What is a Familiar Essay in Composition?

Definition and Examples

Montaigne
French statesman and author Michel de Montaigne (1533-1593) is generally regarded as the "father" of the familiar essay. (French School/Getty Images)

A familiar essay is a short prose composition (a type of creative nonfiction) characterized by the personal quality of the writing and the distinctive voice or persona of the essayist. Also known as an informal essay.

"The subject matter," says  G. Douglas Atkins, "largely makes the familiar essay what it is: it is recognizable by human being qua human being, shared by her and him, and common to us all, requiring no arcane, specialized, or professional knowledge—an amateur's haven" (On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies, 2009).

Highly regarded familiar essayists in English include Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker, and Richard Rodriguez.

Examples of Classic Familiar Essays

Observation

  • "Post-Montaigne, the essay split into two distinct modalities: one remained informal, personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and often humorous; the other, dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository."
    (Michele Richman in The Barthes Effect by R. Bensmaia. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987)

Familiar Essays and Familiar Essayists

  • - "Familiar essays . . . 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. . . .
  • "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." (Dan Roche, "Familiar Essay." Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)
  • - "[T]he familiar essayist lives, and takes his professional sustenance, in the everyday flow of things. Familiar is his style and familiar, too, is the territory he writes about. . . .

 

  • "In the end the true job of the familiar essayist is to write what is on his mind and in his heart in the hope that, in doing so, he will say what others have sensed only inchoately." (Joseph Epstein, preface to Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life. Oxford University Press, 1979)

Familiar Essays and Personal Essays

  • "[Francis] Bacon's influence continues today, often in familiar essays, whereas [Michel de] Montaigne's enjoys greater popularity as personal essays. The difference is neither precious nor sophistical, although it is subtle. Although the personal and the familiar are the two main sorts of essays, essays are, truth to tell, often both familiar and personal, the difference at least nowadays residing mainly in the degree to which a particular instance emphasizes the tiny prepositions that we find in Montaigne and Bacon alike: 'on' and 'of.' If the essay tips toward being about a topic--books, say, or solitude--it may be termed 'familiar,' whereas if it focuses a bit less on the general or universal and more on the character of 'the speaking voice,' it is likely a 'personal' essay."
    (G. Douglas Atkins, Reading Essays: An Invitation. University of Georgia Press, 2007)

    Revival of the Familiar Essay

    • "Equally problematic are conventional divisions of the essay into formal and informal, impersonal and familiar, expository and conversational. Though imprecise and potentially contradictory, such labels not only serve as a form of critical shorthand but also point to what is often the most powerful organizing force in the essay: the rhetorical voice or projected character [ethos] of the essayist. . . .
    • "The modernist era, that period of fragmentation and innovation at the beginning of the 20th century, is best known to students of literature for the radical transformations that occurred in poetry and fiction. But the essay, too, experienced dramatic changes during this time. Divested of its self-conscious literariness and reinvested with the colloquial vigor of popular journalism, the essay was reborn in such cosmopolitan magazines as The Smart Set, The American Mercury, and The New Yorker.
    • "This 'new' brand of essay—exuberant, witty, and often contentious—was in fact more faithful to the journalistic traditions of Addison and Steele, Lamb and Hazlitt than the often preciously lambent writings of those who had deliberately mimicked the English essayists. Recognizing the power of a combative narrative voice to attract readers' attention and impose on a journal a distinctive style, magazine editors recruited writers with forceful rhetorical presences." (Richard Nordquist, "Essay," in Encylopedia of American Literature, ed. S. R. Serafin. Continuum, 1999)

    Organs of Personality

    • - "The familiar essay in prose and the lyric in poetry are alike essentially literary organs of personality. In discussing the nature and the character of these two forms of literature, it is well-nigh impossible to consider separately the subject, the author and the style." (W. M. Tanner, Essays and Essay-Writing. Atlantic Monthly Company, 1917)
    • - "The true essay, then, is a tentative and personal treatment of a subject; it is a kind of improvisation on a delicate theme; a species of soliloquy." (A.C. Benson, "On Essays at Large." The Living Age, Feb. 12, 1910)

    The Familiar Essay as Chat

    • "A familiar essay is not an authoritative discourse, emphasizing the inferiority of the reader; and neither the learned, the superior, the clever nor overwitty, is the man who can "pull it off." An exhibition of pyrotechnics is all very fine; but a chat by a wood fire with a friend who can listen, as well as talk, who can even sit with you by the hour in congenial silence—this is better. When, therefore, we find a writer who chats with us familiarly about the little things that in the aggregate go to make up our experience in life, when he talks with you, not to show off, not to set you right, not to argue, above all not to preach, but to share his thoughts and sentiments, to laugh with you, moralize a bit with you, though not too much, take out of his pocket, so to speak, a curious little anecdote, or run across an odd little experience and share it pleasantly, enjoying it unaffectedly and anxious to have you enjoy it, too —when we have all this, we have the daintiest, the purest and the most delightful of all the forms of literature—the familiar essay."
      (Felix Emmanuel Schelling, "The Familiar Essay." Appraisements and Asperities as to Some Contemporary Writers. J.B. Lippincott, 1922)
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      Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Familiar Essay in Composition?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/familiar-essay-composition-1690853. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 12). What is a Familiar Essay in Composition? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/familiar-essay-composition-1690853 Nordquist, Richard. "What is a Familiar Essay in Composition?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/familiar-essay-composition-1690853 (accessed January 23, 2018).