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The best single-volume anthologies are Lydia Fakundiny's (Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1991) and Philip Lopate's (Doubleday/Anchor, New York: 1994). Both contain selections that include classic examples of the genre and some less expected candidates. Both provide intelligent commentary. Fakundiny's volume is particularly useful because of her introduction, "On Approaching the Essay", which gives a brilliant characterisation of the form. Her sections on "Montaigne and the Essay" and "Essayists on Their Art" are also good.
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... Today's essays stem from a confluence of many tributaries, the sources of which are not always clear, nor is it easy to map their meanderings or determine where one river of words merged with another in the great watercourse of prose in which our wordy species swims. Montaigne (1533-1592) is usually presented as the inventor of this form, with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) named as its originator in English — leading on to that famous duo of periodical essayists, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) — and from them, in various leaps and bounds (Johnson, Goldsmith, Lamb, Hazlitt, Carlyle, Thackeray, Stevenson, Belloc, Chesterton) to Woolf and Orwell, with whose contributions histories of this particular vein too often stop, as if the genre was now of merely historical interest.
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Whatever conclusions we reach about the provenance of the essay, when we're thinking about its origin and development we need to remember that the Western perspective is only one, and the English essay is not its sole representative. In his book on and entitled (2000), David Pollard includes examples from the work of essayists who lived centuries before Montaigne. Looking to the Classical world, we can also point to proto-essayists in figures like Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca. There are many national traditions of essay writing. The French essay, the English essay and the American essay are particularly rich seams in the deposits of this genre, but they are by no means the only ones. Scholars can identify key figures along the way and plot out how they've influenced each other, they can categorize essays into types — the personal essay, the nature essay, the medical essay and so on — but it's impossible to be sure when or where this form first emerged or what its boundaries are. It surely existed before it was so named, and did so simultaneously in different places in different forms. This is not a genre with any single point of origin, neatly circumscribed characteristics or clearly demarcated territory. Though there are some crucially important wellsprings — most obviously Montaigne — who's to say which shard of prose, in which language, in which century constitutes the original ur-essay that set the standard for its descendants to follow? Following a set pattern is, in any case, alien to this type of writing. R. Lane Kauffmann refers to the "skewed path" that essays follow, and to their "unmethodical method." Graham Good talks about "the essay's multiplicity of forms," its "spontaneity, its unpredictability, its very lack of a system." This is a fugitive and unpredictable genre. It prefers the margins to the mainstream, it eschews conformity. It's what William Gass terms a "watchful" form, inclined more to scepticism, dissent and heresy than to any literary orthodoxy.
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However questionable the lineage may be, many essayists do claim Montaigne as forbear and there's no doubt that the sense he attached to the word "essai" in 1580 still potently influences the sense in which many practitioners of the form understand it today. And of course his work continues to impress. I was pleased — what essayist wouldn't be? — when one reviewer suggested that I was "a worthy inheritor of the tradition of Montaigne" — though I'm far from convinced I actually deserve this compliment. "Essai" for Montaigne meant "a trial or attempt", and it's the experimental nature of the genre that gives it much of its appeal, the way it allows one to try things out. It offers no set procedure. It is, rather, a style of wondering and wandering in prose that tolerates massive variation in length, in language and in subject matter. As Carl Klaus puts it, "the essay is an open form" which "gives a writer the freedom to travel in any direction." As Lydia Fakundiny says — in (1991) — it "obeys no compulsion to tie up what may look like loose ends;" it "tolerates a fair amount of indeterminacy;" it "steers away from logically ordered sequences of elaboration." There's no pretence at closure or conclusion. Essays are sympathetically fragmentary, as inchoate as our lives are.