A brief glance at our table of contents might suggest that this book is essentially a collection of fifty pieces about the essay by essayists from Montaigne to the present. But beyond the collection, it is also a guide to hundreds of additional pieces on the essay, as one can see by consulting our bibliography and the thematic guide that follows it. With the aid of this bibliographical guide, we hope to stimulate research and commentary that might lead toward a poetics and analytics of the essay, as suggested by our introduction, “Essayists on the Essay: Toward a Collective Poetics.”
Our decision to produce this sourcebook is the result of a conviction that despite the extraordinary growth of interest in the essay during the past twenty-five years—thanks to such important projects as Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays series, Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, and G. Douglas Atkins’s recent books on the essay—the essay has largely been ignored in the world of criticism and theory. By virtue of being the hand-maiden of criticism, the medium in which other forms of literature, art, and culture are interpreted, the essay perhaps has seemed to need no explanation. As if it were transparent as a pane of glass. How else to account for the fact that during the past twenty-five years only a handful of academic books have been devoted to defining it or interpreting it.
But essayists themselves have not been reticent about the nature, form, and purpose of the essay, reflecting on it in columns, prefaces, introductions, letters, and reviews, as well as in essays on the essay and occasionally in book length works about it. Taken all in all, they have produced an extensive body of commentary that constitutes the heart of our concern in this sourcebook. Our collection offers a historically and culturally representative sampling, dominated during the early centuries by English essayists, who were then more self-consciously concerned with the essay than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. But during the twentieth century, as our collection reflects, American, Latin-American, and European essayists became increasingly more concerned with the nature and significance of the genre. Likewise, women writers became more concerned with the genre during the twentieth century, as reflected in our table of contents.
Some of the pieces in our collection are reprinted here in their entirety, others are excerpts that we have made because they embody significant issues, themes, or points of view in the history of thinking about the essay. Our headnotes provide information about the essayists and their works and about the main idea(s) of the selections themselves.
Our bibliography includes not only essays on the essay, but a wide variety of other titles, ranging from brief prefaces and reviews to book-length works that reflect on some aspect of the essay and/or the essayist. We wish it had been possible to reprint more of the pieces that appear in the bibliography and that we mention in the introduction, but the collection is meant to be representative rather than exhaustive. On the other hand, our guide to the bibliography offers a broad range of thematically related pieces for further study.
Though precursors of the essay can be found in ancient Greece, Rome, China, and Japan, our collection begins with Montaigne, for he is the first essayist to reflect on the nature and form of the essay, as well as being its major progenitor, having named it and produced such an enduringly influential book of essays. We have in turn devoted this sourcebook solely to the commentary of essayists who have published at least one collection or the equivalent, because as practitioners of the form they know it and understand it from the inside. Thus we have not included or listed scholarly or textbook material on the essay, unless it was authored by an essayist.
While we refer to Montaigne and his successors as essayists, it’s well to remember that most of them have not earned their living by penning essays. Montaigne was a statesman and diplomat, Bacon a barrister and member of Parliament, Boyle a scientist, Lamb a bookkeeper. Even when they have been professional writers, essayists have usually identified themselves not as essayists but as philosophers, critics, playwrights, and more recently as novelists, editors, or professors. Thus we are keenly aware that most essayists have a life and a living beyond the essay that often informs their thinking about it in one way or another. But for the purposes of this book, an essayist is someone who has written essays and written something about the essay itself, which we seek to highlight in our individual headnotes.
Our bibliography grew out of the work of an essay study group at the University of Iowa. For their assistance in discovering and discussing commentary on the essay, we’re very grateful to our former colleagues in that group—Maura Brady, Cassie Kircher, Michele Payne, John Price, and Dan Roche.