Carl Klaus Essayists On The Essayist

On Essays in General


"Ars Poetica and the Essay" and Other Writing about the Essay Form

Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, Words of the Grey Wind, and On the Shoreline of Knowledge all contain some reflections in their opening pages about the nature of essays and essay writing. Comment on the genre can also be found in "An Essay on the Esse" (in Irish Elegies). In March 2015, in a piece written for World Literature Today, Chris Arthur offered some further ideas about the art of essay writing, using Archibald MacLeish's poem "Ars Poetica" as a touchstone.

"Ars Poetica and the Essay" is available here.

Further reflection on the nature of this form of writing is given in two 2017 pieces, "A Blind Spot in the Ornithology of Letters" (which looks at the absence of the essay in schools and universities, where it's routinely confused with academic assignments) and "An Irish Essay(ist)?" (which considers national traditions of essay writing).

From "A Blind Spot in the Ornithology of Letters"

... Although academia prides itself on accuracy, precision, the ability to classify, define, and apply correct terminology, there's a curious blind spot when it comes to "essay". It's a label that's carelessly attached to almost any short piece of nonfiction writing. I don't dispute that essays and assignments share some common features, anymore than I'd deny that albatrosses and hens do. The problem is that a bizarrely indiscriminate ornithology of letters has taken root, leading to dissimilar species being confused. Worse, the prevalence of a common one risks threatening the very existence of what's become a rarity.

From "An Irish Essay(ist)?"

... I hope my essays will be judged not on the basis of my ethnic identity, but on their quality as pieces of imaginative writing. My loyalties as an author, such as they are, lie more with a genre than with any country. I may no longer feel at home in the world in terms of a place that I can call my own, a nation to which I could give unqualified allegiance, but I do feel at home in the territory of the essay. Citizenship of that territory is not determined by the accident of birth, or by religion, language, or ethnicity, but by a simple test of disposition. This is well summed up by one of the key modern authorities on the form, Graham Good: "Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed." It doesn't matter if you're Irish, British, American, Chinese, French, Kenyan or Peruvian; it doesn't matter if you're Catholic or Protestant, Hindu, Jew, or atheist; it doesn't matter if you write in English, Cantonese, Arabic or Polish; your age, gender, color, sexuality is irrelevant — the essay's criteria of belonging are the same for everyone.

On the History and Nature of the Essay

In 2008, Chris Arthur took part in a Summer School at the University of Wales, Lampeter (other keynote speakers included poet, playwright, novelist and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts). This is an extract from the first of Arthur's lectures, "Defending Loose Sally's Honour: An Introduction to the Fourth Genre."

... "As I'm sure most of you will have guessed, my "Loose Sally" doesn't refer to some dubious lady of the night. The name comes from a definition that appears in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. In this great work, first published in 1755, Johnson described a particular type of writing as being "a loose sally of the mind". It's this type of writing that I wish to champion — or, I should say, what this type of writing has evolved into two and half centuries after Johnson so defined it.

I wish I could avoid for longer the common name given to what Johnson defined in this way, but I don't think I can without being tortuously indirect. He was speaking about the essay. Unfortunately, "essay" carries so many negative associations that the word can't be used without qualification. On its own, it acts as a kiss of death in terms of attracting readers. I imagine it can have a similarly toxic impact on an audience. Too many people equate "essay" with the assignments they had to do at school or university. If it's not stuck in the classroom, the essay often gets locked into a kind of bizarre time warp. This imprisons it somewhere in the Edwardian era as a kind of genteel prose pastime written by people who have little else to do. Graham Good — one of the best contemporary commentators on the genre — offers a depressingly accurate caricature of how "essayist" and "essay" still so often strike people. These words, he says,

"Conjure up the image of a middle-aged man in a worn tweed jacket in an armchair smoking a pipe by a fire in his private library in a country house somewhere in southern England, in about 1910, maundering on about the delights of idleness, country walks, tobacco, old wine and old books, blissfully unaware that he and his entire culture are about to be swept away."

This type of essay — miles removed from the vigorous, edgy, unconventional and challenging writing being done in the genre today — is witheringly characterized by Ian Hamilton as the "something-about-next-to-nothing school" involving "virtuoso feats of pointless eloquence." Unless the deadwood of these outmoded connotations can be got rid of, "essay" just sounds tedious.

... Today's essays stem from a confluence of many tributaries, the sources of which are not always clear, nor is it easy to map their meanderings or determine where one river of words merged with another in the great watercourse of prose in which our wordy species swims. Montaigne (1533-1592) is usually presented as the inventor of this form, with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) named as its originator in English — leading on to that famous duo of periodical essayists, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) — and from them, in various leaps and bounds (Johnson, Goldsmith, Lamb, Hazlitt, Carlyle, Thackeray, Stevenson, Belloc, Chesterton) to Woolf and Orwell, with whose contributions histories of this particular vein too often stop, as if the genre was now of merely historical interest.

This genealogy, whose rosary of famous names I've just recited, is, I'm afraid, of highly dubious legitimacy. As Terence Cave has recently argued, there's a world of difference between Montaigne's "essais" and Lamb's "essays". I'm not at all convinced that contemporary "creative nonfiction" ("a singularly unlovely and antiseptic term", according to Rachel Blau DuPlessis) could trace its bloodline back to Addison and Steele, or that it would want to. In any case, I'm more interested in writing essays than in tracing their literary ancestry, or in finding a name for the genre which is less embedded in misconception and negative connotation.

Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), incidentally, the Irish writer who had such an impact on the English essay, and who has sometimes been called "the father of journalism" died not far from here. Eight years ago, somewhat gruesomely, work on levelling the floor of St Peter's Church Carmarthen turned up Steele's skull. Perhaps we should have organized a field trip! There's a good article about the find, which also provides some background on Steele, in The Guardian.

Whatever conclusions we reach about the provenance of the essay, when we're thinking about its origin and development we need to remember that the Western perspective is only one, and the English essay is not its sole representative. In his book on and entitled The Chinese Essay (2000), David Pollard includes examples from the work of essayists who lived centuries before Montaigne. Looking to the Classical world, we can also point to proto-essayists in figures like Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca. There are many national traditions of essay writing. The French essay, the English essay and the American essay are particularly rich seams in the deposits of this genre, but they are by no means the only ones. Scholars can identify key figures along the way and plot out how they've influenced each other, they can categorize essays into types — the personal essay, the nature essay, the medical essay and so on — but it's impossible to be sure when or where this form first emerged or what its boundaries are. It surely existed before it was so named, and did so simultaneously in different places in different forms. This is not a genre with any single point of origin, neatly circumscribed characteristics or clearly demarcated territory. Though there are some crucially important wellsprings — most obviously Montaigne — who's to say which shard of prose, in which language, in which century constitutes the original ur-essay that set the standard for its descendants to follow? Following a set pattern is, in any case, alien to this type of writing. R. Lane Kauffmann refers to the "skewed path" that essays follow, and to their "unmethodical method." Graham Good talks about "the essay's multiplicity of forms," its "spontaneity, its unpredictability, its very lack of a system." This is a fugitive and unpredictable genre. It prefers the margins to the mainstream, it eschews conformity. It's what William Gass terms a "watchful" form, inclined more to scepticism, dissent and heresy than to any literary orthodoxy.

However questionable the lineage may be, many essayists do claim Montaigne as forbear and there's no doubt that the sense he attached to the word "essai" in 1580 still potently influences the sense in which many practitioners of the form understand it today. And of course his work continues to impress. I was pleased — what essayist wouldn't be? — when one reviewer suggested that I was "a worthy inheritor of the tradition of Montaigne" — though I'm far from convinced I actually deserve this compliment. "Essai" for Montaigne meant "a trial or attempt", and it's the experimental nature of the genre that gives it much of its appeal, the way it allows one to try things out. It offers no set procedure. It is, rather, a style of wondering and wandering in prose that tolerates massive variation in length, in language and in subject matter. As Carl Klaus puts it, "the essay is an open form" which "gives a writer the freedom to travel in any direction." As Lydia Fakundiny says — in The Art of the Essay (1991) — it "obeys no compulsion to tie up what may look like loose ends;" it "tolerates a fair amount of indeterminacy;" it "steers away from logically ordered sequences of elaboration." There's no pretence at closure or conclusion. Essays are sympathetically fragmentary, as inchoate as our lives are.

Essays are rooted in what passes, rather than in what's invented; focused on aspects of "the real world" rather than on what's made up. They're interested in following the contours of reality rather than creating any fictive landscapes. But essayists are not engaged in some kind of naively realist descriptivism. They're alert to the fallibility of perception, memory and expression; to the partiality of personality, the fact that language is not a simple verbal mirror of what is but that it imports its own cargoes into every image. They recognize that their truth-telling happens through the complicated lenses of subjectivity. Robert Atwan touches on some of these issues when he reminds us that "personal", the word we use to convey intimacy and sincerity, has "hidden overtones of disguise and performance", its roots going back to the Latin "persona" which meant "mask". Essayists, as Atwan notes, "know that the first-person singular is not a simple unmediated extension of the self, that the 'I' of the sentence is not always the same as the 'I' who wrote the sentence."

The freedom and flexibility of essays is what most appeals to me about this genre. I'm also drawn to their tradition of individuality, their scant regard for authority and their love of language. I think Graham Good is quite correct when he says that: "At the heart of the essay is the voice of the individual". This voice is very different from the one that speaks in the machine-like prose we generate for reports and articles — the kind of writing that eschews subjectivity, aiming instead for bland neutrality. Such prose is carefully gutted, the innards of feeling taken out, supposedly leaving only the lean muscle of objectivity. Every trace of the "I" is exorcised; the words are purged of any taint of the individual. In contrast, essayists draw on the personal with all its idiosyncratic passions and puzzles. It's a hard form to define and I'm not going to try — in fact I'd agree with Douglas Atkins that essays represent "an implicit critique of the drive towards definition." A final reason why I like this genre before proceeding with some readings: Alexander Smith once said that essays are concerned with "the infinite suggestiveness of common things." I'm drawn to the everyday epiphanies such suggestiveness sparks and like the freedom essays offer for exploring them."

© Chris Arthur 2008

Reading Essays and Reading About Essays

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"Writing is the monumentally complex operation whereby experience, insight, and imagination are distilled into language; reading is the equally complex operation that disperses these distilled elements into another person's life. The act only begins with the active deciphering of the symbols. It ends (if reading can be said to end at all) where we cannot easily track it, where the atmospheres of self condense into thought and action ... The writing process begins in the writer, the life; but it branches off into paper, into artifice; but the final restless resting place of every written thing is the solitary life of the reader. There it hibernates, a cluster of stray images, forgotten incitements and conversational asides, a mass of shadow wrapping itself around the thoughts and gestures of the self."

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in An Electronic Age (Faber, New York: 1994), pp.96 & 108


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A good way to get a sense of the richness and diversity of this type of writing is to read the 30+ volumes of Robert Atwan's The Best American Essays. These offer intelligent introductions and a rich annual anthology that gathers material from a range of America's premier literary journals. (The series has been published since 1986 under Atwan's direction as series editor, but with a different guest editor each year. Published by Ticknor & Fields up to 1993 and by Houghton Mifflin from 1994 to date.)

The best single-volume anthologies are Lydia Fakundiny's The Art of the Essay (Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1991) and Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (Doubleday/Anchor, New York: 1994). Both contain selections that include classic examples of the genre and some less expected candidates. Both provide intelligent commentary. Fakundiny's volume is particularly useful because of her introduction, "On Approaching the Essay", which gives a brilliant characterisation of the form. Her sections on "Montaigne and the Essay" and "Essayists on Their Art" are also good.

Other anthologies worth noting are: John Gross's The Oxford Book of Essays (1991); Ian Hamilton's Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays (1999); Carl Klaus, Chris Anderson & Rebecca Faery's In Depth: Essayists for our Time (1990); Bill Roorbach's Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: the Art of Truth (2001); and John D’Agata’s trilogy: The Next American Essay (2003), The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), and The Making of the American Essay (2016), all published by Graywolf Press, Minneapolis. A composite volume containing all three anthologies, A New History of the Essay, also appeared in 2016, edited &s; introduced by John D’Agata, and with a Foreword by James Wood.

The approach that D’Agata takes in his anthologies has attracted strong criticism from William Deresiewicz. According to Deresiewicz, D’Agata’s project is one “that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre.” He argues that “for the self-appointed curator of an entire genre, D’Agata shows a stunning paucity of literary judgment.” Deresiewicz’s robust critique, “In Defense of Facts,” first appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of The Atlantic (pp.90-99), with the strapline “A new history of the essay gets the genre all wrong, and in the process endorses a misleading idea of knowledge.”

The books listed above contain ample evidence, if evidence is needed, to back up the claim made by Robert Scholes, Nancy Comley, & Carl Klaus that the essay should be regarded, alongside drama, poetry and fiction, as one of the four basic forms of literature (see their Elements of Literature, 4th edition (1991), p.xxvii).

Serial Literature

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Further examples of the genre with right up-to-the-minute examples of contemporary writing can be found across a wide range of literary journals. Again, Robert Atwan's The Best American Essays is a key resource, not only in terms of the work it anthologises, but for its annual list of "Notable Essays" of the year. This list can be used to identify which journals are publishing material of this type.

Some journals are exclusively concerned with creative nonfiction, for instance Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind, which started publication in 1993, or Fourth Genre, or River Teeth. Arguably the most interesting essays appear in journals with mixed content (e.g.Southwest Review, Southern Humanities Review). In terms of contemporary Irish literature, Dublin Review and Irish Pages increasingly feature work in this genre.

Both Fourth Genre and Creative Nonfiction have published anthologies which offer a selection of material drawn from the journals. See Lee Gutkind (ed.) In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction (W.W. Norton, New York: 2005) and Martha A. Bates (ed.) 5 Years of the 4th Genre (Michigan State University Press, East Lansing: 2006).


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The key reference work in this area is Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier (Fitzroy Dearborn, Chicago & London: 1997, reprinted 2001). It's interesting that the editor went on to write Girl with a Pearl Earring, published in 1999, a book that merges fact and fiction in some fascinating ways.

Graham Good, one of the team of editorial advisers, begins his preface to this volume thus: "An encyclopedia of the essay sounds at first like a paradoxical enterprise: how can the essay's elusive multiplicity of forms and themes be contained within the systematic scope of an encyclopedia? The essay is often characterized by its spontaneity, its unpredictability, its very lack of system. Yet precisely these qualities have made it the little noticed (though much practiced) of the literary genres, and hence the most in need of some kind of comprehensive guide. Of course there can be no complete mapping of such a diverse literary form: to define all of its varieties and enumerate all its practitioners would take a much larger volume than this. Nevertheless, Encyclopedia of the Essay does bring together the essential information for exploring this protean form of writing." (p.xix)

Critical Studies

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Among the best studies of this type of writing are:

  • G. Douglas Atkins, Estranging the Familiar (University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA: 1992)
  • G. Douglas Atkins, Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth (University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA: 2005)
  • G. Douglas Atkins, Reading Essays: An Invitation (University of Georgia Press, Athens GA: 2008)
  • Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life Of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Chatto & Windus, London: 2010)
  • Bruce Ballenger, Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction (Longman, Pearson Education Inc: Boston etc.:2011)
  • Alexander J. Butrym (ed.), Essays on the Essay (University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA: 1989)
  • Richard M. Chadbourne, "A Puzzling Literary Genre: Comparative Views of the Essay", Comparative Literature Studies, Vol.20 no.1 (1983), 131-153
  • Rachel Blau Duplessis, "f-Words: An Essay on the Essay", in American Literature Vol.68 no.1 (1996), pp.15-46
  • Patricia Foster & Jeff Porter (eds.), Understanding the Essay (Broadview Press, Peterborough: 2012)
  • Graham Good, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (Routledge, London: 1988)
  • Carl H. Klaus, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City: 2010)
  • Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey French (eds.), Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City: 2012)
  • David Lazar & Pat Madden (eds.), Covering Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, Athens GA: 2015)
  • Claire de Obaldia, The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1995)
  • Brian Dillon, Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London: 2017)
    Note: Essayism doesn’t fit neatly in the category of “Critical Studies”. The cover blurb on Brian Dillon’s fascinating book puts the matter well: “Essayism is a personal, critical and polemical book about the genre, its history and contemporary possibilities. It’s an example of what it describes: an essay that is curious and digressive, exciting yet evasive, a form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure. Among the essayists to whom he pays tribute — from Virginia Woolf to Georges Perec, Joan Didion to Sir Thomas Browne — Brian Dillon discovers a path back into his own life as a reader, and out of melancholia to a new sense of writing as adventure.”

Practical Guides

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There are several books, of varying quality, that seek to guide writers in this genre, for instance:

  • Sheila Bender, Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page (Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati: 1995)
  • Lynn Z. Bloom, Fact and Artifact: Writing Nonfiction (Prentice Hall/Blair Press, Boston: 1994)
  • Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life (Story Press, Cincinnati: 1996)
  • Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley, New York: 1997)
  • Stephen Minot, Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre (Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 2003)
  • Robert Root & Michael Steinberg, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (Longman, New York: 2001)
  • Bruce Ballenger, Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction (Longman, Pearson Education Inc: Boston etc.:2011)
  • Sara Haslam & Derek Neale, Life Writing (Routledge, London: 2009)
  • Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, New York: 2005)
  • Sondra Perl & Mimi Schwartz, Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 2006)

Electronic Resources

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There is some useful web-based material on the essay — the problem lies in finding it! Putting "essay" into a search engine merely results in a ream of references to essay-writing services for students, very little on the essay form as a literary genre. Searching under "Montaigne" and "essai" (rather than essay) gives more useful results.

  • "Quotidiana" is an excellent site dedicated to the essay. It's principally the brainchild of Patrick Madden. He and his collaborators have assembled various conference papers, bibliographies and interviews with contemporary essayists, together with an extensive anthology of classical essays. The site also has a section on the "essayest" American essay — where Madden and his students select what they consider the most essayistic essays appearing annually in American literary journals. Madden includes "Room, Empty" — from Words of the Grey Wind — and "(En)trance" — from Irish Elegies — for "essayest" essays lists.
  • Bruce Ballenger provides a short Bibliography of the Personal Essay available for download here.
  • Creative Nonfiction not only publishes work in this genre, it also contains material about it.
  • Robert L Root's website is worth consulting.
  • Daniel Nester, a Professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, has interests in the essay/creative nonfiction and has compiled a short bibliography.
  • Michigan University Press's excellent Fourth Genre journal considers itself as "a learning community, a place where writers and readers can meet and engage in conversations, ask questions, experiment, test boundaries, offer advice, and share insights into literary nonfiction". Their forum section in particular offers helpful material.
  • The goal of Assay — edited by Karen Babine — is "to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read". The journal's philosophy is further outlined via a quote from Paul Gruchow: "There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place." The Assay site suggests that "'nonfiction' could be substituted for 'place' and the ideas will still apply." Assay's physical base is at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
  • The Essay Review — Editors-in-Chief Lucy Schiller & Emmett Rensin — has so far published two issues, Spring 2013 (including work by Jeff Porter, David Lazar, and Ned Stuckey-French), and Fall 2014 (including work by Douglas Atkins, Jill Talbot, and Robert Root). The journal provides this description of its rationale: "The purpose of The Essay Review is to recognize the poetic, academic, social, and existential achievements of the nonfiction essay. We accept literary criticism of nonfiction, which includes discussions of the methods, poetics, and goals used in existing works of nonfiction. We also accept original essays and critical works that explore the realities, confusions, and identities within the genre. We encourage our contributors to debate and discuss the definition of the 'essay' as well as address the nebulous divide between 'fiction' and 'nonfiction.' The goal of The Essay Review is to approach nonfiction with similar critical techniques used in the analyses of fiction, poetry, and drama."
  •, edited by Ander Monson & Craig Reinbold, "is a space for ongoing conversation about essays & essayists of note, contemporary and not-so-much. We mostly publish critical/creative (not to say academic, necessarily) engagements with interesting essays (text and visual), Q&As with essays or essayists, and reviews of essays, essay collections or book length essays, or literary journals that publish essays".
  • The Essay Prize "is given each year to the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying — of inquiry, rumination, discovery, and change. Open to projects in any medium or form — be it text, film, radio, performance, or other — the Essay Prize intentionally stretches the definition of "essaying" in order to celebrate work that is defined by what it does — the activity that it engages in — rather than what it is — its "nonfictional" verifiability."

Individual Essayists

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Listings here will vary enormously depending on which areas are selected for examination within the broad territory of the essay/creative nonfiction and, within the chosen area(s), which individual writers are then highlighted.

There are many different ways of mapping the various topographies within the genre's diverse territory. For instance, one could proceed nationally (English essay, French essay, American essay etc). As Richard Chadbourne points out, as well as "a surprising amount of agreement" concerning the nature of the genre, "each national essay tradition has its peculiar emphasis" ("A Puzzling Literary Genre: Comparative Views of the Essay", Comparative Literature Studies Vol.20 no, 1 (1983), p.149). The Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier (and with Chadbourne as one of the team of specialist advisers) offers one possible starting point for exploring the "peculiar emphasis" of national traditions, with articles on the American, Australian, British, Canadian, Chinese, French, German, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish essay. It's also interesting to look at nationally based anthologies - for example The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays (edited by Ilan Stavans) or The Oxford Book of Australian Essays (edited by Imre Salusinszky), both published in 1997.

That it is not always straightforward to place individual essayists within their "home" national tradition is something stressed by John Wilson Foster in his Foreword to Chris Arthur's Words of the Grey Wind:

"Ireland, of course, has produced its quota of essayists, from Oliver Goldsmith through (among others) Thomas Davis, Robert Lynd, Thomas Kettle, Stephen Gwynn and Filson Young to Hubert Butler. But if Lynd can be regarded as the Irish exponent par excellence of the English essay, it's clear that Arthur belongs to some other tradition, if he is not sui generis. His thought-processes are too unconfined, his subjects at once too spacious and narrowly focused, his procedure too conceptually chaste, and his intention too severely tasking, for the English essay."

Foster points to possible parallels with Octavio Paz or Gaston Bachelard. Is there an identifiable type of Irish essay? If so, in what ways does it differ from the English essay? Though there are, of course, numerous anthologies of Irish poetry, there is no Oxford (or similar) Book of Irish Essays. It is interesting to speculate what the contents of such a volume might be.

John Eglinton's Anglo-Irish Essays (The Talbot Press, Dublin: 1917) might make one ask whether, within the broad category of "Irish" essays, one might discern various "ethnic" types (Celtic, Ulster, Anglo-Irish). It could also be argued that in a twenty-first century context, instead of talking in terms of the American, Australian, Canadian, English and Irish essay traditions, it might make more sense to consider how "the essay in English" is informed by a whole welter of influences in a richly pluralistic globalized culture.

However the Irish essay is mapped, a prominent place needs to be given to Hubert Butler (1900-1991). Dublin's Lilliput Press published four of Butler's collections: Escape from the Anthill (1985), The Children of Drancy (1988), Grandmother and Wolfe Tone (1990) and the posthumously published In the Land of Nod (1996). Penguin brought out a selected essays volume in 1990, The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue, and Butler was introduced to the American market in 1996 with a selection of essays entitled Independent Spirit (edited by Elizabeth Sifton and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Irish Pages published a collection of essays on Hubert Butler in 2003 - Unfinished Ireland, edited by Chris Agee, and The Irish Pages Press also brought out a new selection of Butler’s essays in 2016, Balkan Essays by Hubert Butler. Reviewing Irish Willow in the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Vol.30 no.1 [2004], pp.86-87) Denis Sampson is one of several critics to compare Butler and Arthur. He comments: "Hubert Butler is his nearest kin in the field of Irish writing, a figure largely neglected for most of his writing life; it is to be hoped that the genre Arthur has chosen will not cause his unique body of work to be similarly neglected."

Some further ideas about national traditions in essay writing, with particular reference to Ireland, can be found in “An Irish Essay(ist)?”

Instead of proceeding by country, the extensive, sometimes confusing, territory of the essay might also be mapped chronologically (eighteenth century essayists, contemporary essayists), or according to type (autobiographical essay, medical essay, personal essay, travel essay, familiar essay etc).

"Nature Writing" is one particularly interesting sub-genre. As well as essays by such writers as Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Dodd, Edward Hoagland, Reg Saner, there are some book-length pieces of prose in this area bearing some intriguing similarities to the essay form. Examples here might include: J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (1967); Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1975); Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014); James Macdonald Lockhart, Raptor: A Journey Through Birds (2016); and, from an Irish perspective, Michael Viney's A Year's Turning (1996).

Two brilliant examples of essay writing that don't fit easily into any of the categories suggested above are:

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books, New York: 2013)

Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (The British Museum, in conjunction with the BBC, published by Allen Lane, London: 2010)

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Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time3.82 · Rating details ·  22 Ratings  ·  4 Reviews

The first historically and internationally comprehensive collection of its kind, Essayists on the Essay is a path-breaking work that is nothing less than a richly varied sourcebook for anyone interested in the theory, practice, and art of the essay. This unique work includes a selection of fifty distinctive pieces by American, Canadian, English, European, and South AmericaThe first historically and internationally comprehensive collection of its kind, Essayists on the Essay is a path-breaking work that is nothing less than a richly varied sourcebook for anyone interested in the theory, practice, and art of the essay. This unique work includes a selection of fifty distinctive pieces by American, Canadian, English, European, and South American essayists from Montaigne to the present—many of which have not previously been anthologized or translated—as well as a detailed bibliographical and thematic guide to hundreds of additional works about the essay.

From a buoyant introduction that provides a sweeping historical and analytic overview of essayists’ thinking about their genre—a collective poetics of the essay—to the detailed headnotes offering pointed information about both the essayists themselves and the anthologized selections, to the richly detailed bibliographic sections, Essayists on the Essay is essential to anyone who cares about the form.

This collection provides teachers, scholars, essayists, and readers with the materials they need to take a fresh look at this important but often overlooked form that has for too long been relegated to the role of service genre—used primarily to write about other more “literary” genres or to teach young people how to write. Here, in a single celebratory volume, are four centuries of commentary and theory reminding us of the essay’s storied history, its international appeal, and its relationship not just with poetry and fiction but also with radio, film, video, and new media.


Paperback, 333 pages

Published March 15th 2012 by University Of Iowa Press

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