Origin and development of essays as a literary form

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Though his matter was various - from cannibals to sorrow, from liars to parental love - his true subject was himself.

As Hazlitt later put it, Montaigne "did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these merely by daring to tell us whatever was in his mind". Montaigne arguably invented not just a genre, but the modern notion of the author as a subject in both senses.

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But the proto-Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century, such as Locke, attempted to transform the essay into an objective positivistic form. Perhaps reflecting the scientific idea of an assay - laboratory analysis of a metal to determine its ore - they used the essay to test their theories. John Wilkins's Essay towards a Real Character , and a Philosophical Language even attempted to invent a system in which every word corresponded perfectly to one particular thing in the universe, and every thing to one word. Its aim was to eject ambiguity, uncertainty and relativism - the very qualities out of which Montaigne created the essay form, which for him had been the opposite of a transparent language: prose with a voice.

Nothing could kill Montaigne's original notion of the essay, however.

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Subjectivity, the individual voice and even philosophical relativism have remained strong strands in the humanistic essayistic tradition. For the Austrian modernist Robert Musil, Essayismus "essayism" became more than a matter of literary form: it was a metaphor for a philosophy of life, a route to knowledge and self-realisation in a world perceived as fragmentary.

When Zadie Smith recently described the essay as a form of prose capable of expressing "messy reality", she was pointing to something similar. Smith's own essay collection, Changing My Mind , appeared in , signalling her commitment to the revival of a genre for which publishing has offered few outlets in recent times. In , the late John Gross lamented that many writers who in the past would have set themselves up as essayists had been sidetracked by the demands of modern journalism.

Certainly, in the 19th century the periodical press offered a forum that no longer exists for substantial essays such as De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy In our own times, journalistic articles have grown shorter and shorter and academic monographs more monolithic and specialised, while the essay has been neglected. Yet there are signs that the essay is entering a phase of renewed development. If so, there are precedents. Intriguingly, it seems that the personal essay - a form of prose often seen as conversational or at least close to speech - historically flowers during anxious growth spurts in the dissemination of the written word.

Montaigne's assertion of the subjective authorial stance was arguably a response to the growing influence of print, which dislocated writers from books as these circulated in an ever wider - and more arbitrary and anonymous - marketplace.

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Similarly, the Romantic revival of the essay occurred during an unprecedented boom in print culture, fuelled by rising literacy, increasing commercialisation and, after , the development of the flatbed cylinder press, which enabled the Times to be printed at 1, copies per minute. For Hazlitt, De Quincey, Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, the essay was a bulwark against their enemy "abstraction", whether in metaphysics, ideology, or the dehumanising influence of market forces, the "cash nexus".

As it had for Montaigne, the "I" of the essay stood up for the value of individual imagination against the anonymity of modern culture. Press Play is doing some thrilling work in the form, perhaps altering the rules of engagement between critic and film. TriQuarterly has featured video essays for 18 months.

One of my favorites is Dinty W. TriQuarterly often features the still image in video essays. But the text is so good and so densely lyrical and personal that it takes your breath away.

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I do think the video essay lends itself to poetry, often skirting the line separating these two genre categories, if such a line really exists. There are at least two that have been getting a lot of attention the past couple years.

A wonderful recent work by Kevin B. Before the advent of online video in or so, this never would have been possible. Another subgenre popping up all over academia is a hybrid of the personal essay and the old-school academic essay.

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July 10, By Wendy Leopold. See the new issue of TriQuarterly.

How are mobile technologies revolutionizing the essay? Where is the video essay appearing?