The history of the British essay traces a complex, entwined rise and fall of various emphases. At certain moments, as in the early 19th century, essays celebrate the experiences and personalities of their authors, while at others, as during the Victorian period, the exploration of ideas predominates. At times the essayist’s goal is to entertain or render an aesthetic effect, while at others it is to argue a point, and in still others, as in the case of George Orwell, it is to do both. Essayists take their subject matter variously from minor casual events, from literary performances, from political situations, or from the exploration of timeless truths. The genre shifts in relation to neighboring genres—the treatise, the article, the letter, the character sketch, the short story—and even breaks out occasionally in verse. Nonetheless, the steady trajectory of the genre in the 400 years since its British inception is toward short prose pieces that represent ideas as being formed and shaped not through a formal method, but through the consciousness and experience of writers as they interact with the world.
1. Origins and the 17th Century
Perhaps no other genre in British literature appears to have had so clear a beginning.
When Francis Bacon (1561–1626) published the first edition of his Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall in 1597, he introduced the genre to the Englishs peaking world, some 17 years after Montaigne had done the same for the French. (As early as 1584 James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, had characterized some writings as essays, though these do not match the genre as presently recognized.) Fittingly, the definitional issues that have marked the essay throughout its history were present at its very birth. A few 20th-century critics, including the essayist J.B.Priestley, have gone so far as to argue that Bacon’s works are not essays in the core sense of the genre.
Montaigne’s essays are characterized by an insistent firstperson voice. Whether he discusses his reading, his thoughts, or his experiences, the consciousness that shapes his writing is transparently his own. His essays meander and digress, though always more purposefully than might first appear, and their effect is of a man exploring his world and regularly being surprised at what he discovers in the process. In contrast, Bacon’s essays almost entirely lack personal references. Propositional rather than experiential, they strike modern readers as having a sermonic, rhetorical quality that contrasts sharply with Montaigne’s more casual works, a quality reflected even in their titles: “Of Truth,” “Of Studies,” “Of Death,” and so on. Contributing to this aphoristic effect is the brevity of Bacon’s essays, most of them only a page or so long. Bacon published three editions, in 1597, 1612, and 1625, and each was marked by the addition of more essays and the revision, usually by expansion, of works from earlier editions. However, even the pieces in the 1625 edition remain shorter and less obviously personal than those by Montaigne.
Still, Bacon’s essays enact qualities beyond relative brevity that would, over the centuries, define the genre. Most importantly, they present multiple perspectives on a given topic. The successions of aphorisms that constitute the essays generally take one position, then its almost opposite, before eventually landing somewhere in the middle.
The effect is to represent thought as it occurs rather than to report its results. Later essayists would join Bacon’s exploratory method of thinkingin-progress with more explicit narratives of experience and self.
Two factors promoted the rise of the essay during the early 17th century. As demonstrated by Bacon’s other works, such as The Advancement of Learning (1605), the bases of knowledge were shifting at this time. Previously, knowledge was still founded on the authority of earlier writers and on principles of deduction. Around 1600, however, observation and experiment began to emerge as plausible and desirable. Since observations were a function of observers, the nature, circumstances, and experiences of the writer became an element for consideration, not just disdain.
Second, during the 17th century several new prose forms proliferated. Three types of writings approached the essayistic: aphoristic writings, such as Ben Jonson’s (1572– 1637) Timber, or Discoveries (1641), character sketches, such as those by Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613) and Nicholas Breton (c. 1545/55–c. 1626), and meditative prose, such as Robert Burton’s (1577–1640) Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605–82) Religio Medici (1642, revised 1643), many chapters of which are frequently anthologized as essays and were criticized by some on publication for narrating personal concerns. John Donne’s (1572–1631) Meditations (wr. 1612–15, Pub. 1651), by virtue of their brevity, occasional nature, and reflective quality are directly in the essay tradition.
Though perhaps less grounded in presentations of self than these three, the argumentative philosophical treatises of writers like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) influenced the genre. John Locke’s (1632–1704) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is the most obvious such work, but it is also problematic because its sheer length distinguishes it from essays as usually understood. Locke’s decision to call his work an essay reflects, ultimately, his sense of the method and conditional nature of the work, and it prefigures a later common tendency to speak of “essayistic” qualities of works that themselves are not strictly essays. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the 17th century also witnessed an expansion of various other types of what might be called “utilitarian” prose writing: travels, biographies, diaries and journals, pamphlets, journalism, and letters. The close affinities during this period between the essay and the letter, both characterized by informality, spontaneity, and a measure of egotism on the part of the author, can be noted in the publishing practice of mixing the genres, as in Charles Gildon’s (1665–1724) Miscellaneous Letters and Essays (1694).
Shortly following the publication of Bacon’s essays, Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (1579–1614) published two volumes of Essayes (1600, 1601), in them characterizing the genre in ways that would be repeated through its history: the essay as tentative practice work, “like a Scrivenor trying his pen,” the result being prose that at best is “undigested motions.” Cornwallis’ writings inhabited a territory between Bacon and Montaigne, demonstrating more of the latter’s presentation of self. Even further in this direction were Abraham Cowley’s (1618–67) Several Discourses by Way of Essays, in Verse and Prose (1668), terse pieces each concluding in verse that further challenged the formal definitions of the new genre.
2. The 18th Century: The Essay Transformed by Periodicals
A significant development in the evolution of the essay was the rise of periodical journalism near the beginning of the 18th century. News had been published as early as the 1620s to 1650s; however, by the end of the century periodicals were actively publishing more than accounts of events. The advent of popular periodicals had two important consequences for essays and essayists. First, the regular access to a consistent readership invited essayists to adopt a more familiar, as opposed to formal, style, as if they were corresponding with known readers. Second, the periodical format enhanced the occasional and topical nature of the essay. Not only could writers use current events as points of departure, but the range of appropriate occasions expanded to include personal experiences in the lives of the authors (as in Addison’s “A Visit to Westminster Abbey”) and even fictional ones, as in the Spectator’s Sir Roger de Coverley papers.
Daniel Defoe’s (1660–1731) copious journalistic efforts helped create a space for periodical essays. His works appeared in such short-lived magazines as Mist’s Journal and Applebee’s Journal. In A Review of the Affairs of France (1704–13), most of which he wrote as well as edited, Defoe published opinions on current political topics as well as lighter articles on topics like marriage and gambling. One section of the Review, “Mercure Scandale, or Advice from the Scandalous Club,” provided the germ of the Tatler and Spectator, without a doubt the most important periodicals in the early history of the genre.
Richard Steele (1672–1729) began publishing the Tatler in April 1709 and was quickly joined by Joseph Addison (1672–1719). The Tatler appeared three times a week, and its newspaper-like format invited casual reading in spare moments. As a result its essays were compact and graceful, balancing a need to entertain with its authors’ desires to comment on contemporary life and suggest attitudes and behaviors to a middle-class audience. The original design was to have individual essays emanating from various London coffeehouses and chocolate houses, thereby borrowing from news reportage the veneer of the dispatch but with a lighter spirit, facilitated by the ostensible narrator of the periodical, Sir Isaac Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff’s name was borrowed from Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), who himself wrote occasional pieces for the Tatler, including a famous one on style (no. 230).
The Tatler closed in January 1711 but was succeeded in March of that year by the Spectator, this periodical chiefly Addison’s effort, though both men contributed numerous essays. The Spectator introduced a cast of fictional characters who figured in a number of the pieces and represented different segments of society, for example Sir Roger de Coverley, representative of the gentry, and Will Honeycomb, representative of the town. With this device the essay genre mingled with the tale and short story. By the time the Spectator ceased publication in December 1712, it and the Tatler had published hundreds of essays of various types, ranging from character sketches like “Tom Folio” and “Ned Softly” to more philosophical pieces like “Meditation on Animal Life” (Spectator no. 519) and the frequently jocular narratives of the Spectator Club. The periodicals had also established criticism as an aim of the essay, a tradition that flowered in 19th century periodicals and continued into the 20th century, as is most thoroughly demonstrated by Virginia Woolf’s collection The Common Reader (1925). At the broadest level, the aim of these papers was to explore the individual’s proper relationship to and behavior in a changing public life, one of whose many facets included not only politics but also social gatherings and the arts.
Addison, Steele, and Jonathan Swift wrote for papers that followed the Spectator, most notably the Guardian, the Intelligencer, and the Examiner (1710–16), a forthright political paper that Swift briefly edited. Swift brought to the genre a stance that was frequently polemical, though polemic is often couched in satire, as in his famous “A Modest Proposal” (1729).
Many of Swift’s works appeared as pamphlets or tracts, and others at this time were, of course, publishing essays in venues other than periodicals. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) published Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times in 1711, a volume accompanied by a collection of “Miscellaneous Reflections,” which had more of the light character of Addison’s and Steele’s works. The letters that Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), wrote to his son in the 1740s are frequently anthologized as essays and have something of the flavor of Bacon’s aphoristic style. However, Chesterfield did not intend them for publication and, in fact, wrote frequently for midcentury periodicals like the World.
Henry Fielding’s (1707–54) eminence as a novelist all but occludes his own essay writings, although the introductory chapters to the books of Tom Jones (1749) function as essays, and Fielding additionally wrote for periodicals like the Champion (1739–41) and the CoventGarden Journal (1752).
The greatest periodical essayist of the mid-century was Samuel Johnson (1709–84).
He wrote the Rambler from 1750 to 1752, a twice-weekly magazine that appeared on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The Rambler obviously owed a great deal to the Tatler and Spectator in terms of conception and even variety of essay forms: letters, characters, tales, and so on. But in other respects, Johnson’s essays were of quite a different quality.
In seeking to avoid “mere topicality” for what he perceived as more general moral truths, Johnson reached back to the traditions of both Bacon and Montaigne and “serious” 17thcentury writers like Browne and Jeremy Taylor (1613–67), a tradition perpetuated in the 18th century by essayists like David Hume (1711–76) in works such as Essays Moral and Political (1741–42,). Johnson’s Rambler essays are generally more serious than those of his immediate periodical predecessors. Occasionally they contain autobiographical elements, as in no. 134, “Idleness an Anxious and Miserable State,” but these elements tend to introduce more abstract subject matter rather than to serve as the ongoing basis of the essay. Johnson’s sense of the proper position of the essayist vis-à-vis the work is suggested by his initial decision to conceal the authorship of the Rambler papers, although not long after publication his hand was revealed.
Johnson’s apparent self-distancing is reflected by the fact that some 60 of the approximately 200 essays that he wrote for the Rambler are in the form of letters attributed to correspondents to the magazine. There are letters, for example, in the persona of girls “less than sixteen,” of young bachelors, and of women of “antiquated virginity.” About half of the Rambler papers are straightforward essays dealing with philosophical or moral topics such as religion and superstition, the vanity of stoicism, the sources of disagreement in marriage, and the value of fame. Approximately 15 are short tales or sketches, including a dream allegory set in “the garden of hope.” Some narrative works are “Orientals,” fictions set in the exotic locations of the Middle and Far East, a tradition that had preceded Johnson and was later extended by Oliver Goldsmith. Of the remaining works, some 30 are pieces of literary criticism.
The Rambler was hardly a financial triumph, with most issues selling fewer than 500 copies. But later collections of the essays sold well, broadening their readership and thus establishing their place in the genre’s history. Johnson went on to contribute a series of essays, known collectively as The Idler, to the Universal Chronicle from 1758 to 1760; these pieces were generally lighter in tone, more like works in the Tatler and Spectator.
He also contributed frequently to John Hawkesworth’s (1715–73) Adventurer (1752–54), a periodical notable for its frequent narratives and sketches.
Oliver Goldsmith’s (1730–74) success with the essay as a periodical genre parallels Johnson’s. The Bee (1759) survived for only eight numbers; however, each issue contained several essays, and collectively they demonstrate how far the genre had come.
Most striking is how they mingle the aesthetic with the political and moralistic. Essays like “A City Night Piece” and “A Reverie at the Boar’s Head Tavern in East Cheap” seem to exist as much to create an atmosphere and to entertain as to instruct or deliver a point. Characters like “The Man in Black” and “Beau Tibbs” are marked by a subtlety not found in earlier works, and even ostensibly instructive and persuasive pieces like “National Prejudices” are carefully given a narrative occasion, so that their topics seem to emerge out of naturally occurring events rather than stock commonplaces. Following the demise of the Bee, Goldsmith published a series of essays in the Public Ledger (1760– 61). Collected as The Citizen of the World in 1762, these essays were unified by the conceit of their having been written by a Chinese visitor to England.
Goldsmith’s career as essayist encapsulates a number of essay trends during the 18th century. Beyond the influence of periodicals and periodical publication on the readership, style, and subject matter of the genre, two additional qualities are noteworthy. First, a surprising number of essays, from Swift to Addison and Steele to Johnson to Goldsmith, were attributed to a persona other than the author. Despite Montaigne’s declaration nearly two centuries earlier that he was the subject of his book and despite the earlier publication of essays like Cowley’s “Of Myself” (1668), there remained uncertainty about the propriety and desirability of having one’s own experience explicitly serve as the source and object of presentation and exploration. Second, most of the essays appearing in the prominent periodicals were written by the editors of those periodicals. In a sense, then, the periodicals functioned in much the same way that present-day singleauthor volumes of essays do. While each essay could—and did—stand on its own, it also benefited from its readers’ associating it with a larger sense of the author and his work. In some cases, as with the Spectator Club, the essays even cross-refer to one another, thus forming a whole larger than the individual works. Later writers, like Charles Lamb in his Elia essays, would meld and transform the issues of the essayist’s persona and of the essay in relation to other essays.
3. The Romantic Movement
If ever a literary and intellectual movement were suited to the essay, it was Romanticism.
By emphasizing qualities of emotion, of direct apprehension and interpretation of the natural world beyond social institutions, and, especially, of the centrality of the individual interpreting his or her experience, Romanticism revived and transformed the essay tradition growing out of Montaigne. One hundred seventy-five years later, the American essayist Edward Hoagland would characterize the genre as “existing on a line between ‘what I think’ and ‘what I am’.” The second pole of Hoagland’s formulation is present only by indirection in most essays written before 1800. That would change in the first third of the 19th century.
The Romantic movement is defined through its poetry, and some poets did, in fact, make a substantial contribution as essayists. The works that come most easily to mind are the prefaces of William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792– 1822). Robert Southey (1774–1843), who became Poet Laureate in 1813, wrote reviews for magazines like the Quarterly Review, published aphoristic commonplaces and essayistic observations in Omniana (1812), and wrote more conventional essays of ideas which were collected in the 1832 volume Essays, Moral and Political. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772–1834) reviews, interpretations, and aphorisms were collected in volumes like Aids to Reflection (1825); his weekly periodical the Friend (1809–10) contained essays more general in their occasion, especially those he designated “Landing Places.” Most interesting and problematic as an essayistic work is his Biographia Literaria (1817). Too long to be easily considered a single essay, some of its individual chapters able to stand alone but most of them integrated into the larger whole, the Biographia Literaria nonetheless has a strong essayistic quality, intermixing criticism with philosophy and autobiography. Coleridge’s critique of empiricism and his privileging of the individual mind’s creative powers carved a philosophical pretext for the genre.
But the best and most influential essayists of the period were those writers who worked almost exclusively in prose and almost exclusively in the genre, writers like Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, and De Quincey. Leigh Hunt’s (1784–1859) career exemplifies the broad belletristic role performed by many of his contemporary essayists, who published a mixture of criticism and reviews, familiar essays, and political and occasional writings.
Hunt began as a theater critic before starting, with his brother John in 1808, the Examiner, a weekly political periodical. However, his familiar essays, published in such magazines as the Reflector (1811–12), are most significant in terms of the genre. Works like “Getting up on Cold Mornings” and “A Few Thoughts on Sleep” (both 1820) deal with subjects notable for their plainness and apparent triviality, serving as occasions for Hunt’s sometimes whimsical analysis, as if the game of the essay were to see what could be made of such an apparently unpromising topic. Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig” (1822) also stems from this vein, and the conceit is evident in later essays like G.K.Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk” (1909). Critics have sometimes pointed to extreme tendencies to inflate minor subjects as evidence of shallowness or the pursuit of style for style’s sake.
A more important essayist was William Hazlitt (1778–1830), whose extensive prose output can also be divided into the two broad classes of literary criticism and familiar essays on miscellaneous topics ranging from politics to prizefighting, sometimes with an autobiographical element. In her essay on Hazlitt (1930), Virginia Woolf comments that by both the estimations of his contemporaries and the evidence of his published work, Hazlitt was frequently a hard man and writer to endure. That Woolf was ultimately able to commend his writing, especially in light of such works as “Education of Women” (1815), in which Hazlitt claims that “the writer of this article confesses that he never met with any woman who could reason,” suggests his achievement almost despite himself. In “On Prejudice,” he declares that individuals must “attend to the ‘still, small voice of our own hearts and feelings’ instead of being browbeat by…pedants and sophists,” a Romantic pronouncement that claims not only the right but also the obligation for the essayist’s stance. This viewpoint infused his literary essays, such as those published in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817) and Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819), the latter of which contains “On the Periodical Essayists,” an important discussion of the genre in the 18th century. “On Familiar Style” (1821–22) presents a credo for what many have before and since taken to be a defining characteristic of the essay: a precise conversational style free from pomp and flourish but also free from cant and low language.
Hazlitt’s interpretation of this quality is clearest in his two volumes of Table-Talk; or, Original Essays (1821–22). In these essays he most clearly represents his ideas as products ultimately of his own experience and views. “On the Feelings of Immortality in Youth” (1821) begins with observations of how a general universal “we” only gradually come to perceive our own deaths, but by the middle of the essay Hazlitt reveals his personal stake in the issue, musing that “For my part, I started in life with the French Revolution, and I have lived, alas! to see the end of it.” “On Going a Journey” (1822) articulates a now prominent essay convention, the narrative of a journey or even merely a walk. The writer’s progress through a physical space provides the sufficient occasion to organize the mental space of apparently disparate ideas and topics. When Hazlitt writes, “With change of place we change our ideas; nay our opinions and feelings,” he means in a figurative sense as well as a literal one. Just as the decision to travel sets up a range of possible encounters but does not determine precisely what those encounters will be or any logical connection between them, so the decision to essay does not determine the contents or shape of the ensuing text.
Perhaps the most original essayist of the Romantic period was Charles Lamb (1775– 1834). In some ways, Lamb’s position as a Romantic writer is contradictory since, like Samuel Johnson, he was more a writer of urban life than of nature, and he affected an older style and voice contrasting with the familiar style that Hazlitt favored; Hazlitt admitted that Lamb was the only practitioner of that style he could tolerate. Lamb’s essays are marked by their pervading sense of nostalgia, their nearly excessive selfdeprecation, and most importantly, their central focus on Lamb’s relationship to the world, a relationship usually slightly out of step.
As did many of his essayist contemporaries, Lamb wrote in genres other than the familiar essay, including reviews, poems, plays, and with his sister Mary the successful Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lamb never pursued a solely belletristic career. From 1790 until 1825 he worked as a clerk and accountant, which gave him some artistic distance from the literary world. In 1820, he began publishing essays in London Magazine, which also printed Hazlitt’s Table-Talk and De Quincey’s Opium Eater essays. Collected in 1823 as The Essays of Elia and again in 1833 as The Last Essays of Elia, these pieces quietly long for a vaguely distant past. Elia, a persona Lamb named after a clerk at the South Sea House, portrays a genteel sense of life and business at the Inns of Court in “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” (1821).
In “Old China” (1823), Lamb writes of the nostalgic beauty evoked by old plates, cups, and saucers. In “New Year’s Eve” (1821), he bravely (and unconvincingly) embraces the New Year as an optimistic antidote for an almost paralytic longing for times past; Lamb represents his mind as almost painfully introspective, and confesses: “That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy.” The essayist’s gaze is turned unabashedly inward, topics merely serving as occasions for reflection. Lamb himself recognized the preciousness and self-indulgence this conceit risked. In “A Character of the Late Elia” (1823), a mock literary obituary, he jokes that, “To say truth, it is time he were gone. The humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it, was pretty well exhausted.” The Essays of Elia bring to the genre the quality that Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; Sufferings of Young Werther) brought to the novel. The degree of introspection in essays since then has varied, but its existence in the genre today can be traced from Montaigne through Lamb.
One of his contemporaries, Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855), shared Lamb’s intimate style and tone, though the focus of her works was ostensibly less that of portraying a sensibility than a way of life. In Our Village, five volumes written between 1824 and 1832, Mitford presented a series of essays, sketches, and stories of life in a fictionalized and romanticized rural village. Rendering country life has become a stock trope for the essay genre, showing up for example in Richard Jefferies’ works and Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp (1863), and crossing the Atlantic to manifest itself in works like those of the American essayist E.B.White.
Contrasting sharply with Lamb’s rather staid and self-deprecating style are the essays of Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859). De Quincey himself named his style “impassioned prose,” an apt description for the writing in “The English Mail Coach” (1849), especially a section narrating an accident entitled “Dream-Fugue.” His dramatic flair can be seen in the critical essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), and in his series “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827, 1839, 1854) published in Blackwood’s, both of which use sensational killings to ground contemplations that are nearly decadent in their lack of clear moral pronouncement. Such a quality is hardly surprising from the author of the autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published first in London Magazine (1821–22). In “Suspiria de Profundis” (wr. 1845, pub. 1871) De Quincey presents meditations and autobiographical reminiscences from his childhood, many exploring dreams and the subconscious, in a lyric style that Virginia Woolf would later explore in essays like “Old Mrs. Grey” (1942) or “The Moment” (1947). His brief theoretical distinction between “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power” (the former having as its goal “teaching,” the latter “moving”) has been embraced by later critics and theorists to distinguish essays, as a literature of power, from other nonfiction prose.
Qualities important to the essay in the previous century continued to be manifested during the Romantic period. Maria Edgeworth’s (1768–1849) essays in Practical Education (1798) and elsewhere provided the conceptual underpinnings of her didactic novels and continued the tradition of the essay as a genre for transmitting cultural values.
Periodicals continued to instruct too, though in a manner different from that of the early 18th century. Magazines and journals published creative and topical works. But a shift in emphasis can be seen with the rise of the review. In reviews the occasions of essays and articles were not events, real or imagined, ideas, or issues but rather published works; reviews approached events or ideas through the gateway of others’ writings. The liberal Edinburgh Review (1802–1929), published several of Hazlitt’s essays between 1814 and 1830, as well as works by Carlyle and Macaulay, by the middle of the century introducing essays on topical as well as literary matters. The Quarterly Review (1809– 1967) condemned Hunt, Hazlitt, and Lamb and provided conservative views through the middle of the century on issues of science, religion, and culture. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1817–1980) published creative works as well as reviews, essays, and treatises on political matters. De Quincey wrote occasionally for the magazine during the 1820s, the “Noctes Ambrosianae” series of conversations among a cast of individuals echoing the Spectator Club of more than a century earlier.
4. The Essay of Ideas in the Victorian Age
The character of the essay changed significantly by the middle of the 19th century, as 18th-century and Romantic concerns with developing polite sensibility (and correcting its lack), presenting individual reflection, and celebrating (and critiquing) belles-lettres were eclipsed by advances in science and technology, and their impact on religion, the economy, and education, which commanded essayists’ attention in new ways. Previous writers had dealt with abstract issues, as Bacon’s essays demonstrate and Johnson’s essays frequently suggest. However, by the Victorian age, philosophical ideas and their implications directly occasioned essays rather than emerging obliquely from the exploration of a specific incident or reading. One sign of this development was the relative disappearance of the familiar essay during the middle third of the century, as the genre bent more toward the treatise, history, or article. (More precisely, one might say that familiar essays were still being written, but they have not endured as the canonical works from this period.) Illustrating this shift was the emergence of periodicals like the Spectator in 1828, which featured political articles and “interesting topics of a general nature” (5 July 1828) along with reviews.
Of course, the essayistic self did not disappear completely during this period. Harriet Martineau’s (1802–76) essays frequently employ narrative and anecdotes, her own life circumstances furnishing the impetus for many of them. Her “Letter to the Deaf” (1834) was informed by her own deafness, as was the collection Life in the Sick-Room (1844) by her illness and Letters on Mesmerism (1844) by her treatments. Still, the bulk of Martineau’s work, as with the 14 years of articles written for the Daily News, dealt with current events and issues, including many on women’s rights.
Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (1800–59) numerous essays in the Edinburgh Review (collected as Critical and Historical Essays in 1843) are similarly infused with political concepts, though this was less the cause of their popularity than Macaulay’s manner of expression. Many of the essays existed to explain historical events and ideas, and Macaulay frequently created dramatic scenes to do so. Socrates and Phaedrus, for example, talk on “a fine summer day under the plane-tree, while the fountains warbled at their feet, and the cicadas chirped overhead.” Although the impulse is historical, the mood is essayistic to the extent that Macaulay colors factual material with an aesthestic sensibility, as well as using history to serve the argument, as in the essay “Lord Bacon” (1837), in which the writer is revealed through thought and style, not autobiography.
Thomas Carlyle’s (1795–1881) essays share some of these features with Macaulay’s, particularly his lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843). However, Carlyle is much more the social critic and philosopher. While he began as a literary reviewer and critic for the Edinburgh Review, continuing this work in places like Fraser’s Magazine, essays such as “Signs of the Times” (1829) and “Characteristics” (1831) more clearly signal Carlyle’s turn—and the genre’s. In “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle says that the 19th century should be called “not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age.” Most of his subsequent essays critique the times and call for the spiritualism and strength of individual character and leadership that Carlyle perceived in the past. His tone is often polemical and always assured, and while he writes characteristically in the essayistic first person, as in the late essay Shooting Niagara: And After? (1867), his stance is much less that of “friend” than “lecturer.” The possible exception is Sartor Resartus (1836), part novel, part autobiography (through the persona of Diogenes Teufelsdroech), part philosophy, the mixture of exposition, narrative, and reflection placing the work in the essayistic mode.
John Ruskin (1819–1900) shared Carlyle’s vision of modern times, critiquing them in a spirit that was, if anything, ultimately more fierce. Late in life, in the apocalyptic essay “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884), Ruskin used the occasion of a walk from Abingdon to Oxford to locate his perception, literally and metaphorically, that a “dark” and “malignant” “plague wind” was destroying the age. Whereas Carlyle grounded his ideas in literary criticism and philosophy, Ruskin grounded his in art criticism and theory. Essays in his five-volume Modern Painters (1843–60) comment as much on the social contexts of art as on the works themselves, as for example in “The Two Boyhoods” (vol. 5, 1860). The Stones of Venice (1851–53) is simultaneously history, descriptive travel writing, and cultural theory. Many of Ruskin’s other works, some published in journals like Cornhill Magazine, are more overtly political, such as those collected in The Two Paths (1859) and Unto This Last (1862). Autobiographical moments or scenes appear in several of these essays, unlike those written by most of his contemporary “sages,” though he did write a separate autobiography, Praeterita (1886– 89). Ruskin wrote several of his essays (as letters) for Fors Clavigera, a journal he wrote for the Guild of St. George, thus working in a politicized variant of the single-author periodical tradition last practiced by Johnson and Goldsmith.
John Stuart Mill’s (1806–73) writings were more conventional. He reserved the personal narratives and explicitly self-reflexive materials of his own personal crises for his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1873. Beginning in the 1820s, he wrote review essays in periodicals like the Westminster Review and continued in that mode of publication throughout his life, also publishing pamphlets and monographs. Mill’s essays (in contrast to the Autobiography) argue specific positions, on topics ranging from political economy to women’s issues. Their method is to establish a thoughtful dialectic, in which opposing ideas serve to complicate one another, in an essayistic move that is, however, more purposeful than digressive. The effect on readers is to perceive the essay as driven by inquiry rather than dogma, though Mill’s positions are assuredly evident.
The clearest examples of his method (and most influential works) are Principles of Political Economy (1848) and On Liberty (1859); the five chapters of the latter each constitute an essay exploring the relationship of the individual to the group.
John Henry Newman’s (1801–90) essayistic work bears interesting parallels to Mill’s.
He too saved personal narratives for an autobiography (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1865), and his essays focus squarely on philosophical, educational, religious, and social issues.
Logically, owing to Newman’s status as a clergyman who eventually was made Cardinal, many of his essays had their origins as sermons or lectures, as for example, the Oxford University Sermons (1843) and The Idea of a University (published in various forms in 1852, and 1859 and in standard form in 1873). As a result, the essays have a conversational tone, familiar not in the sense of the author telling intimate details of his life but in the sense of a speaker addressing a present and known audience. Yet their purpose is didactic and persuasive, and they demonstrate the blurred boundaries between the essay and various oratorical genres. Two book-length works, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) might better be considered treatises or, rather, be viewed as essays in the same sense as Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
What Newman was to religious culture Matthew Arnold (1822–88) was to more secular culture, though both writers shared moral, ethical, intellectual, and even spiritual concerns, and even when Arnold took exception to historical religion, as in Literature and Dogma (1873), he did so with respect. Arnold’s essays are philosophical, even academic in character, and can be divided into two broad but interpenetrating categories.
Essays in Criticism (1865, 1888) discusses specific authors but, more importantly for literary studies, articulates theoretical and literary principles, most famously in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), “The Study of Poetry” (1880), and ‘The Literary Influence of Academies” (1864). Of broader purview are his social essays, many published originally in Cornhill Magazine and collected in Culture and Anarchy (1869). These works, later given their now familiar chapter titles such as “Sweetness and Light” and “Hebraism and Hellenism,” seek directly to influence contemporary culture through carefully reasoned analyses of broad issues. His sustained defense of humanistic learning is exemplified by his later essay “Literature and Science” (1885). Arnold felt compelled to write such substantial defenses because it was not only poets, artists, and clergy who wrote essays during the period.
T.H.Huxley’s (1825–95) hundreds of professional and popular essays articulated basic tenets of the new science, most prominently the work of Charles Darwin (1809–82.), who himself wrote popular essays as well as the ground-breaking On the Origin of Species (1859). In the Fortnightly and Westminster Reviews (serving as science columnist for the second), Huxley explored the range from specific topics, as in “On the Physical Basis of Life” (1869), to broader implications of science, as in “Science and Culture” (1881); a corpus of essays was later collected in nine volumes. Huxley is important for establishing the subgenre of essays popularizing and commenting on scientific ideas, practiced in the 20th century by the American writers Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, and Stephen Jay Gould.
Walter Pater’s (1839–94) essays looked back rather than forward, both for subject matter, as in his most celebrated work The Renaissance (1873, 1877), and for style, as he privileged imagination, sensation, and private visions, qualities more characteristic of Romantic prose than Victorian utilitarianism. Pater wrote appreciations of Montaigne, Browne, and Lamb, as well as a volume of Imaginary Portraits (1887).
Leslie Stephen’s (1832–1904) career included numerous studies of earlier writers, as can be seen in Hours in a Library (1874–79) and Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902.). However, his first essays are narratives of hiking and mountain climbing (The Playground of Europe, 1871), befitting someone who edited the Alpine Journal. Other essays deal with issues of modern life and proper conduct in an age “after” religion, for instance in An Agnostic’s Apology (1893).
Although the genre from the 1830s to the 1880s is most characteristically defined by the essay of ideas, not all its practitioners were political or moral philosophers or scholars.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63), for example, represented that venerable tradition of novelists who include the essay among their palette of genres. Thackeray began as a journalist, writing characters, satires, sketches, and articles, many with a satiric and burlesque quality, which were collected in Comic Tales and Sketches (1841). He reinvigorated the tradition of the character in The Book of Snobs (1848), which first appeared in Punch, where he published extensively. His primary contributions to the genre, though, are the Roundabout Papers (1863), originally published in Cornhill Magazine, of which he was the first editor.
Other prominent Victorian writers also wrote essays.
Charles Dickens (1812–70) began his career writing descriptive sketches and essays of places and characters, primarily in London, collected as Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People (1836). The scenic quality and narrative sense of these essays convey the social criticism that Dickens featured in his novels and that more explicitly formed the subject of later essays like “Wapping Workhouse” (1860). As founder of Household Words, he published dozens of short pieces on various subjects, including rather plain aspects of contemporary life.
George Eliot (1819–80) published numerous reviews in Westminster Review, the Leader, and elsewhere, works that, though occasioned as literary criticism, enabled her essayistically to expand to broader topics, as in “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft” (1855). Late in life she published a relatively experimental work, a series of fictional/ essayistic sketches, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879).
In addition to her novels, Margaret Oliphant (1828–97) published essays in a number of periodicals, especially Blackwood’s, where she was a prolific literary reviewer for nearly the last half of the century, often focusing on groups of authors or works rather than single works.
Poet and novelist William Morris’ (1834–96) essays, written between 1877 and 1896, articulated the relationship he saw between politics, art, and society, echoing Ruskin’s sentiments and, to some extent, style. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) wrote literary criticism, reviews, and more political works, including “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), in the tradition of Arnold. Most famous are his clever essays in the form of dialogues, “The Decay of Lying” (1889) and ‘The Critic as Artist” (1890), which invert typical relationships, putting art over life, and criticism over creation.
5. Century’s End and Beyond and the Return of the Familiar Essay
In 1863, Alexander Smith (1830?–67) published Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, which marks the return and evolution of a familiar essay spirit that had waned during the middle third of the century. The essays in this slim book celebrate life on a rural estate and, more importantly, the perspective of Smith himself. Overtly narrative and autobiographical in their content, they demonstrate the qualities Smith describes in “On the Writing of Essays,” in which he distinguishes between the “serious and stately” tradition out of Bacon and the “garrulous and communicative” tradition out of Montaigne. Smith notes that “The essayist plays with his subject, now in whimsical, now in grave, now in melancholy mood… His main gift is an eye to discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the most unpromising texts.” Plain country life is one such text, but Smith’s essays are hardly trivial. “A Lark’s Flight,” for example, deals with issues of capital punishment, but his method is primarily narrative.
He recounts watching the hanging of two prisoners and how, at a pivotal moment, a lark flies off singing, the poignancy of the event indicating to him the horror of such occasions. (George Orwell’s “A Hanging”  would later use a happy dog to similar effect.) These essays are grounded not in abstract ideas or books but in direct experience.
Richard Jefferies (1848–87) shared both Smith’s topical matter and his stance, representing the countryside to a largely urban audience. Like Smith, he centers much of his work in place (as in Round About a Great Estate, 1880) and relishes close descriptions of scenes from nature.
More famous than either Smith or Jefferies is Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94), whose essays in Virginibus Puerisque (1881), Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), and Memories and Portraits (1887) recall the style of Lamb and Hazlitt. In several of his essays, such as “An Apology for Idlers” (1877), Stevenson writes successions of aphoristic pronouncements in a vein growing out of Bacon; in others, such as “A College Magazine” (1887), he narrates his own experiences. The interaction of these poles in the bulk of his work distinguishes the familiar essay at the end of the century from the critical and philosophical works of writers like Arnold and Mill. Ruskin’s essays have some of this quality but with the dramatic difference that Ruskin had a sharp political edge and little of the drawing room sentimentality that some have found in Stevenson.
The end and turn of the century thus saw the rise of an essay genre which contrasted strongly with the intellectual essay: the familiar essay as leisure reading and entertainment, an essay less serious in either form or intention. Max Beerbohm’s (1872– 1956) essays are perhaps the highest achievement in this manner, and though he published essays well into the 1920s, he is most often associated with the turn of the century. Partly this is because of Beerbohm’s own themes and persona as a man out of step with his times, as much older than his years. In “Diminuendo” (1896), written when he was 24, he describes himself (Elia-like) as already outmoded, and this gentle selfdeprecating presentation characterizes most of his essays. Beginning as a writer for the Yellow Book and the Strand, Beerbohm published numerous collections, including the satirically titled Works of Max Beerbohm, with a Bibliography (1896), More (1899), Yet Again (1909), and And Even Now (1920), the very titles suggesting the playful enterprise that he and his readers enjoyed. The quality can be seen in a piece like “Going out for a Walk,” which begins with “It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk. I have been taken out for walks; but that is another matter,” signaling in tone, topic, and stance the easy personal tone and relationship his readers had come to expect.
Beerbohm’s contemporary, Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), shares elements of both his ethos and his sense of the essay as entertainment, as can be seen through the titles of his own volumes, including On Nothing and Kindred Subjects (1908), On Everything (1909), On Anything (1910), On Something (1910), and four others in a similar vein. Belloc writes on places and landscapes and on past authors (thus appreciations rather than reviews), as well as on “minor” occasional topics, such as “The Crooked Streets” (1912), in which a whole quality of life is invoked by the way a town deploys its roads. In “An Essay upon Essays upon Essays” (1951), he spoofs the already common subgenre.
A third contemporary and a friend of Belloc, G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936), similarly used a casual, even light tone in his diverse essays on familiar topics. A voluminous writer, of novels and detective stories as well as nonfiction, recalling in many respects Hazlitt in his critical as well as familiar essays and in his journalistic interests (including cofounding and editing the periodical Eye Witness in 1911), Chesterton filled a belletristic role common since Addison, Johnson, and the Romantics. Virginia Woolf would fill this role, too, but in a manner more distinctly modern. Chesterton’s many essay volumes, including The Defendant (1901), All Things Considered (1908), Alarms and Discursions (1910), A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays (1911), and All I Survey (1933) demonstrate through their diversity of subject matter and confidence of narrative voice a quality essential to the essay: the claim of a right to explore and explain a position on any topic, simply by virtue of being a careful and sensitive observer.
The revitalization of the familiar essay hardly came at the expense of critical works.
Henry James’ (1843–1916) discussions of various writers in Partial Portraits (1888) exemplify his extensive critical writings, which include those essays he wrote as critical prefaces to his own novels. However, James also wrote numerous travel essays, primarily for American magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, and the North American Review. Collected in such volumes as Transatlantic Sketches (1875) and Portraits of Places (1883), these essays reveal subtle changes in periodicals as distant travel becomes more possible (or at least imaginable), and magazines extend their editorial borders to new places.
James, of course, belongs to that growing tradition throughout the 19th century of writers best known in one literary genre but who wrote essays “on the side.” Not only novelists like James or poets like Arnold but also dramatists like George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) are customarily acknowledged secondarily (if at all) as essayists. This common idea of the essay as a genre supplemental to one’s “real work” perhaps originates with Montaigne’s modesty, and it may have resulted in essays being excluded from serious study throughout much of their history. That writers like Beerbohm, Belloc, and Chesterton could be known primarily as essayists is a new development in many ways and, in others, a rebirth of the early 18th century.
6. The 20th Century
The essay during the 20th century continues along many of the trajectories traced during the previous period, though the contributions of Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, the genre’s leading figures, challenge the boundaries of the personal, the political, and the aesthetic. The tradition of the critical essay and biographical essay was prominently extended by Lytton Strachey (1880–1932.), who began publishing in the Spectator and continued in places like the Athenaeum and the Edinburgh Review; he most notably published Eminent Victorians (1918) and Portraits in Miniature and Other Essays (1931).
T.S.Eliot (1888–1965), like Arnold and other prominent poet-essayists before him, published numerous literary critical works, many of them, like “The Function of Criticism” (1923) and “Essay on Style and Order” (1928), articulating broad perspectives about literary matters rather than reviews or appreciations of individual authors. Most famous among these works is “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). Eliot published essays about social and educational issues too, but his literary essays best define him. They are noteworthy today for the utter confidence of his voice and an authoritative stance that contrasts with the more carefully couched and qualified views of most critics and essayists since then.
Fellow poet W.H. Auden (1907–73) also published numerous essays from the 1930s to the 1960s, many of them also works of criticism. However, his pieces demonstrated a somewhat broader range of topics, including analyses of art tempered by views of science.
John Eglinton’s (1868–1961) critical essays (especially those collected in Two Essays on the Remnant  and Pebbles from a Brook ) use criticism to the additional ends of nationalistic advocacy. As a theorist of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Eglinton wrote about Yeats, Joyce, George Moore, and others, for a mostly intellectual as opposed to popular audience. In his later Irish Literary Portraits (1935), he tempers the critical essay of ideas with elements of memoir. W.B.Yeats (1865–1939) himself wrote numerous critical essays and prefaces, including some, like “Magic” (1901), that intricately weave autobiographical, critical, and reflective elements.
D.H.Lawrence (1885–1930) continued the tradition of the novelist-essayist. Like James (but reversing him in part by writing from America rather than England), Lawrence published many travel essays collected in four books, including Twilight in Italy (1916) and Mornings in Mexico (1927). His travel writings are a mix of narrative and reflection, intended to render for a general readership a sense of the primitive or strange. Lawrence’s literary criticism similarly tours foreign writers, as in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), but the critical work frequently expands beyond the boundaries of “the literary” per se into broader areas of social criticism. Similarly, his novels, like those of his Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, contain occasional essayistic passages.
However, by far the most important novelist-essayist—in fact, the most important English essayist of the first half of the century—was Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Like her predecessors, Woolf published in overtly literary forums such as the Times Literary Supplement and the Criterion, but she also published in more popular magazines like Vogue, the Atlantic Monthly, and even Time and Tide. In doing so, she followed a path blazed by Alice Meynell (1847–1922), who wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette as well as the Spectator. Like Woolf after her, Meynell wrote extensively about literary and language subjects (as for example in the collection The Second Person Singular and Other Essays, 1921), but she also wrote about place (London Impressions, 1898) and domestic and other issues, most notably the lives of children (The Children, 1897; Childhood, 1913).
Woolf’s publishing outlets demonstrate a quality to which she aspired in even her TLS pieces, namely the suitability of her writings for a “common reader”—as, in fact, two of her volumes were titled (The Common Reader, 1925; The Second Common Reader, 1932). At a time when the world of literary criticism was increasingly shrinking to the province of professionals, Woolf represents the reassertion of the essay’s position as a more democratic genre in which the distance between writer and reader is minimized rather than exaggerated. Obviously, Woolf’s common reader is not Everyman or Everywoman. Especially her writings about literature assume a fairly high level of reading, background knowledge, and literary interest. But her style is anything but that of the pedant or sage, enacting her own belief that “the principle which controls it [the essay] is simply that it should give pleasure; the desire which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive pleasure” (“The Modern Essay,” 1922). In so privileging the aesthetic over the didactic, Woolf reverses the assumptions of the Victorian sage essayists. Writers like Beerbohm aspired to this, too, but Woolf is striking because she employs the principle in her criticism as well as her experiential essays.
Among her critical works are several about essayists, including Montaigne, Addison, Goldsmith, Hazlitt, Ruskin, and her own father Leslie Stephen, this last in a curiously distanced tone that scarcely calls attention to his being her father. But more important are her occasional and autobiographical works, especially those collected in The Death of the Moth (1942), The Moment (1947), and The Captain’s Death Bed (1950), all published after her death. “The Death of the Moth” (1942) and “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940) demonstrates Woolf’s ability to use the narrative of events ranging from the trivial to the dramatic as the occasion for meditation and speculation. “Street Haunting” (1927), “Flying over London” (1950), and “To Spain” (1923) evoke places and times in a lyric mode that reaches its zenith in essays like “The Moment: Summer’s Night” (1947) and “Old Mrs. Grey” (1942), in which the essay verges on the prose poem, a static yet dynamic object rich in metaphor, simultaneously drawing a picture of the world and of the author’s consciousness. However, Woolf’s essays were impelled by political as well as belletristic concerns. “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” calls for an end to war. “Professions for Women” (1931) and “Women and Fiction” (1929) are now classic articulations of problems that women have faced in trying to move beyond a narrow domestic sphere.
Woolf’s novelist contemporary E.M.Forster (1879–1970) inhabited much of the essayist space that she helped to establish. Forster turned to essays in the 1920s after he had tired of novels, and his works meld autobiography, literary criticism, and contemporary social issues. Those collected in Abinger Harvest (1936) and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951) are particularly noteworthy in the way they balance the political issues of the day, especially the rise of European fascism, with personal perspectives; in an essay like “My Wood” (1926), for example, Forster’s owning a piece of land gives rise to broader considerations about the effect of possession.
During the 1940s, Cyril Connolly (1903–74) published essays that more overtly merged politics and literary/cultural criticism in his left-wing periodical Horizon. Connolly’s earlier volume Enemies of Promise (1938) blended personal memories with views of earlier writers, and four books of essays published between 1945 and 1973 feature literary and art criticism.
The most artful political essayist of the 20th century is George Orwell (1903–50), whose “Why I Write” (1946) provides a key to his aesthetic. Orwell claims that circumstances of a given age direct writers, and the circumstances of his age— colonialism, fascism, poverty, and war—compel his writing to a political purpose, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism. Orwell pursues this purpose sometimes in essays that are explicitly argumentative, such as “Politics and the English Language” (1946) or “Antisemitism in Britain” (1945). But his real contribution to the genre are those essays that embed political arguments in personal narratives with fictional qualities. For example, “A Hanging” (1931) consists entirely of an objective account of a prisoner’s execution, the narrator commenting only briefly on events that otherwise are left to speak for themselves. “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) contains realizations about imperialism in a dramatic story of Orwell’s having to kill a rogue elephant.
“Marrakech” (1939) relies on the juxtaposition of several closely described themes to convey an argument about how colonialists treat those they colonize—and the consequences. “How the Poor Die” (wr. 1946, pub. 1950) is a close narrative of Orwell’s stay in a Paris hospital for the impoverished. Orwell’s essays combine journalism, fictional techniques (if not fiction itself, as some critics have speculated certain events never happened), and autobiography to develop a new form that, nonetheless, is still essayistic in articulating ideas and the mind of its author.
Rebecca West (1892–1983) followed her early political essays on the women’s movement, in Freewoman and the Clarion, with journalistic and essayistic analyses of World War II and its political and social implications. West published widely in American magazines like Harper’s and the New Yorker, and her essays are collected in a few volumes, including The Strange Necessity (1928) and The Meaning of Treason (1947).
As one might assume, the political events of the first half of the 20th century directly and indirectly affected essay writing, topically, tonally, and formally. However, not every essayist was overtly political. Herbert Read (1893–1968) critiqued modern industrial culture and World War II, even publishing collections like The Politics of the Unpolitical (1943); however, he complemented this work with a vast amount of literary criticism in a neo-Romantic vein, as with In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays (1936), and he additionally published autobiographical pieces.
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) wrote numerous travel essays (as, for example, in Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist  and Essays New and Old [192,6]), but his most important works are those in which he explores the conditions of modern culture by considering developments in science and technology, philosophy, and art, as in Proper Studies (1927) and Ends and Means (1937). A good example of Huxley’s stance is “Tragedy and the Whole Truth” (1931), which explores the nature of truth in science versus the nature of truth in literature. The grandson of T.H.Huxley, he wrote for a similarly broad, popular audience in a voice that is simultaneously familiar and didactic.
C.S.Lewis (1898–1963) employs—to quite different intellectual ends—the same voice. As a Christian apologist whose autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955) recalls in purpose, at least, those of Mill and Newman, Lewis seeks to defend theological principles in an age of skepticism; important collections are The Case for Christianity (1943), Mere Christianity (1952), and The Four Loves (1960).
Other essayists throughout the century have embraced the familiar voice minus the overt didacticism. Prominent among them is J.B.Priestley (1894–1984), whose numerous essays cover a wide range of topics and are frequently occasioned by his own experience, as in “On Doing Nothing” and “Money for Nothing.” His collections include Papers from Lilliput (1921), I for One (1923), Open House: A Book of Essays (1927), Thoughts in the Wilderness (1957), and Outcries and Asides (1974). In the introduction to his edited collection Essayists Past and Present (1925), Priestley rejects “all the philosophers and historians and scientists masquerading as essayists,” using De Quincey’s distinction to label such works as belonging merely to the “literature of knowledge.” Thus Macaulay and most of the Victorian essayists are denied the status of true essayists; the debate over the definition of the genre as critical versus creative work continues.
The works of more contemporary writers continue to raise these issues.
V.S.Pritchett’s (1900–97) literary criticism over the past 60 years imagines Woolf’s common reader, and other writings enact the travel tradition. Kenneth Tynan (1927–80) accompanied criticism with longer essays on theater and film and the people, places, and events associated with them, most notably in profile essays that appeared originally in the New Yorker and are collected in Show People (1980).
Graham Greene (1901–91) similarly published numerous movie reviews in the 1930s but also memoirs, characters, criticism, and even travel pieces, several of them gathered in Collected Essays (1969).
The Irish writer Hubert Butler (1900–91) wove together strands of the personal, the political, and the literary in a familiar voice recalling Orwell’s, in essays collected in volumes such as Escape from the Anthill (1985) and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone (1990).
It would be reductive to assert that in the 400 years of its history, the British and Irish essay has developed along simple, unidirectional lines. The essay in every age has wandered between various apparently polar qualities: the formal versus the informal, the critical versus the creative, the argumentative versus the meditative, the aesthetic versus the didactic, expert knowledge versus lay knowledge. Every period has generated both essays whose central occasion is the presentation of ideas or arguments and essays whose central occasion is the presentation of writers’ experiences or perspectives.
Probably the truest general point that can be made about the development of the essay is that it has emerged as a lasting genre, significant in its own right. Periodical publication played a complex role in this transition. At the dawn of the genre, published in collections as books by writers like Montaigne, Bacon, and Cowley, the essay had at least the trappings of permanence and significance enjoyed by other genres. On the one hand, periodical publication in the 18th century as well as today constructs essays as transitory, occasional works, often supplemental to other literary and philosophical texts.
Yet, on the other hand, periodical publication both expands a reading audience and has given many writers the constant forum needed to establish their reputations as essayists.
The circle is completed when periodically published essays are collected into book volumes, a practice occurring with Samuel Johnson and even before—and certainly since. Most such collections are unified not by subject matter but by their authors’ experiences, personalities, and particular ways of seeing the world. While many British and Irish authors have been known as essayists only secondarily in relation to their work as novelists, poets, or dramatists, it is also true that many authors are known primarily as essayists. The sense of the genre has evolved to accommodate such a status. As knowledge has become more specialized and culture more fragmented (or, rather, as the fragments that have always existed become more apparent), the essayist increasingly figures the consoling ability—and right—of individuals to make sense of things, in a genre that consistently acts out the limits and conditional nature of that sense.
A Century of English Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys and Lloyd Vaughan, London: Dent, and New York: Dutton, 1929 (original edition, 1913)
A Century of the Essay, British and American, edited by David Daiches, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951
The Hutchinson Book of Essays, edited by Frank Delaney, London: Hutchinson, 1990
The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by John Gross, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
Dobrée, Bonamy, English Essayists, London: Collins, 1946
Good, Graham, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988
Pebworth, Ted-Larry, “‘Real English Evidence’: Stoicism and the English Essay Tradition,” PMLA 87 (1972):101–02
Pebworth, Ted-Larry, “Not Being, but Passing: Defining the Early English Essay,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 10, no. 2 (1977):17–27
Stapleton, Laurence, The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973
Thompson, Elbert N.S., The Seventeenth-Century English Essay, New York: Haskell House, 1967 (original edition, 1926)
Walker, Hugh, The English Essay and Essayist, London: Dent, and New York: Dutton, 1915
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