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Although some of the early Greeks and Romans wrote what might be called essays, the term was coined by the French philosopher Michel Eyquem Montaigne to describe his thoughts on subjects as diverse as sleeping, liars, and friendship. He called these pieces essais - translated as trials or attempts because they expressed tentative thoughts as opposed to the formal, finished ideas he had written for philosophical treatises.

Montaigne published his first collection of essays in 1580, and the form soon spread to England, where Francis Bacon established himself as the first English essayist. Baconís first collection was published in 1597 and reflected his practical advice on a number of moral and ethical subjects such as marriage and single life, studies, and negotiating.

These two writers are also representative of the two traditions of the essay, the informal and the formal. Montaigne takes a personal approach to maxims, and his tone is conversational, relaxed; Bacon takes the impersonal route, and his tone is clear, dogmatic, highly polished. Baconís style wears a starched collar and elegant cufflinks; Montaigneís is unbuttoned and has its sleeves rolled up. Charles Lamb is considered the most accomplished writer of informal or familiar essays in English.

By the late 16th and early 17th centuries these two styles were brought to bear upon works of literature in the form of prefaces to longer works. These prefaces gradually evolved into the critical essay that along with essays on non-literary subjects appeared regularly in the 18th century in what was the beginning of the magazine industry. Known as periodical essays because they appeared in periodicals, the essays of this time tended to be shorter and less scholarly in style than those of the previous century. Their informal style, wit, and vast range of subjects appealed to the large middle-class reading public that was growing and buying magazines.

The 19th century was a glorious time for magazines, both in England and in the United States, and formal and informal essays flourished because of the large size of the reading public and the more modern methods of printing and distribution.

Throughout this time and up to the present, many of the best writers in the English language also wrote essays. Some of the names associated with the formal essay are Samuel Johnson, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau. For the informal essay, the list begins with Montaigne and the aforementioned Charles Lamb, and continues with Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, James Thurber and E.B. White.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

28 March 2002

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