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WHAT IS AN ESSAY?
When you write a letter to a friend, you tell him what you and others have been doing, what you have seen, and what you think about various things. People who write books do the same thing on a larger scale. A book that tells what you have done is an autobiography; a book telling what others have done is biography or history, or if it deals with imaginary people, it is fiction. A book telling what you have seen is travel, and a book telling what you think on various topics is a book of essays. Yet not all books giving people's thoughts are essays. If a man writes a book on religion or philosophy, for example, a book made up of various chapters, arrranged in such order as to form a systematic and complete treatment of the subject, that book would not be called an essay but a treatise. The word essay comes from the French essai, an attempt, an endeavor. So Francis Bacon, the first English essayist, said in the preface to his book: “To write just treatises requireth leisure in the writer and leisure in the reader, .. which is the cause that hath made me choose to write certain brief notes, set down rather significantly than curiously, which I have called essays.”
This gives us the second characteristic of the essay: it is brief, and does not attempt to treat a subject either completely or systematically. In fact, an essay is a sort of literary go-as-you-please. An essayist may, like Montaigne, announce as his subject “Coaches," and proceed to write about sneezing, the entertainments of Roman emperors, and the conquest of Mexico, with only a brief mention of coaches. And yet while the essayist may seem to be careless how he begins or where he leaves off his subject, there is one thing that he is always careful about, his style. More than any other form of prose, the essay demands mastery of style. How the thing is said is as important-often more important, than what is said. This style may take many forms, from the stately, thought-weighted sentences of Bacon to the whimsical turns of Charles Lamb; it may have the calm and beauty of a Newman, or the passionate eloquence of Carlyle: in each case we feel that the style is the perfect medium for the thought.
In its lack of logical method, its freedom to stray hither and thither, the essay is like good conversation. It is like conversation again in its tone, which may be now serious, now humorous, now merely playful. Some essayists, like Ruskin, are always serious; some, like Lamb, are nearly always humorous; some, like Addison, are both by turns. And the same essay may be partly serious, partly humorous. As you read these essays, then, be on the watch for a twinkle of the eye.
To sum up the characteristics of the essay, we may say that it is a short piece of prose, not attempting to treat its subject completely nor logically, but rather giving the author's opinions upon it; opinions which may or may not be serious, but which are set forth with a high degree of literary art. It usually reveals more or less of the personality of the author, and in this respect corresponds in prose to the lyric in poetry.
THE HISTORY OF THE ESSAY
The essay as a form in modern literature began with a French writer, Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published two volumes entitled Essais. These dealt with such subjects as Fortune, Cannibals, Names, Smells, Liars, Virtue, and the like. The book was soon translated into English, and had a marked influence upon English writers. Francis Bacon, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Stevenson were readers of Montaigne, and acknowledge their debt to him.
The first English writer of essays was Francis Bacon, whose Essays, or Counsels Civil and Moral appeared in 1625. This little volume contained sixty essays, in length from two to ten pages; the subjects were all general, such as Studies, Riches, Love, Great Place. The tone of the essays was grave; one seems to hear the voice of the Lord Chief Justice of England delivering his wise verdicts upon human affairs. And of all Bacon's works, which number fifteen large volumes, dealing with science and philosophy, written by the wisest man of his time, only this slender book of essays survives to be read today.
From the time of Sir Francis Bacon to the beginning of the eighteenth century, occasional volumes of essays appeared. Such were the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne; Several Discourses by Way of Essays, by Abraham Cowley, and the Miscellanea of Sir William Temple. But the great development of the essay came with the rise of periodical literature in England.
In our day, with the newspapers thrust into our hands twice a day, and with newsstands piled with weekly and monthly journals, it is hard to imagine a time when neither newspaper nor magazine existed. Yet in 1688 this was exactly the situation in England. Newspapers were the first to appear; then in 1691 came the first magazine, the Athenian Gazette, a little sheet made up chiefly of questions and answers. In 1704 Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, began a journal called A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France, which contained, in addition to the news from Europe, a short essay or editorial. This idea was still further developed by Richard Steele, who in 1709 began the publication of the Tatler, a weekly paper consisting of a single large sheet printed on both sides, containing a paragraph of news and one or more essays. After a few numbers of the paper had appeared, Steele was aided by his friend Joseph Addison. The Tatler became popular; its editors saw an opportunity for improving it, and in 1711 they discontinued the Tatler and began the Spectator. This was published at first three times a week, then daily; it contained no news, merely a single essay, and a few advertisements. The essays covered a wide range of topics. They did not touch politics, but with this exception they treated almost every topic of interest to the Londoner of the day. There were papers on duelling, on the Italian opera, on fashionable slang, on style in women's dress, on the treatment of servants, on education, on courtship and marriage. And in practically all these essays the writers had the same aim as an editorial writer of to-day: to bring to public attention some wrong or folly that ought to be corrected. The editors did not deal with great public questions, or with crimes punishable by law, but with matters of behavior and the customs of the time. These papers thus show a new type of essay: that which is written to influence public opinion in some particular direction. This may be called the editorial essay.
The success of the Spectator led to many imitations. Dr. Johnson wrote the Rambler and the Idler. Oliver Goldsmith wrote a series of papers called The Citizen of the World, and there were hundreds of others. But none of them equalled the work of Addison and Steele, the founders of the type.
The next development of the essay was also a result of the development of periodical literature. The early journals were affairs of only a few pages. But with the