The familiar essayist has commonly been characterized as curious—in constant search for the significance of the mundane. His or her subjects “spring naturally from the affairs of everyday life.” Familiar essays themselves have traditionally been highly informal in tone, often humorous, valuing lightness of touch above all else. They have been filled with intimate personal observations and reflections, and have emphasized the concrete and tangible, the sensual enjoyment of everyday pleasures. Usually brief, familiar essays have long affected a feeling of careless spontaneity so strong that perhaps no other type of essay is as dependent for its success and popularity on its ability to “present a personality.”
Montaigne, who wrote “I confess myself in public,” produced essays considered familiar. The first popular familiar essayists, however, appeared in the 18th century, especially in Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Spectator (1711–12; 1714) and Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60). Besides their casual tone, these essays were “familiar” because they induced the reader to join the author at a double level. Addison’s essays in the Spectator, as well as most Eighteenth-century essays, are concerned, explicitly and implicitly, with belonging, with membership; the reader is constantly encouraged to recognize kinship, to distinguish himself from one group and ally himself with another. Eighteenth-century familiarity inevitably drew readers into the rhetoric of the essay and induced them to participate in an alliance with the author in a way that essays before that century almost never did.
However, it was in the 19th century—a period of material well-being in England, when there was a leisure class who enjoyed literature, when an education was received by many among the masses—that the familiar essay fully came into its own. The familiar essayist, as Sister Mary Eleanore wrote (1923), “is a veritable Jaques upon a mossy bank, who, while he watches the world go jostling its way down the river of life, extracts from its seemingly confused and meaningless tumbling bits of loving wisdom and quaint chuckles of fun …” He soothes the pains of the world’s tired travel, and does so through his ability to be whimsical, grave, melancholy, through his love of living and sense of humor over “those ridiculous and pathetic incongruities which are such a necessary part of life.”
The familiar essay reached its zenith with Charles Lamb. Though living a melancholy and often tragic life, Lamb created in his essays a narrator “in love with this green earth,” one who hid wisdom under playfulness. His Essays of Elia (1823, 1828) includes autobiographical pieces such as “A Chapter on Ears” and “Imperfect Sympathies” (in which he is quick to admit to his prejudices), and humorous or farcical ones such as “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” and “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist.”
William Hazlitt stands as the other major familiar essayist of early 19th-century England, though his persona was much harsher and crankier than Lamb’s Elia. Hazlitt looked to the exotic, in such essays as “The Indian Jugglers” (1821) and to the contradictory, in such essays as “On the Ignorance of the Learned” (1821) and “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826). His “On Familiar Style” (1821) is an argument for how precisely and purely a familiar essayist must write.
Contemporary with Lamb and Hazlitt was Leigh Hunt, who chose such common subjects as “Getting Up on Cold Mornings” (1820) and “A Few Thoughts on Sleep” (1820). The second half of the 19th century saw English essayists continue in this vein, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (“A Plea for Gas Lamps,” 1878; “An Apology for Idlers,” 1877),G. K.Chesterton (“A Defence of Nonsense,” 1911; “A Piece of Chalk,” 1909), and E.V.Lucas (“Concerning Clothes,” 1897). In the United States, the tradition was less strong but was still practiced by writers such as Samuel McChord Crothers.
Toward the end of the 19th century, familiar essays often came to be written for their own sake, rather than for the sake of the subject; there was a shift from matter to manner.
Augustine Birrell wrote good-humored and whimsical musings which were popular enough to give rise to a new literary term, “birrelling.” So many essayists “birrelled” their way through that era—and were held up as models in the schoolroom that their work helped to give the essay a bad name. Hilaire Belloc, a prolific familiar essayist, poked fun at these tendencies in the titles to his collections: On Nothing, On Everything, On Anything, On Something (1908–11), and On (1923).
Still, as late as 1922, the familiar essay had its host of practitioners, most notably the immensely popular Max Beerbohm and the prolific J.B.Priestley. It had, too, its fierce defenders, such as the critic F.R.Schelling, who wrote in “The Familiar Essay” (in Appraisements and Asperities, 1922) “He who loves the essay—especially the familiar
essay, as it is called—and letters, is the aristocrat, the Brahmin among readers, because he, among all others, has the taste of the connoisseur for delicate flavor, for fragrance, for aroma…” But World War I brought out another view. As Agnes Repplier—one of the most important familiar essayists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—wrote in “The American Essay in War Time” (1918), “To write essays in these flaming years, one must have a greater power of detachment than had Montaigne or Lamb.”
The familiar essay, to review 20th-century commentary on it, was dying a slow death from World War I up through at least 1955, when Clifton Fadiman declared its “digressive and noncommitting” method nearly impossible to practice in “an age of anxiety.” He noted exceptions—E.B.White, Bernard De Voto, John Mason Brown—but said they were simply “exerting their delaying action [on] the eclipse of the familiar essay.” The completely “light” familiar essay has been severely marginalized in the last few decades of the 20th century—reserved for newspaper columnists like Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, as well as for many pieces in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section.
The traditional lightness of the familiar essay, however, has been complemented by a new sense of political awareness. E. B.White helped bring about this evolution, by writing not only primarily autobiographical essays such as “Death of a Pig” (1947), but others in which he intertwined his personal stories with calls for one-world government or arguments against racial segregation. The feminist movement of the 1970s produced writers such as Nora Ephron, a humorist who, in essays such as “A Few Words About Breasts” (1972) and “Vaginal Politics” (1972), took the very personal and commonplace and presented them in the contexts of public issues. Other recent essayists who have imbued this formerly “dainty” form with commitment and thereby helped regenerate its popularity include Scott Russell Sanders, Martin Amis, and Fran Lebowitz. Nowadays the familiar essay is often seen as a form particularly well suited to modern rhetorical
purposes, able to reach an otherwise suspicious or uninterested audience through personal discourse, which reunites the appeals of ethos (the force and charm of the writer’s character) and pathos (the emotional engagement of the reader) with the intellectual appeal of logos.
See also Personal Essay
A Book of English Essays, edited by W.E.Williams, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948
The English Familiar Essay: Representative Texts, edited by William Frank Bryan and R.S.Crane, Boston: Ginn, 1916
Familiar Essays, edited by Stuart Robertson, New York: Prentice Hall, 1930
Familiar Essays of Today, edited by Benjamin A.Heydrick, New York: Scribner, 1930
Modern Familiar Essays, edited by William M.Tanner, Boston: Little Brown, 1927
The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by John Gross, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
Thought and Form in the Essay: Expository—Familiar—Argumentative, edited by De Calvus W.Simonson and Edwin R. Coulson, New York: Harper, 1933
Broadhead, Glenn J., The Rhetoric of Conversation: Essays on Eighteenth-Century
English Criticism of “Familiar Discourse” (dissertation), Davis: University of California, 1973
Drew, Elizabeth, “The Lost Art of the Essay,” Saturday Review of Literature, 16 February 1935
Eleanore, Sister Mary, The Literary Essay in English, Boston: Ginn, 1923
Enright, Nancy, “William Hazlitt and His ‘Familiar Style’,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J.Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Fadiman, Clifton, “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” in his Party of One, Cleveland: World, 1955
Gross, John, Introduction to The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by Gross, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
Hansche, Maude Bingham, The Formative Period of English Familiar Letter-Writers and Their Contribution to the English Essay (dissertation), Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1902
Haskell, Dale E., The Rhetoric of the Familiar Essay: E.B.White and Personal Discourse (dissertation), Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1983
Law, Marie Hamilton, The English Familiar Essay in the Early Nineteenth Century, New York: Russell and Russell, 1965
Repplier, Agnes, “The American Essay in War Time,” Yale Review 7, no. 2 (1918):249– 59
Watson, Melvin R., Magazine Serials and the Essay Tradition, 1746–1820, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956
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