From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"His foolish project of describing himself!" --Blaise Pascal
An essay is a piece of writing which is often written from an author's personal point of view. Essays can consist of a number of elements, including: literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population are counterexamples.
In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams. The concept of an "essay" has been extended to other mediums beyond writing. A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary film making styles and which focuses more on the evolution of a theme or an idea. A photographic essay is an attempt to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs; it may or may not have an accompanying text or captions.
An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse".
It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece". Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:
- The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole "write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description".
- The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole "do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists on setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data".
- The abstract-universal: In this pole "we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions", who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience.
Huxley adds that "the most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist".
The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres Morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
English essayists included Robert Burton (1577–1640) and Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). In Italy, Baldassare Castiglione wrote about courtly manners in his essay Il libro del cortegiano. In the 17th century, the Jesuit Baltasar Gracián wrote about the theme of wisdom. During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position; they also featured heavily in the rise of periodical literature, as seen in the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote essays for the general public. The early 19th century in particular saw a proliferation of great essayists in English – William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thomas de Quincey all penned numerous essays on diverse subjects. In the 20th century, a number of essayists tried to explain the new movements in art and culture by using essays (e.g., T.S. Eliot). Whereas some essayists used essays for strident political themes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote lighter essays. Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos wrote literary criticism essays.
In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch upon which a final painting or sculpture is based, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essay's meaning of "attempt" or "trial").
In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.
A film essay (or "cinematic essay") consists of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se; or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The cinematic essay often blends documentary, fiction, and experimental film making using a tones and editing styles.
The genre is not well-defined but might include works of early Soviet parliamentarians like Dziga Vertov, present-day filmmakers including Chris Marker, Michael Moore (Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line (1988)), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me: A Film of Epic Proportions) and Agnès Varda. Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays". Two filmmakers whose work was the antecedent to the cinematic essay include Georges Méliès and Bertolt Brecht. Méliès made a short film (The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)) about the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, which mixes actual footage with shots of a recreation of the event. Brecht was a playwright who experimented with film and incorporated film projections into some of his plays. Orson Welles made an essay film in his own pioneering style which was released in 1974 called F for Fake, which dealt specifically with art forger Elmyr de Hory and with the themes of deception, "fakery," and authenticity in general.
David Winks Gray's article "The essay film in action" states that the "essay film became an identifiable form of film making in the 1950s and '60s". He states that since that time, essay films have tended to be "on the margins" of the film making world. Essay films have a "peculiar searching, questioning tone" which is "between documentary and fiction" but without "fitting comfortably" into either genre. Gray notes that just like written essays, essay films "tend to marry the personal voice of a guiding narrator (often the director) with a wide swath of other voices". The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque website echoes some of Gray's comments; it calls a film essay an "intimate and allusive" genre that "catches filmmakers in a pensive mood, ruminating on the margins between fiction and documentary" in a manner that is "refreshingly inventive, playful, and idiosyncratic".
A photographic essay is an attempt to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order, or they may consist of non-ordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer. All photo essays are collections of photographs, but not all collections of photographs are photo essays. Photo essays often address a certain issue or attempt to capture the character of places and events.
- Abstract (summary)
- Body (writing)
- Book report
- Essay thesis
- Five paragraph essay
- List of essayists
- Schaffer paragraph