The Essay: History and Definition

Attempts at Defining Slippery Literary Form

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Essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). (Apic/Getty Images)

"One damned thing after another" is how Aldous Huxley described the essay: "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything."

As definitions go, Huxley's is no more or less exact than Francis Bacon's "dispersed meditations," Samuel Johnson's "loose sally of the mind" or Edward Hoagland's "greased pig."

Since Montaigne adopted the term "essay" in the 16th century to describe his "attempts" at self-portrayal in prose, this slippery form has resisted any sort of precise, universal definition.

But that won't an attempt to define the term in this brief article.

Meaning

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.

One way to start is to draw a distinction between articles, which are read primarily for the information they contain, and essays, in which the pleasure of reading takes precedence over the information in the text. Although handy, this loose division points chiefly to kinds of reading rather than to kinds of texts. So here are some other ways that the essay might be defined.

Structure

Standard definitions often stress the loose structure or apparent shapelessness of the essay. Johnson, for example, called the essay "an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance."

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.

Oddly enough, critics haven't paid much attention to the principles of design actually employed by successful essayists. These principles are rarely formal patterns of organization, that is, the "modes of exposition" found in many composition textbooks. Instead, they might be described as patterns of thought -- progressions of a mind working out an idea.

Types

Unfortunately, the customary divisions of the essay into opposing types -- formal and informal, impersonal and familiar -- are also troublesome. Consider this suspiciously neat dividing line drawn by Michele Richman:

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.

The terms used here to qualify the term "essay" are convenient as a kind of critical shorthand, but they're imprecise at best and potentially contradictory. Informal can describe either the shape or the tone of the work -- or both. Personal refers to the stance of the essayist, conversational to the language of the piece, and expository to its content and aim. When the writings of particular essayists are studied carefully, Richman's "distinct modalities" grow increasingly vague.

But as fuzzy as these terms might be, the qualities of shape and personality, form and voice, are clearly integral to an understanding of the essay as an artful literary kind. 

Voice

Many of the terms used to characterize the essay -- personal, familiar, intimate, subjective, friendly, conversational -- represent efforts to identify the genre's most powerful organizing force: the rhetorical voice or projected character (or persona) of the essayist.

In his study of Charles Lamb, Fred Randel observes that the "principal declared allegiance" of the essay is to "the experience of the essayistic voice." Similarly, British author Virginia Woolf has described this textual quality of personality or voice as "the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool."

Similarly, at the beginning of "Walden, " Henry David Thoreau reminds the reader that "it is ...

always the first person that is speaking." Whether expressed directly or not, there's always an "I" in the essay -- a voice shaping the text and fashioning a role for the reader.

Fictional Qualities

The terms "voice" and "persona" are often used interchangeably to suggest the rhetorical nature of the essayist himself on the page. At times an author may consciously strike a pose or play a role. He can, as E.B. White confirms in his preface to "The Essays," "be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter." 

In "What I Think, What I Am," essayist Edward Hoagland points out that "the artful 'I' of an essay can be as chameleon as any narrator in fiction." Similar considerations of voice and persona lead Carl H. Klaus to conclude that the essay is "profoundly fictive":

It seems to convey the sense of human presence that is indisputably related to its author's deepest sense of self, but that is also a complex illusion of that self -- an enactment of it as if it were both in the process of thought and in the process of sharing the outcome of that thought with others.

But to acknowledge the fictional qualities of the essay isn't to deny its special status as nonfiction.

Reader's Role

A basic aspect of the relationship between a writer (or a writer's persona) and a reader (the implied audience) is the presumption that what the essayist says is literally true. The difference between a short story, say, and an autobiographical essay lies less in the narrative structure or the nature of the material than in the narrator's implied contract with the reader about the kind of truth being offered.

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." 

In other words, the reader of an essay is called on to join in the making of meaning. And it's up to the reader to decide whether to play along. Viewed in this way, the drama of an essay might lie in the conflict between the conceptions of self and world that the reader brings to a text and the conceptions that the essayist tries to arouse.

At Last, a Definition -- of Sorts

With these thoughts in mind, the essay might be defined as a short work of nonfiction, often artfully disordered and highly polished, in which an authorial voice invites an implied reader to accept as authentic a certain textual mode of experience.

Sure. But it's still a greased pig.

Sometimes the best way to learn exactly what an essay is -- is to read some great ones. You'll find more than 300 of them in this collection of Classic British and American Essays and Speeches.