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Essays: a brief history

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, February 2021; written by Pat Tully

I’ve always loved essays. A good essay is succinct, focused and surprising. The best essays jolt the reader into realizing that their personal experience is universal—shared across eras and cultures.

Michel de Montaigne was born in France in 1533 to a wealthy family, and he popularized the familiar essay. His collected works, Essais, are still widely read today. Montaigne strove to describe himself as honestly and accurately as possible, and this became easier as time went on:

“I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.”

As a young man Charles Lamb experienced a stunning family tragedy. In 1796 his sister Mary, in a fit of madness, killed their mother. She was institutionalized but soon released into Charles’ custody. For most of the rest of their lives Charles and Mary lived together happily, and both wrote essays for publication. Charles was a gentle soul, who once exclaimed,

“Don't introduce me to that man! I want to go on hating him, and I can't hate a man whom I know.”

The American essay grew with the country, from Thomas Paine’s ringing calls for independence during the Revolution, to Washington Irving’s sly and witty Knickerbocker’s History of New York, to Edgar Allan Poe’s cutting reviews of his literary contemporaries. My favorite American essayists are the Transcendentalists, with Henry David Thoreau leading the pack. Thoreau’s passion for the real is inspiring,

“Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”

James Thurber wrote essays and short stories for the New Yorker, as well as drawing wonderfully bad cartoons with very funny captions. He loved dogs and his most evocative essays are about his pets, even the mean ones:

“Muggs was always sorry, Mother said, when he bit someone, but we could never understand how she figured this out. He didn't act sorry.”

David Sedaris is a frequent guest on National Public Radio with a distinctive voice. Sedaris has published several volumes of essays about his life and everyday adventures.

“Over Christmas we looked through boxes of family pictures and played a game we call 'Find Mom, find Mom's cigarettes.' There's one in every picture. We've got photos of her pregnant, leaning toward a lit match, and others of her posing with her newborn babies, the smoke forming a halo above our heads.”

Books with works by all these essayists and many more are available from the Ketchikan Public Library or the UAS-Ketchikan Campus Library. If you want to sample the best essays from a variety of writers, check out the new book, The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate. Happy reading!

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