Any discussion of the American essay must begin with the problem of definition, rooted in the bifurcate history of the essay and in the nature of the genre itself. Depending on the type of essay in discussion, one of two progenitors is named: the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, father of the informal essay, or the Englishman Francis Bacon, father of the formal. In the years since 1580 and 1601, when, respectively, Montaigne and Bacon published their first volumes of essays, writers and critics have wrangled over the “true” characteristics of the essay in an attempt to nail down the form. But if anything has remained constant about the essay over the centuries, it is the essay's refusal to remain in one place, its chameleonic adaptability to the changing social, political, and literary climate. Thus, the essay may be labeled familiar, personal, autobiographical, literary, creative nonfiction, or academic; or it may be named for its chief subject: the nature essay, the science essay, the philosophical essay, the review essay. It may take the shape of a letter, a periodical serial, a political tract, a newspaper or magazine column. Whatever the prevailing label or shape, the American essay is as varied as its possibilities.Less
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