In case you are in a college, it is obvious why the word ‘essay’ sends chills down your spine. As a college assignment, an essay is not always the most pleasant piece of writing because it often makes you analyze and evaluate a topic you haven’t chosen and have no particular interest in. Yet, an essay has an established role in the history of both world literature and American literature. In her article ‘The Rise of the Essay’, Zadie Smith posed a very interesting question: “Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel… ” So, what makes essayists essayists? Why do they choose (voluntarily!) to write essays, these pesky works which annoy so many modern students? It can happen that in essays authors can express all the ideas that bother them at the moment. Creating a great essay is an art because it requires writers to organize their thoughts in a rather short literary form and, nevertheless, do this in a unique, creative manner. Essays reflect writers’ true potential; so, it is understandable why an essay has such a long and interesting history. Let’s see how an American essay has developed over centuries. In this post, we are going to talk about great American writers and their contribution to the establishment of the essay as an independent literary genre.
Colonial Period: Till 1763
The early years of the American literature were far from being independent. It was highly influenced by British authors because the English literature has been established long before the new continent was discovered by Columbus. Yet, already at this point, America had its first essayists such as Samuel Sewall and John Woolman.
- Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) was a businessman and a judge. In his essay The Selling of Joseph, written in 1700, Sewall criticized African slavery and slave trade in North America.
- John Woolman (1720 – 1772) was a merchant and a journalist. His three major essays were dedicated to slavery as well. These were On the Slave Trade, On Trading in Superfluities, and Serious Considerations on Trade.
Revolutionary Period: 1764 – 1789
Tensions between Britain and the colonies resulted in the War of Independence, or American Revolution, which caused the creation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Finally, the Americans became independent from Britain. Certainly, the overall revolutionary moods of the country had to influence essay writers significantly. The most famous essayists of this time were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
- Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) was one of the most outstanding figures in American history. A politician, diplomat, scientist, and a great author, he made an enormous contribution to American literature. His works include The Whistle, The Way to Wealth, The Temple of Learning, etc.
- Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) was a philosopher and an important political activist. His major works are The Rights of Men, The American Crisis, and Common Sense. His works reflected the ideas of the era of Enlightenment and were dedicated to human rights.
- Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) is famous for being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
- Other famous essay writers were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.
Era of Romanticism: 1820 – 1860
This period is defined by increasing desire to produce truly American literature. The most names in the American literature became Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), and Edgar Allan Poe. Just as well as their European colleagues, American writers paid a lot of attention to nature, to a person’s self, to emotions, etc. Such elements as rebellion and heroism were an integral part of the literature of this period. Famous essayists of the Romantic era were:
- Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) was one of the first American writers who became popular in Europe. Tales of a Traveller was his collection of essays.
- Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) and his essays such as The Poetic Principle and The Philosophy of Furniture.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) and his works: Nominalist and Realist, Love, New England Reformers, etc.
- Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) wrote the following essays: A Winter Walk, Life Without Principle, Wild Apples, etc.
- Other outstanding essays writers were Margaret Fuller, Jones Very, and Bronson Alcott.
Era of Realism: 1860 – 1914
This period has very clear boundaries – two great wars that significantly influenced American culture – the Civil War and the World War I. Changes in social life, rapid industrialization and urbanization – all these were major factors that impacted authors’ writing style. Writers wanted to depict life as it was. Here are the most prominent writers of this period:
- Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) and his essays What Is Man, Advice to Youth, etc.
- Henry James (1843 – 1916) and the work The Art of Fiction
- Thomas Nelson Page (1853 – 1922) and his The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem
- Henry Adams, Mary Austin, Louisa may Alcott, etc.
The Beginning of the 20th Century till Modern Times
The 20th-century American literature gave the world a pleiad of talented authors who were working in a variety of new genres. The 20th (and the 21st) century are characterized by experiments in literature as well as returning to older, classic genres. The most prominent essay writers of this era are as follows:
- Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) and the work Camping Out
- Francis Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) and the essay The Crack-Up
- William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) and such essays as On Criticism and Note on a Fable
- Joan Didion (1934 - present) and the following works: Goodbye to All That, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, On Self Respect, etc.
- Stephen King (1947 - present) and the essays The Best Book You Can’t Read, Just a Little Talent, etc.
- Marilynne Robinson (1943 - present) and the collection of essays The Givenness of Things