The American Essay
The American Essay
- Jenny SpinnerJenny SpinnerThe Writing Center, St. Joseph's University
America’s earliest essayists largely imitated their European counterparts. The writers abroad they most admired—periodical essayists like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the 18th century and familiar essayists like Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt in the 19th century—heavily influenced the essays they penned at home. Yet amid these imitations are glimmers of voices and experiences unique to America. Benjamin Franklin’s clear and direct prose style, combined with his down-to-earth diction, make him one of the best and most readable of the early American periodical essayists. In the first half of the 19th century, American essayists found reception for their work in the country’s many new magazines and quarterlies founded in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Among these writers, Washington Irving is often named as America’s first true essayist. Other influential essayists of this period include humor essayists like Mark Twain, who published social and political lampoons of American life. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, leaders of the American Transcendentalist movement, were influential thinkers and prolific writers as well. Emerson’s disciple, Henry David Thoreau, is a pioneer of the nature essay, which numerous writers since have used to explore America’s vast and varied landscape. Nineteenth-century America also provided women with increased opportunities to publish essays, and many, like Fanny Fern, achieved substantial commercial successes as newspaper essayists. Gertrude Bustill Mossell, the highest paid African American newspaperwoman at the time, was one of the first African American women to write a newspaper column. Political essayists like Maria W. Miller Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and W. E. B. DuBois, wrote on two of the most relevant issues of the day: slavery and women’s rights. Ann Plato became the first African American to publish a collection of essays with her 1820 book. By the turn of the 20th century, the genteel essay—marked by its yearning for a romanticized past and typically European, rather than American, in flavor—dominated the American essay scene. Agnes Repplier and Katharine Fullerton Gerould were prominent writers in the Genteel Tradition, along with Charles S. Brooks, Samuel McChord Crothers, and Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel). The 1920s and 1930s marked the heyday of the newspaper essay columnist and the decline of the genteel essay. One such columnist, H. L. Mencken, railing against the “booboise,” was one of the most influential voices of his time. The 1925 founding of The New Yorker magazine heralded a new moment for the American essay. The New Yorker provided an important outlet for the nation’s essayists, including E. B. White, whose influence on the personal essayists following in his footsteps ever since is hard to measure. Joan Didion’s work in the field of New Journalism, along with Norman Mailer, opened additional possibilities for the essay writer, adding techniques from both fiction and journalism to the essayist’s craft belt. Over two decades into the 21st century, American essayists continue to crack the form even wider, pushing against genre boundaries as well as using the essay to document the full range of American, and human, experiences.
- North American Literatures
- Non-Fiction and Life Writing
Updated in this version
Enhanced discussion, updated references, images added