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Tracing the Essay

Through Experience to Truth

G. Douglas Atkins

Publication Year: 2005

The essay, as a notably hard form of writing to pin down, has inspired some unflattering descriptions: It is a “greased pig,” for example, or a “pair of baggy pants into which nearly anything and everything can fit.” In Tracing the Essay, G. Douglas Atkins embraces the very qualities that have moved others to accord the essay second-class citizenship in the world of letters.

Drawing from the work of Montaigne and Bacon and recent practitioners such as E. B. White and Cynthia Ozick, Atkins shows what the essay means--and how it comes to mean. The essay, related to assaying (attempting), mines experience for meaning, which it then carefully weighs. It is a via media creature, says Atkins, born of and embracing tension. It exists in places between experience and meaning, literature and philosophy, self and other, process and product, form and formlessness. Moreover, as a literary form the essay is inseparable from a way of life requiring wisdom, modesty, and honesty. “The essay was, historically,” notes Atkins, “the first form to take the experience of the individual and make it the stuff of literature.”

Atkins also considers the essay's basis in Renaissance (and Reformation) thinking and its participation in voyages of exploration and discovery of that age. Its concern is “home-cosmography,” to use a term from seventeenth-century writer William Habington. Responding to influential critiques of the essay's supposed self-indulgence, lack of irony, and absence of form, Atkins argues that the essay exhibits a certain “sneakiness” as it proceeds in, through, and by means of the small and the mundane toward the spiritual and the revelatory.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

In Estranging the Familiar (Georgia, 1992), I embraced "the return of/to the essay" and explored its value for literary criticism. Here, I probe more deeply and widely, hoping to interest a larger audience. There, I ended with an essay---or at least a memoir---about...

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pp. 1-8

My life change d the day I rediscovered the essay. In freshman English twenty-five years before, we had been forced to read essays and then to attempt a few of our own. I hated reading J. B. Priestley and Francis Bacon and Oliver Wendell Holmes and failed miserably at trying to write like them. I shamelessly...

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Irony or Sneakiness: On the Essay's Second-Class Citizenship

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pp. 9-26

The essay is, of course, the form literary commentary has traditionally taken, at least until the MLA, German scholarship, and so-called professionalism expunged belles lettres in favor of the book-length monograph and the "definite article," which are impersonal, closed, purely logical, and...

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Home-Cosmography: The Renaissance Basis of the Essay

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pp. 27-46

Few would dispute that the essay as we know it began with Michel de Montaigne's first edition of his Essais in 1580. Significant predecessors had appeared in ancient Rome, the prose writings of Seneca and Plutarch in particular, and in the Orient there had been the tenth-century meditations of Sei Shonagon...

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The Most Self-Centered of Forms?: Distinguishing the Essay

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pp. 47-62

"The stench of ego" attends the essayist. Montaigne is clear that in his new-fangled Essais he "had only myself as object of my thoughts," "constantly describing myself," portraying "chiefly" his "cogitations," and thereby writing down himself, his "essence."1 Following suit, Thoreau announced on...

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Assaying Experience: Time, Meaning, and the Essay

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pp. 63-94

"It's about time" at once describes the drive of the essay, its essential direction if you will, and points to the revival, at last, of this venerable form after decades of desuetude. News of its death, proclaimed by Joseph Wood Krutch in 1951 and born of curricular and popular neglect alike, proved...

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Paradox Abounding: Tension and the Via Media Nature of the Essay

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pp. 95-122

The greatest internal threat to the West may be the culture of self-esteem, a much-ballyhooed legacy of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an essential component of the unleashed individualism that the French Revolution, Romanticism, and modernism developed in fearful but not unforeseen...

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Form and Meaning: The Essay's Immanent Purposiveness

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pp. 123-144

Form is not meaning. To say so is tempting, and perhaps understandable, but it is also to elide difference and enter a dangerous collapse. By the same token, we can say that form is not "not meaning." Further, we can say this: without form meaning does not exist. In, through, and by means of form...

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In-Betweenness: The Burden of the Essay

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pp. 145-162

The idea of the essay as embodied truth, which I advanced in the preceding chapter, is important because it qualifies the familiar stress on voice, defining what has been merely assumed while reducing a certain problematic. "Embodied truth" is a term at once more specific and more inclusive than the deconstructed...


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pp. 163-172


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pp. 173-180

E-ISBN-13: 9780820330822
E-ISBN-10: 0820330825
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820327617
Print-ISBN-10: 0820327611

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2005