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  • Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay
  • Robert Atwan (bio)

Anyone who has attempted to write about the essay knows how difficult the genre is to define. Yet essayists over the centuries have sought some sort of definition, despite the fact that the first modern essayist, Montaigne, the writer who gave the form its name, had the good sense to avoid defining the strange sort of prose he was in the process of inventing.

I'm not saying that poetry, fiction, and drama are any easier to define than the essay. My point is simply that anyone writing about these forms, unless of course the goal is explicitly critical genre theory, will not feel under a similar obligation to propose definitions. So, what is it about essays in particular that makes us nervous?

Before I boldly and perhaps foolishly propose a definition of the essay, I want to explore why the form seems to demand one. The reasons are historical, critical, and educational. I'll begin with a brief examination of these, and then focus on the practical problems I face as the editor of the annual Best American Essays series and of numerous college anthologies that feature essays.

First, the historical problem. As most readers know, the origin of the essay is usually traced to one writer, Montaigne, who began composing [End Page 109] his peculiar prose pieces in the 1570s. At first, he has no literary category to describe what he is doing, nor does he appear to even possess conventional rhetorical aims. In nearly all previous prose compositions, the act of writing remained in the background; Montaigne is perhaps the first to foreground the writing process. In his prose, he refused to adopt, as did his sixteenth-century contemporaries, a professional, scholarly, clerical, or judicial authority. He allowed himself no authoritative posture—only that of being an author.

As his pieces accumulated, Montaigne settled on the word essai to characterize his literary efforts. The word was an ordinary term that at the time had no literary resonance. Like most common words it carried a broad range of connotations. The etymology of essai can be traced to the late Latin exagium, which meant "to weigh" or "a weight." By the fourth century, the term had spread to the Romance languages with the additional and modern meaning of "to attempt" or "to try." Though we normally translate the title of Montaigne's book as Essays, suggesting only the genre, we should remember that in his time the term suggested no literary genre and would be read as "attempts" or "trials," or, since the verb essayer had a wide spectrum of synonyms, it could also suggest: to sample, taste, practice, take a risk, to experiment, to improvise, to try out, to sound—and these are only a few ways we might understand the term. As Hugo Friedrich says in his splendid book on Montaigne, the word also implied modest beginnings and a learner's first attempts. The word essay, then, served as a caution not to take the work too seriously; these weren't, after all, airtight arguments or conclusive treatises. The essays had an unfinished quality; I hear in the original use of essay something akin to a sketch or rough draft.

Montaigne deliberately pursued an anti-systematic and anti-rhetorical method of composition. He purposefully defied the formal conventions of classification, division, logical progression, etc. that characterized serious prose. And he thus established an ironic authorial posture: the art of his essays would be grounded in the illusion of their artlessness. His essays would reflect the mind in process. The writer will not worry about main points and thesis statements, as digressions lead to further digressions and his thematic destination disappears. [End Page 110] A practicing Catholic, he doesn't even try to avoid the mortal sin of inconsistency. For Montaigne, the essay essentially came to represent a compositional subversion of the established rhetorical order, as his fluid thoughts appear to be generated solely from the act of writing and not from a preconceived plan. From this brief description of Montaigne's method we can see how far first-year college writing programs, with their emphasis on clarity...