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18th century writing

The word “essay” means “a piece of writing about a particular subject,” but we all know, or at least decipher, it to be as something that involves opinions and perspectives. We could argue that since languages evolve over time, the art of essay writing has evolved, too.

Today, we consider it as “a piece of opinionated writing about a particular subject” instead of what the lexicon tells us. And this inclination is thankfully backed by the assumed origin of essay writing, which dates back to the sixteenth century.

The Assumed Beginning – Essay Writing in the 1500s

The invention, or popularity if we may, of essay writing as a literary genre is often credited to renowned French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Born in 1533 to later become one of the leading thinkers of the French Renaissance, he is best known for his collective work on a wide range of topics, titled Essays (c. 1670). Why people attribute the art of essay writing to him is because he was one of the first to combine his own experiences and judgmental points of view with adequate intellectual insight to create a piece of writing.

The essay – opinionated pieces of writing on topics as diverse as space travel, politics, and zoology – that we know today has, however, gone through a lot of changes. Lord Montaigne’s essays have influenced writers around the world and throughout the history, with critics claiming that his passion for storytelling and believing in his own judgments led him to create some of the most influential essays ever written. He focused on topics such as humans, child education, and psychology.

The reason why we began from the 1500s is that our knowledge about the art before this time is limited and/or distorted. Although Lord Montaigne was heavily influenced by the works of Greek philosophers Plutarch and Epicurus, themselves essayists, to find out the exact origin of essay writing is difficult.

Essay Writing in Asia in the 1300s

Essay writing soon spread from Europe to other parts of the world, motivating writers and thinkers to put down their thoughts to record. In Japan, a sub genre of essays known as zuihitsu was developed, way before the Europeans began writing, in the 1300s, with Yoshida Kenkō, a Japanese Buddhist monk, writing about random “nonsensical thoughts” that came to his mind in his famous work, Essays in Idleness (c. 1330). Notably, essays were mostly written by men (mostly of the noble classes) at that time. So, when women in Japan began to try their hand at zuihitsu, people started noticing. Although, the trend soon faded without making any dent in the literary world as male writers began to travel to the neighboring China and produce travelogues. These became very popular, and travel bloggers of the Instagram generation should thank these men.

Evolution of Writing Styles and Formats

The early essay writers like Lord Montaigne, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Johnson strictly followed the cause and effect form, where they picked up a topic and wrote about their personal opinions about it. There was no need of any resources other than previous philosophical works and current affairs. Since there were not many options for a reader to select from, these essays soon began to make noise. By the 20th century, writers like T S Eliot and R L Stevenson started using essays as a form to entertain their readers. The latter was one of the first to use the essay as a form to create light-hearted content (comedy). On the other hand, writers like Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson began criticizing literature of other people, complemented by a sudden growth in the numbers.

Essays written during the Medieval Period were mostly caused and effected by write-ups that focused on a single topic. Montaigne’s own Essays dealt with a number of topics but were mostly about humans and the human nature. Exemplification was another popular form that came into being in the 19th century where writers like William Hazlitt, one of the greatest essayists and literary critics in the history of English language, wrote dramatically about tyranny and politics in general. He sort-of used his essays (case in point: Political Essays (c. 1819)) to vent his ire about the happenings around him. Other now-popular formats like narrative (this article), argumentative, fictional and reflective have all been sampled from these primary styles.

As the decades passed by, and the Middle Ages came to an end, the volume of literature increased manifold, proving a base and a pedestal for future essay writers.

Essays Today

Talking about the 21st century and few decades before its start, the thesis format was born. Today, it is one of the most widely used formats – used by everyone, from aspiring engineers to professors to scientists – and relies heavily on previously published works. The perfect testament to this fact is to open a random thesis and look at its bibliography and references. A never-ending list of sources that were used to create a secondary product. However, the current world is run by the power of theses, making us understand that history, its writers, and their great work are still sampled and will be sampled in the decades and millenniums to come.

Interestingly, essays in the 21st century are generally considered to be long-winded and are mostly restricted to academics, no thanks to another form of content such as videos and podcasts. The fictional format has tried to take over (thanks to writers like Jonathan Franzen) but has been negatively affected by low popularity and fall in worldwide readership.

 

It is reassuring to know that essays have had an evolving history, with the art itself giving us so many great writers and even greater works to read and learn from. Today, everyone is an essay writer, owing to sheer ease and availability of mostly free resources. The advent of the internet has only fueled this practice. Literature is at an all-time high right now, and we know who all to thank for. At the end, however, a writer must always take inspiration from Lord Montaigne when he says, “What do I know?”