Woman writing in cafe
Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images

An essayist is a writer of essays—short works of nonfiction.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French author of the Essais, is commonly regarded as the first essayist, though Montaigne himself acknowledged that his essays were composed with "the spoils" of Plutarch and Seneca.

Major British essayists include Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell.

Major American essayists include Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, James Baldwin, Edward Hoagland, Joan Didion, and Annie Dillard.

Examples and Observations

- "An essayist is a lucky person who has found a way to discourse without being interrupted."
(Charles Poore, The New York Times, 1962)

- "[T]he charm of the familiar essayist depends upon his power of giving the sense of a good-humoured, gracious and reasonable personality and establishing a sort of pleasant friendship with his reader... 

"[T]he essayist must have a great and far-reaching curiosity; he must be interested rather than displeased by the differences of human beings and by their related theories. He must recognize the fact that most people's convictions are not the result of reason, but a mass of associations, traditions, things half-understood, phrases, examples, loyalties, whims.

He must care more about the inconsistency of humanity than about its dignity; and he must study more what people actually do think about than what they ought to think about." (A.C. Benson, "The Art of the Essayist," 1922)

The Essayist's Masks

- "Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality.

Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If 'we must remove the mask,' it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayist's lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking." (Phillip Lopate, introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor, 1994)

- "Montaigne himself, in his brief preface to the Essays, might be held responsible for having inspired . . . faith in the transparency of the genre:

If I had written to seek the world's favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.

Of course, this anti-rhetorical declaration, playing on the familiar clothing metaphor of style, is itself a rhetorical act. Montaigne's professions of candor and artlessness, delivered throughout the Essays, are time-honored rhetorical strategies designed to win approval and deflect criticism.

As 19th-century British essayist Alexander Smith observed, Montaigne's frankness is 'as well simulated as the grape-branches of the Grecian artist which the birds flew towards and pecked.' The essayist's candor is, at bottom, a quality not of the man but of his artful text."

(Richard Nordquist, "Voices of the Modern Essay." University of Georgia, 1991)

- "[L]ike the 'I' of the lyric and of the real and invented autobiography, the 'I' of the essayist is a mask."

(Joseph P. Clancy, "The Literary Genres in Theory and Practice: A Minority View." College English, April 1967)

- "The fact is, essayists lie. They may not mean to, but they do. Like all writers, they create effects by adopting a tone, a tempo, a manner of address."

(Arthur Krystal, "Slang-Whanger: William Hazlitt's Impetuous Prose." Except When I Write.

Oxford University Press, 2011)

Joseph Epstein on the Essayist As Skeptic

"To be an essayist is to divest oneself of the belief in a general set or system of ideas. All the great essayists, from Montaigne through Hazlitt to Beerbohm to Mencken to Orwell, are not so much anti-philosophical as a-philosophical. . . . None is notably religious. The very form of the essay--discursive, tentative, enmeshed in the particular--seems to imply that to life's great questions, there probably are no answers, only hints, shadows, fleeting moments of elucidation... The essayist is by nature a skeptic."

(Joseph Epstein, "The Incomparable Max." Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives. W.W. Norton, 1989)

The Essayist As Observer

"Character is the act of seeing--and from the essayist's perspective, character is to be measured by how honestly the writer handles what he sees. His 'I' must serve both as witness to and functionary of the world he observes, the world he has chosen to write of. At its most honest, the personal essay offers the reader a chance to observe the observer in the act of observing. The essayist's challenge is to make sense of what the eye sees."

(Leonard Kriegel, "The Observer Observing: Some Notes on the Personal Essay." Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, ed. by David Lazar. University of Iowa Press, 2008)

The Essayist's Invitation

"[Familiar] essayists let be--in the sense of respecting the reader and (so) not imposing an opinion or argument, which, in any case, they tend not to push or assert but, rather, allow to develop.

The reader is offered an opportunity to participate, having been invited into the essay, into the story, into the dialogue. The essayist gives space, not just to the reader, but also to the other side of his or her positions, as well as to other voices, via the well-known and beloved penchant for quoting... To borrow from Mikhail Bakhtin, the essay is not monological."

(G. Douglas Atkins, On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

E.B. White on the Essayist As Second-Class Citizen

"The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest...

"The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen."

(E.B. White, foreword to Essays of E.B. White. Harper, 1977)

William Hazlitt: "The Best I Can Do"

"What have I been doing all my life? Have I been idle, or have I nothing to show for all my labour and pains? Or have I passed my time in pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts, and looking for causes in the dark, and not finding them? Is there no one thing in which I can challenge competition, that I can bring as an instance of exact perfection, in which others cannot find a flaw? The utmost I can pretend to is to write a description of what this fellow can do. I can write a book: so can many others who have not even learned to spell.

What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do. I endeavour to recollect all I have ever observed or thought upon a subject, and to express it as nearly as I can."

(William Hazlitt, "The Indian Jugglers." Table Talk, 1821-22)

Arthur Krystal on Essayists and Memoirists

"Although, commercially speaking, essay writing is a sucker's game, memoirs remain a draw... Memoirists simply write personal essays--period. Their work is no more creative than any other kind of essay; quite the reverse in fact. Writing interestingly about Jane Austen requires more imagination than confessing to having slept with someone named Jane Austen from Beaumont, Texas. And if I may say so, literary essayists have to rely more on their strengths as writers than on their imperfections as human beings--though I like to think I'm just as flawed and miserable as the next person."

(Arthur Krystal, "The Half-Life of an American Essayist." The Half-Life of an American Essayist by Arthur Krystal. David R. Godine, 2007)

Further Reading

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Essayist." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 21). Essayist. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Essayist." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).