On the Difficulty of Introducing a Work of this Kind

Kathryn Murphy, Thomas Karshan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This introduction addresses problems in the history of the essay, and criticism and scholarship on it. Although the essay’s origin is easy to date – Montaigne’s Essais (1580) was the first book of that title – it is notoriously difficult to define; and there is remarkably little scholarship and criticism on it. This introduction asks why, offering a prehistory in Plutarch, Seneca, miscellaneous writing, and commonplacing; examining the metaphorical range of the term ‘essay’, and various other names for the form; exploring the transformation of Montaigne’s legacy in England; surveying criticism on the essay; and exploring the contradictions in its use in pedagogy. Rather than attempting a definition, the introduction explores how the essay resists one, exposing a sequence of contradictions which anticipate the subsequent chapters: that the essay can be institutional or amateurish; methodical or anti-methodical; artistic or scientific; detached or polemical; intimate or formal; sociable or isolated; journalistic or philosophical; poetic or novelistic.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOn Essays
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198707868
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020

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