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The essay emerged in the late sixteenth century as a work of prose nonfiction about any topic. In general, essays are more accessible to a wide audience than some other forms of composition, such as a dissertation. Essayists rely on the heavy use of quotations to back up an argument, and their writing style tends to be relaxed and opinionated. This form of literature remains popular today.
There are two types of essays: formal and informal. One of the earliest essayists was Michel de Montaigne, a French lawyer and writer. Montaigne’s works were informal, and they were shorter and more personal than the scholarly writings, or “treatises,” of his time. To set his writing apart from these treatises, Montaigne called his works essais, which is the French term for “trial” or “attempt.”
Two publications that contained the earliest informal essays were The Spectator, which was published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and The Tatler. Both of these were daily periodicals and contained speculations on daily urban life, literature, economics, and culture.
While Montaigne’s essays were considered informal, another sixteenth-century essayist, Sir Francis Bacon, used a more formal, objective approach. Bacon’s works were closer to treatises. His essays were arguments for specific principles and were supported by facts and quotations. These concise statements that summarized his arguments are called aphorisms and became Bacon’s trademark. One such Bacon aphorism is the famous saying, “Knowledge is power.”
Eighteenth-century writers Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson were also formal essayists. Johnson published a series of periodical essays—the closest modern equivalent to a newspaper column—called The Rambler. These were published twice a week from 1750 to 1752. He later wrote or contributed to two more series of essays, The Idler and The Adventurer. Johnson is one of the most quoted writers in history.
Writers who contributed formal essays to nineteenth-century literary history are Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas De Quincey, Matthew Arnold, and John Stuart Mill. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the personal-essay form continued to evolve through the works of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Max Beerbohm, G. K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell.
While the formal essay has not changed much since Sir Francis Bacon, the personal essay style continues to evolve; the introduction of the Internet and electronic media are the main catalysts for this change.
The eText of The Rambler, sections 1–54 (1750); from The
Works of Samuel Johnson, in Sixteen Volumes, Volume I. Read the entire
texts of sections 1–54 of Samuel Johnson’s essays published in The
The Spectator and The Tatler. Search complete volumes of
The Spectator, the daily periodical published in the early nineteenth
century by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and The Tatler, another
daily periodical of that period.
Sir Francis Bacon: The Essays. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986. Sir Francis Bacon’s essays on topics ranging from state policy, personal conduct, and the appreciation of nature.
The Virginia Woolf Reader. New York: Harcourt, 1984. Several of Woolf’s essays, including “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “Jane Austen,” “A Letter to a Young Poet,” and “Professions for Women.”
Montaigne: The Essays: A Selection. New York, Penguin Classics, 1994. A selection of essays from Michel de Montaigne, the French lawyer and writer who coined the term “essay” from the French essais.
Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator. New York: Penguin, 1977. Contains selections from both periodicals.
The Essays of Francis Bacon
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