The New Student's Reference Work/Essay

Essay (The).  The essay, as a record of individual observation and personal comment on social life, was first elaborated in France by Michel de Montaigne.  His book, published in 1580, has never been excelled in keen penetration, rich knowledge of life, sound judgment and frank and genial conversational comment.  Lord Bacon’s essays, published in 1597, are rather more like addresses or treatises in their formality; although they are brief, like letters, and pithy, like proverbs.  With the rise of the periodicals, the form attained its best English expression in The Tatler and The Spectator of Steele and Addison.  These brief sketches of the aspects of contemporary and local life, in their endeavor to correct some of the minor faults of the times, added certain characteristics from ancient fable and satire, and thus anticipated the manner of much of modern political and social humor.  They also embodied their experiences and observations in fictitious characters, such as Sir Roger de Coverley, thus aiding in the development of the novel and the short story.  They also elaborated the criticism of history and politics, of religion and morals, of literature, art and the drama, so that these have since been regarded as separate provinces, which leave the familiar essay of to-day to apply its casual, personal and suggestive method chiefly to social manners, fashions and humors.  This narrowed form has continued to flourish in England, through Goldsmith, Lamb, Thackeray and Stevenson down to the present.  Literary criticism in essay form is illustrated by Coleridge, Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold in England, Sainte-Beuve in France and Lowell and Whipple in America.

In the United States, Washington Irving imported the method of humor and satire in his Salmagundi (1807) and the general form of the essay in his Sketch-book (1819).  The latter contains autobiographical matter; sketches of places, things, manners and customs; studies of national and racial traits; literary criticism; tales of sentiment; and tales of mystery, like Rip Van Winkle.  In variety of content it thus is a precursor of the magazine of to-day.  Among other American essayists, Emerson deals chiefly with religion and morals, Poe and Lowell with literature.  Dr. Holmes, in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, modified the form in the direction of table-talk.  Thoreau’s Walden revived the nature essay.  The tradition of Steele, Addison and Irving was continued, almost unchanged, by George William Curtis and Charles Dudley Warner.