What is an essay, and how did the essay emerge as a literary form? What are the continuities and surprising emergences across its history, from Montaigne’s 1580 Essais to the present? This volume assembles seventeen essays which address patterns and oddities in the history of the genre, paying attention both to the transformed legacies of the earliest essayists across the centuries, and to the form’s contemporary vibrancy. Contributors, both scholars and essayists, draw out paradoxes of what is considered the fourth genre, often overshadowed in literary history and criticism by fiction, poetry, and drama. The essay is at once a pedagogical tool, and a refusal of the technical languages of universities and professions; politically engaged but retired and independent; erudite and anti-pedantic; occasional and enduring; intimate and oratorical; allusive and idiosyncratic. The volume shows the essay as an ambassador between philosophy and public life, learnedness and experience. Since it is a form of writing against which academic work has defined itself, there has been surprisingly little scholarship on the history of the essay. On Essays addresses this dearth, not as a history or companion, but through a series of studies of major themes across the history of the genre.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages380
ISBN (Electronic)9780198707868
ISBN (Print)9780198707868
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sep 2020


  • Essay
  • miscellaneity
  • theory of the essay
  • literary form
  • history of the essay
  • prose genres
  • the novel
  • association

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