A History of Personal "Trials" and "Attempts"

by Bufkinite@evpl on Thursday, January 22 2009, 4:52pm. Viewed 869 times.

Cover art for the book Art of the Personal EssayThe essay is one of my favorite literary forms, so imagine my delight in coming across The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. What a wonderful survey - even though it has a distinctly Anglo-centric bias - with some of the most outstanding writings!

The word "essay" is taken from the Frensh "essais," meaning "trials" or "attempts".  They were so named by Michel de Montaigne, who is well represented here with his own section, "Fountainhead."  It includes his essay "Of Books," which appealed to a book nut like me.

The first section of this book, "Forerunners," includes writings that approach the style of the essay by classical writers such as Seneca and Plutarch, and by eastern writers like Kenko and Ou-Yang Hsiu.  Selections from the formers "Essays in Idleness" were a delight to read, and brought home the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The meat of the book, though, and the bulk of its content, are in the final three sections: The Rise of the English Essay; Other Cultures, Other Continents; and The American Scene.  This is where I spent most of my time as well, with Henry David Thoreau's essay "Walking," Annie Dillard's "Seeing," Wendell Berry's "An Entrance to the Woods," H.L. Mencken's "On Being an American," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son,' Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Lantern-Bearers," and Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth."

These are only a small sampling of the riches this book holds.  I haven't mentioned E.B. White, Samul Johnson, Ivan Turgenev, or Charles Lamb, or two dozen other authors.

What are your favorite literary forms?  What are your favorite anthologies?


Comments (3)

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gawell@evpl wrote
on Friday, January 23 2009, 10:55am

Are blogs a literary form yet? Blogs use many forms, some in combinations that both blur and perhaps create new areas of artistic expression and exploration, although blogs predominately appear to resemble the essay form while

actually mostly being an open source diary that at this stage is still emerging and changing at an accererating rate so that this early 21st century literary form looks more like a bunch trees that can't quite be seen as a forest, yet.

Bufkinite@evpl wrote
on Friday, January 23 2009, 11:18am

I don't know.  I think of blogs like I think of books or videos - that is, as carriers of information, and not as hewing to a particular literary form.  A blog post could be a Shakespearean sonnet, an essay, an editorial (most are this form), or short story.

Could a blog post be a novel?

gawell@evpl wrote
on Saturday, January 24 2009, 2:23pm

Some time after cave walls, smoke signals and pottery, newspapers did well as providers of many popular literary forms of the day including novels (serialized), Charles Dickens comes to mind.