Classic British and American Essays and Speeches

English Prose From Jack London to Dorothy Parker

Ernest Hemingway at a desk pondering his latest writing.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

From the works and musings of Walt Witman to those of Virginia Woolf, some of the cultural heroes and prolific artists of prose are listed below--along with some of the world's greatest essays and speeches ever composed by these British and American literary treasures.

George Ade (1866-1944)

George Ade was an America playwright, newspaper columnist and humorist whose greatest recognition was "Fables in Slang" (1899), a satire that explored the colloquial vernacular of America. Ade eventually succeeded in doing what he set out to do: Make America laugh.

  • The Difference Between Learning and Learning How:
    "In due time the Faculty gave the Degree of M.A. to what was left of Otis and still his Ambition was not satisfied."
  • Luxuries: "About sixty-five per cent of all the people in the world think they are getting along great when they are not starving to death."
  • Vacations: "The planet you are now visiting may be the only one you ever see."

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

American activist Susan B. Anthony crusaded for the women's suffrage movement, making way for the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Anthony is principally known for the six-volume "History of Woman Suffrage." 

Robert Benchley (1889-1945)

The writings of American humorist, actor and drama critic Robert Benchley are considered his best achievement. His socially awkward, slightly confused persona allowed him to write about the inanity of the world to great effect.

  • Advice to Writers: "A terrible plague of insufferably artificial and affected authors"
  • Business Letters: "As it stands now things are pretty black for the boy."
  • Christmas Afternoon: "Done in the Manner, If Not in the Spirit of Dickens"
  • Do Insects Think?: "It really was more like a child of our own than a wasp, except that it looked more like a wasp than a child of our own."
  • The Most Popular Book of the Month: "In practice, the book is not flawless. There are five hundred thousand names, each with a corresponding telephone number."

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

British novelist and short-story writer Joseph Conrad rendered about the "tragedy of loneliness" at sea and became known for his colorful, rich descriptions about the sea and other exotic places. He is regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of all time.

  • Outside Literature: "A sea voyage would have done him good. But it was I who went to sea--this time bound to Calcutta."

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

American Frederick Douglass' great oratory and literary skills helped him to become the first African American citizen to hold high office in the US government. He was one of the 19th century's most prominent human rights activist, and his autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" (1882), became an American literary classic.

  • The Destiny of Colored Americans: "Slavery is the peculiar weakness of America, as well as its peculiar crime."
  • A Glorious Resurrection: "My long-crushed spirit rose."

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

W.E.B. Du Bois was an American scholar and human rights activist, a respected author and historian of literature. His literature and studies analyzed the unreachable depths of American racism. Du Bois' seminal work is a collection of 14 essays titled "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903). 

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Known foremost for his novel "The Great Gatsby," American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a renown playboy and had a tumultuous life compounded by alcoholism and depression. Only after his death did he become known as a preeminent American literary author. 

  • What I Think and Feel at 25: "The main thing is to be your own kind of a darn fool."

Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

American novelist, short-story writer and playwright Ben Hecht is remembered as one of Hollywood's greatest screenplay writers and may best be remembered for "Scarface," Wuthering Heights" and "Guys and Dolls."

  • Fog Patterns: "Yes, we are all lost and wandering in the thick mists. We have no destinations."
  • Letters: "You would see a procession of mysterious figures flitting through the streets, an unending swarm of dim ones, queer ones."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

American novelist Ernest Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature for "his mastery of the art of narrative ... and for the influence he has exerted on contemporary style" as demonstrated in his brilliant novel "The Old Man and the Sea."

  • American Bohemians in Paris: "The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde."
  • Camping Out: "Any man of average office intelligence can make at least as good a pie as his wife."

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Civil rights activist and minister Martin Luther King Jr., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, may be best known for "I Have A Dream," in which he wrote about love, peace, nonviolent activism and equality between all races.

Jack London (1876-1916)

Nineteenth-century American author and journalist Jack London is best known for his adventures "White Fang" and "The Call of the Wild." London published more than 50 books over the last 16 years of his life, including "John Barleycorn," which was somewhat of a memoir about his lifelong battle with alcohol.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

American journalist, activist and editor H.L. Mencken was also a very influential literary critic. His columns were popular not only for their literary criticism, but also for their questioning of popular political, social and cultural views.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957)

American writer Christopher Morley was popular for his literary columns in the "New York Evening Post," among other literary magazines. His many collections of essays and columns were "lighthearted, vigorous displays of the English language." 

  • 1100 Words: "Let us be brief, crisp, packed with thought."
  • The Art of Walking: "Sometimes it seems as though literature were a co-product of legs and head."
  • A Morning in Marathon: "[W]e flashed onto the Hackensack marshes and into the fully minted gold of superb morning."
  • On Going to Bed: "The happier creatures ... take the tide of sleep at the flood and are borne calmly and with gracious gentleness out to great waters of nothingness."

George Orwell (1903-1950)

This British novelist, essayist and critic is best known for his novels "1984" and "Animal Farm." George Orwell's disdain for imperialism (he considered himself an anarchist) guided him in his life as well as through some of his writings.

  • A Hanging: "We all began laughing again. ... The dead man was a hundred yards away."
  • Why Are Beggars Despised?: "A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living."

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Witty American poet and short-story writer Dorothy Parker began as an editorial assistant at "Vogue" and eventually became the book reviewer known as the "Constant Reader" for "The New Yorker." Among her hundreds of works, Parker won the 1929 O. Henry Award for her short story "Big Blond."

  • Good Souls: "They are fated to go through life, congenial pariahs. They live out their little lives, mingling with the world, yet never a part of it."
  • Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette: "As one delves deeper and deeper into Etiquette, disquieting thoughts come."

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

British philosopher and social reformer Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought." Russell was one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

American activist Margaret Sanger was a sex educator, nurse and women's rights advocate. She began the first feminist publication, "The Woman Rebel," in 1914. 

  • The Turbid Ebb and Flow of Misery: "My own cozy and comfortable family existence was becoming a reproach to me."

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

An Irish dramatist and critic, George Bernard Shaw was also a socialist propagandist and winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature (which he didn't receive until 1926) for "his work which is marked by both idealism and beauty." Shaw wrote more than 60 plays during his lifetime.

  • Preface to Pygmalion: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."
  • She Would Have Enjoyed It: "Why does a funeral always sharpen one's sense of humor?"
  • Why Law Is Indispensable: "Laws deaden the conscience of individuals by relieving them of responsibility."
  • The Art of Political Lying: "Considering that natural disposition in many men to lie, and in multitudes to believe, I have been perplexed what to do with that maxim so frequent in everybody's mouth, that truth will at last prevail."
  • Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation: "This degeneracy of conversation ... hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society."
  • A Meditation Upon a Broomstick: "But a broomstick is an emblem of a tree standing on its head."

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is most known for his masterful work, "Walden," about living a life close to nature. He was a dedicated abolitionist and a strong practitioner of civil disobedience.

  • The Battle of the Ants: "I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war."
  • The Landlord: "If we do not look up to the Landlord, we look round for him on all emergencies, for he is a man of infinite experience, who unites hands with wit."
  • The Last Days of John Brown: "[T]he one great rule of composition--and if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this--is, to speak the truth."

James Thurber (1894-1961)

American author and illustrator James Thurber is best known for his contributions to "The New Yorker." Via his contributions to the magazine, his cartoons became some of the most popular in the United States.

  • The Subjunctive Mood: "Husbands are suspicious of all subjunctives. Wives should avoid them."
  • Which: "Never monkey with 'which.'"

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

British author Anthony Trollope is best known for his writing in the Victorian Era--some of his work includes a series of novels known as "The Chronicles of Barsetshire." Trollope also wrote on political, social and gender issues.

  • The Plumber: "The plumber is doubtless aware that he is odious. He feels himself, like Dickens's turnpike-man, to be the enemy of mankind."

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Mark Twain was an American humorist, journalist, lecturer and novelist best known for his classic American novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." With his wit and grand telling of tales, Twain is nothing short of an American national treasure. 

  • Advice to Youth: "Always obey your parents, when they are present."
  • Corn-Pone Opinions: "Tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."
  • The Danger of Lying in Bed: "The danger isn't in traveling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds."
  • A Fable: "You can find in a text whatever you bring."
  • Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences: "Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens."
  • The Lowest Animal: "[W]e have descended and degenerated ... till we have reached the bottom stage of development."
  • On the Decay of the Art of Lying: "Lying is universal: we all do it; we all must do it."
  • Two Ways of Seeing a River: "All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!"
  • Unconscious Plagiarism: "[P]ride protects a man from deliberately stealing other people's ideas."

H.G. Wells (1866-1944)

British author and historian H.G. Wells is best known for his works of science fiction, including "The Time Machine," "The First Men in the Moon" and "The War of the Worlds." Wells wrote an astounding 161 full-length books. 

  • For Freedom of Spelling: The Discovery of an Art: "Why should correct spelling be the one absolutely essential literary merit?"
  • Of Conversation: An Apology: "I am no blowfly to buzz my way through the universe."
  • The Pleasure of Quarrelling: "Without quarreling you have not fully appreciated your fellow-man."
  • The Possible Collapse of Civilisation: "Modern warfare is an insanity, not a sane business proposition."
  • The Writing of Essays: "The art of the essayist ... may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so."

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

American poet and journalist Walt Whitman's verse collection "Leaves of Grass" is an American literature landmark. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the collection as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom" America had yet contributed.

  • A Glimpse of War's Hell Scenes: "There was no exultation, very little said, almost nothing, yet every man there contributed his shot."
  • Slang in America: "Language in the largest sense ... is really the greatest of studies."
  • Street Yarn: "Come and walk in New York streets."

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

British author Virginia Woolf may be best known for her modernist classics "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse." But she also produced feminist texts such as "A Room of One's Own" and "Three Guineas" and wrote pioneering essays on the politics of power, artistic theory and literary history.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Classic British and American Essays and Speeches." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Classic British and American Essays and Speeches. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Classic British and American Essays and Speeches." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).