origin of essay
origin of essay
“One damned thing after another” is how Aldous Huxley described the essay: “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”
In the broadest sense, the term “essay” can refer to just about any short piece of nonfiction — an editorial, feature story, critical study, even an excerpt from a book. However, literary definitions of a genre are usually a bit fussier.
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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.
While the history of the essay as a literary form may be conceived as starting off with Bacon, it did not take long enough for it to grow. In Essaying the Essay (1970), Burges Johnson maintains that the distinguished Sir Francis Bacon “borrowed this word essay from Montaigne, turn[ed] it into English and use[d] it as a title for some short prose experiments of his own” (p. 52), such as his Essays: Or Counsels, Civil and Moral (1597). It only took two decades at most for Montaigne’s Essais to be followed by another seminal work. More importantly, it was Bacon who made the essay “a definite form” which was soon seized by many other writers who saw it as a “release from a traditional formality” (p. 52). From then on, the essay has become one of the — if not the — widely used literary form.
The former editor of History Review Robert Pearce gives his personal view.
Or if you are asked to explain the successes of a particular individual, again avoid writing the first thing that comes into your head. Think about possible successes. In so doing, you will automatically be presented with the problem of defining ‘success’. What does it really mean? Is it the achievement of one’s aims? Is it objective (a matter of fact) or subjective (a matter of opinion)? Do we have to consider short-term and long-term successes? If the person benefits from extraordinary good luck, is that still a success? This grappling with the problem of definition will help you compile an annotated list of successes, and you can then proceed to explain them, tracing their origins and pinpointing how and why they occurred. Is there a key common factor in the successes? If so, this could constitute the central thrust of your answer.
Keener political awareness in the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, made the essay an all-important vehicle for the criticism of society and religion. Because of its flexibility, its brevity, and its potential both for ambiguity and for allusions to current events and conditions, it was an ideal tool for philosophical reformers. The Federalist Papers in America and the tracts of the French Revolutionaries are among the countless examples of attempts during this period to improve the human condition through the essay.
Whereas in several countries the essay became the chosen vehicle of literary and social criticism, in other countries the genre became semipolitical, earnestly nationalistic, and often polemical, playful, or bitter. Essayists such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote with grace on several lighter subjects, and many writers—including Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos—mastered the essay as a form of literary criticism.