On the Difficulty of Introducing a Work of this Kind

Thomas Karshan, Kathryn Murphy

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


The 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
Subtitle of host publicationMontaigne to the Present
EditorsThomas Karshan, Kathryn Murphy
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780198707868
ISBN (Print)9780198707868
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020


  • Adorno
  • Commonplacing
  • Definitions of the essay
  • Essay
  • Leigh hunt
  • Method
  • Miscellaneity
  • Montaigne
  • Origins of the essay
  • The novel

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