history of the essay
history of the essay
Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is vital. This is the first chance you have to impress – or depress – an examiner, and first impressions are often decisive. You might therefore try to write an eye-catching first sentence. (‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a climax,’ counselled the film-maker Cecil B. De Mille.) More important is that you demonstrate your understanding of the question set. Here you give your carefully thought out definitions of the key terms, and here you establish the relevant time-frame and issues – in other words, the parameters of the question. Also, you divide the overall question into more manageable sub-divisions, or smaller questions, on each of which you will subsequently write a paragraph. You formulate an argument, or perhaps voice alternative lines of argument, that you will substantiate later in the essay. Hence the first paragraph – or perhaps you might spread this opening section over two paragraphs – is the key to a good essay.
First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay? Probably no two people will completely agree, if only for the very good reason that quality is in the eye – and reflects the intellectual state – of the reader. What follows, therefore, skips philosophical issues and instead offers practical advice on how to write an essay that will get top marks.
Under the terms of this contract, the essayist presents experience as it actually occurred — as it occurred, that is, in the version by the essayist. The narrator of an essay, the editor George Dillon says, “attempts to convince the reader that its model of experience of the world is valid.”
True, the writings of several well-known essayists (William Hazlitt and Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, after the fashion of Montaigne) can be recognized by the casual nature of their explorations — or “ramblings.” But that’s not to say that anything goes. Each of these essayists follows certain organizing principles of his own.
History of the Essay . Tracing the definitive history of the essay is not an easy task. But for the purposes of this article, the context in which the history of the essay is treated is essay as a literary form. The word “essay” is derived from the French word essayer which, in turn, is culled from exagium or, more accurately, exagere — a Latin word which means “to weigh” or “to sift”. It is often held that Michel de Montaigne is the father of the essay as it was he who arguably introduced the style of using a very personal voice in writing. That was in 16th century — about 400 years back from today. Before and during Montaigne’s lifetime, literary works and almost every published writing are governed by very formal approaches. The conversational approach was an alien concept to writing during those days. It is in Essais , a two-volume book published in 1580-1588, where Montaigne first used the word and applied that approach in a published work. It was, in the context of the history of the essay, a pioneering feat.
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Such are the oft-discussed formal properties of the essay. And yet the poetics of the essay may not at first glance seem obvious. Georg Lukács wrote that the essay was and was not an art form, that it was and was not the soul of criticism.19 This kind of paradoxical language is typical of efforts to theorize a genre that seems so immune to theory. For Lukács, as for Adorno, the 16 essay’s indeterminate state is one of its greatest strengths, because it allows the genre to accomplish its subversive ends. According to formalists such as the New Critics, however, that indeterminacy disqualifies the essay as a literary form. Being neither poetic nor fictive, the language of the essay was in their view not unique or special. It was, in fact, ordinary because its subject matter was quotidian. There is some truth to that notion. The essay does not usually speak in poetic or overtly literary terms (although there is nothing that prevents the essayist from doing so).
Orwell’s narrators often find themselves in forbidding scenes that test their capacity to be subjects. What engages us most about their predicaments is the clarity of their self-agonizing awareness, which is grounded in their tenacious attempt to make sense of ill-defined realities. “A story always sounds clear enough at a distance,” says the narrator in “Shooting,” “but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.” If for Montaigne the writerly self was incoherent, for the twentieth-century essayist it was the scene of modernity that had become indecipherable.
A more intelligent use of this list of sentence functions than using it as a template would be to use it as a checklist. Has each of these things been done in this essay? On this page? In this paragraph? If one of them is missing, is that a problem or does it work regardless? After all, no rule should be followed so strictly it gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. More often than not, however, the absence will weaken the point being made.
Students are often disappointed by the mark they receive for their History essay. Not always. Sometimes they get a grade above what they were expecting – underestimating the nuance of their own work. Equally, poor marks are not always a surprise. Disinterest, poor time management and stress can all lead to rushed assignments that students entirely expect to receive a lower mark. However, there is unfortunately nothing rare in an essay coming back with a poor mark that comes as a real shock.