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On Essays

Montaigne to the Present

Edited by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy

Publication Date - November 2021

ISBN: 9780192848611

400 pages
9.2 x 6.1 inches

In Stock

Retail Price to Students: $25.00


Montaigne called it a ramble; Chesterton the joke of literature; and Hume an ambassador between the worlds of learning and of conversation. But what is an essay, and how did it emerge as a literary form? What are the continuities and contradictions across its history, from Montaigne's 1580 Essais through the familiar intimacies of the Romantic essay, and up to more recent essayists such as Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Claudia Rankine?
Sometimes called the fourth genre, the essay has been over-shadowed in literary history by fiction, poetry, and drama, and has proved notoriously resistant to definition. On Essays reveals in the essay a pattern of paradox: at once a pedagogical tool and a refusal of the methodical languages of universities and professions; politically engaged but retired and independent; erudite and anti-pedantic; occasional and enduring; intimate and oratorical; allusive and idiosyncratic.

Perhaps because it is a form of writing against which literary scholarship has defined itself, there has been surprisingly little work on the tradition of the essay. Neither a comprehensive history nor a student companion, On Essays is a series of seventeen elegantly written essays on authors and aspects in the history of the genre - essays which, taken together, form the most substantial book yet published on the essay in Britain and America.


  • The most substantial book to date on the history of the essay in English
  • Includes seventeen chapters written by scholars and essayists whose expertise is internationally recognized
  • Full of original research, fresh thought, and new connections including: the origins of the essay in miscellaneous writing; its relationship with experience; association and associationism; the relationship of the essay to the novel
  • Explains how the essay has come to mean what it does, surveys the widely various incarnations of the form, offers new accounts of major essayists in English, and traces a wide range of significant themes
  • Students and practitioners of the contemporary essay can trace their interests and writing back into the long history of the form

About the Author(s)

Thomas Karshan, Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of East Anglia,Kathryn Murphy, Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Oriel College, University of Oxford

Thomas Karshan has been a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, a Junior Research Fellow at Oxford, and Leverhulme Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. He served from 2019 to 2020 as President of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society and is the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play (OUP, 2011), the editor of Nabokov's Collected Poems (Penguin / Knopf 2012), and the co-translator, with Anastasia Tolstoy, of Nabokov's verse-play The Tragedy of Mister Morn (Penguin / Knopf 2012). He is now a Senior Lecturer in Literature and University Teaching Fellow at the University of East Anglia, where he teaches modules on modernism, nonsense, play, parody, and consciousness. He has a keen interest in creative-critical writing and teaching, and as such serves on the board of the Beyond Criticism book series and is the editor of the Beyond Criticism website.

Kathryn Murphy is Fellow in English Literature at Oriel College, and Associate Professor in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford. Her academic work focuses on Renaissance poetry and philosophy, and on the literary essay. She is also a critic and essayist, writing regularly about still life painting for Apollo Magazine, and reviewing Czech literature for the TLS. She is currently writing two books: The Tottering Universal: Metaphysical Prose in the Seventeenth Century; and Robert Burton: A Vital Melancholy, a study of distraction, attention, and The Anatomy of Melancholy.


"Original research, innovative analysis, and clear writing make this ode to the essay an exemplary piece of scholarship. Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers." -- C. B. Kerr, CHOICE

"... there is also much to engage [essayists'] interest. Attempting to summarize the book's seventeen chapters is beyond the reach of a brief review... It's... welcome to see editors of anthologies being credited for doing "important work in framing their topics"." -- Chris Arthur, St. Andrews, Scotland, World Literature Today

Table of Contents

    Introduction: On the difficulty of introducing a work of this kind, Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy
    1. What is an Essay? Thirteen Answers from Virginia Woolf, Thomas Karshan
    2. The Montaignian Essay and Authored Miscellanies from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century, Warren Boutcher
    3. Of Sticks and Stones: The Essay, Experience, and Experiment, Kathryn Murphy
    4. Time and the Essay: The Spectator and Diurnal Fomr, Markman Ellis
    5. The Sociable Philosopher: David Hume and the Philosophical Essay, Fred Parker
    6. Tristram Shandy, Essayist, Scott Black
    7. On Coffee Houses, Smoking, and the English Essay Tradition, Denise Gigante
    8. The Romantic Essay and the City, Gregory Dart
    9. Charles Lamb, Elia, and Essays in Familiarity, Felicity James
    10. Carlyle, Emerson, and the Voiced Essay, Tom Wright
    11. Retiring or Engaging: Politics in the English Essay, Ophelia Field
    12. Things Said By The Way: Walter Pater and the Essay, Stefano Evangelista
    13. 'Strips of Essayism': Eliot, Hardy, and the Victorian Periodical Essay, Bharat Tandon
    14. Rational Distortions: Essays in the British Novel After Borges, Michael Wood
    15. Creative Non-Fiction and the Lyric Essay: The American Essay in the Twenty-First Century, Ned Stuckey-French
    16. Up To A Point: The Psychoanalyst and the Essay, Adam Phillips
    17. Dalí's Montaigne: Essay Hybrids and Surrealist Practice, Christy Wampole