The essay as a literary genre has been evolving over centuries and has attracted a lot of famous writers. The origins of the term ‘essay’ are found in the 16th-century French literature. In 1580, Michel de Montaigne, an outstanding French philosopher, had his collection of short, quite subjective discussions on different topics published. The collection was called Essais. These pieces of writing, in which authors could freely express their own ideas and viewpoints, became extremely popular. Today, it is hard to imagine the world of literature without essays.
Greatest American Essay Writers
Representatives of American literature were not an exception when it comes to love for essays. A lot of great thinkers, writers, poets, etc. were born in America and influenced by the major historical events and movement which took place in the country. In fact, some of these thinkers and writers began those movements and caused great changes in the country.
The first years of America were rather religious, so the first American essayists were clergymen or official representatives like judges. Many sermons written in this period were insightful essays. The first three outstanding figures of the early, colonial times were Samuel Sewall, John Woolman, and Jonathan Edwards.
- Samuel Sewall wrote an essay The Selling of Joseph, in which he criticized slavery and slaves trade in America.
- John Woolman published a lot of essays, and most of them were dedicated to the issue of slavery as well. His major works are Some Considerations on Keeping Negroes, On the Slave Trade, etc.
- Jonathan Edwards was a prominent philosopher and preacher. His classic sermon is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
The Rise of Democracy and the War of Independence
At this point, the American literature was still highly impacted by the work of British Writers, such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and many others. ‘Independent’ American works were not well accepted in Britain, which is why American authors needed to fit in a British writing frame and follow established rules. Although there were not too many outstanding writers in this period, there were a lot of great, significant thinkers and politicians who drove the nation towards independence.
- Benjamin Franklin was one of the key figures of the democratic period. Not only was he a great diplomat and inventor but also he gave the world such essays as The Temple of Learning and The Way of Wealth.
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur was a French-American writer famous for his pro-American works, such as an essay Letters from an American Farmer.
- Thomas Paine was a great author of the most popular literary works of the Independence period – pamphlets. He created Common Sense, The American Crisis, and The Rights of Men. He described America as a unique, special country, and it inspired and motivated the entire nation.
Times of Romanticism
At this stage, the Americans had their first successful attempts to create a purely American literature. The writers of the Romantic period gained world recognition and gave their audience true literary masterpieces. The most prominent essayists of this period are as follows:
- Washington Irving, famous for his The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow, also published several collections of essays such as Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller.
- James Fenimore Cooper dedicated his art to writing about the past and people different cultures. His novel The Last of the Mohicans is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Romantic era.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson is now ranked as one of the best essayists in the world. He published numerous essays including Past and Present, Essays and Poems, Ancient Spanish Ballads, etc.
- Edgar Allan Poe was a great master. He was a founder of the detective genre, wrote excellent horror stories, beautiful gothic poetry, and essays such as The Poetic Principle.
The Era of Realism
The Civil war between the North and the South became a critical moment in the history of the US. A young, enthusiastic nation now experienced all the horrors and difficulties of post-war times. Of course, the literature has changed its focus as well. Slavery didn’t exist anymore. At this point, American writers began to write about strong people who can survive and succeed.
- Mark Twain became the most prominent author of this period. In his works, he wanted to show the truth of the existing reality. His essays include Advice to Youth and What Is Man
- Henry James’s works had an interesting theme of relationships between the Americans and people from other countries. His approach was called ‘international’. One of his essays was The Art of Fiction
- Jack London was writing about strong people in unfavorable environments who nevertheless find their way out and succeed. His essays include Revolution, The Dignity of Dollars, The House Beautiful, etc.
The World War I was a shocker and the Americans were highly influenced by this barbarian, cruel war. The young people were called the ‘lost generation’ because they were lacking a stable traditional system of values and self-identity. This idea of ‘lost generation’ is quite vivid in Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s works.
- Thomas Sterns Eliot was an essayist, publisher, and critic who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his great literary contribution. An example of his essay will be On Poetry and Poets.
- William Faulkner was another Nobel Prize laureate famous for such novels as The Sound and the Fury and Light in August. Some of his essays are Note on a Fable and On Criticism
The second half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century gave the world numerous talented, bright essayists. Some of them are still writing, giving us a chance to enjoy their works of art. The outstanding essayists of the modern era are Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen King, Marilynne Robinson, and many others.