was a tool for his advocacy.
When the New Journalism became popular in the early 19605 (the term “New Journalism” later gave way to “literary journalism”), it was led by profiles for the commercial magazines. Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1962), perhaps one of the most durable of those pieces, illustrates how a reporter uses scenes and dialogue and evocative description to teach readers not only about the essay’s nominal subject— Sinatra—but also, in this case, about the world of entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as about the uses and abuses of charisma, money, and power. Talese, like many other New Journalists of that decade, wrote in the third person, in order to signify that, though his presence is on every page, he is not the subject of his essay. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), which tells of an antiwar march on the Pentagon in 1967, focuses on the nominal event in a larger cultural context as “a paradigm of the twentieth century.” Mailer, who took part in the protest, makes his own character dominant, as a way of arguing that the historian/topical essayist must become a novelist who invents the meaning of the event in an act of self-definition.
The dreamlike nature of American reality in the 1960s also led Hunter S.Thompson, in reports such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), to describe a culture in which the real has become saturated with the fantastic, a culture in which the American Dream has become the hedonistic pursuit of “the now.” Joan Didion described her 1968 volume of reportage, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, as a confrontation with the “evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart,” and as an attempt “to come to terms with
[the] disorder” of the 1960s in America and, more specifically, in California. Many such writers—Didion, Mailer, Thompson, Tom Wolfe—have continued to be essayists with their fingers on the topical, as in Didion’s After Henry: Sentimental Journeys (1992), written in response to the rape and murder of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park and the subsequent media coverage.
Topical essayists are often by necessity travel essayists, with the writer going in search of the story. Hence poet and journalist James Fenton put himself in Saigon (“The Fall of Saigon,” 1985); foreign correspondent John Simpson wrote from China (“Tiananmen Square,” 1989); Didion traveled to El Salvador and brought back a harrowing account of the troubles occurring there (Salvador, 1983).
It has also often been the ambition of newspaper columnists to be topical essayists— writers who can address current events factually but in a way that captures the essay’s traditional depth of reflection and personality. Perhaps all columnists can trace their roots and influences back to Addision and Steele. In America, writers such as Benjamin Franklin contributed to this tradition—Franklin, for instance, with his columns written under the pen name Silence Dogood. Thomas Paine gave the discordant American colonies a unifying voice, filling Pennsylvania Magazine with topical pieces in which his radical temper was evident in his attacks on imperial misrule. Eightyfive essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, originating as columns in New York newspapers and coming to be called The Federalist, defended the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787–88; perhaps no more influential collection of newspaper articles has appeared. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist weekly the Liberator, was one of the best-known columnists arguing the antislavery cause in the 1830s to 1860s. In a more social vein, Fanny Fern, the first female American columnist, wrote satirical columns on literary, political, and social issues.
In 20th-century America, H.L.Mencken, who often commented upon current social and political issues, led the way as an influential topical essayist. E.B.White had great popularity with his “One Man’s Meat” column in Harper’s magazine—a column in which he often responded to war reports from Europe. Walter Lippmann, who described writing columns as “a puzzled man making notes…drawing sketches in the sand, which the sea will wash away,” worked within that ephemerality to become one of the most influential columnists. More recently, columnists who have the required feeling for facts and technical agility, but who have also imbued their writings with enough essayistic qualities to give them greater permanence than the usual run of daily journalism, include Russell Baker, Molly Ivins, Ellen Goodman, and Anna Quindlen.
The Best of Granta Reportage, London: Granta/Penguin, and New York: Viking Penguin, 1994
Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction, edited by Norman Sims, New York: Ballantine, 1995
Pundits, Poets, and Wits: An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columnists, edited by Karl E.Meyer, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
[See also Further Reading in the entry on New Journalism]
Sims, Norman, The Literary Journalists, New York: Ballantine, 1984
Sims, Norman, editor, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
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