The Art of the Essay


It is pretty amusing when you think about it, the popularity of the blog in light of the fact that essays are one of the most the maligned forms of writing by the general populous.  For blogs most closely resemble essays, informal or personal essays, in form.  Perhaps then, it is the word essay, not the writing format, and the fear that it represents in the hearts of many students.

My most favorite essayists would be Mary Schmich, a columnist in the Chicago Tribune and E.B. White if I were pressed to create a list in rank order.  The list would go on and on from there.

My first encounter with essayist E.B. White was reading Charlotte’s Web as a child.  I was overcome.  It took me much longer to gain an appreciation for Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, which really only came after I was introduced to E.B. White’s essays in college.  My professor, whose name I have long forgotten, made it regularly clear that he was a close personal friend of Mike Royko (the venerable Chicago columnist still alive and writing in my college years) gave us a reading list which included White as well as H.L. Menken, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell & Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I already had an appreciation for the art of the essay because it was my favorite form of test in high school.  I could excel in combining the facts that I had in a manner sure to answer any question that the teacher threw at us in essay form.  One did not have to be as definitive in this format as one was required to be with the multiple choice format.

I disliked reading Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in high school English, but found some delight in his essays in the very same class.  (Although we did get a nickname for one of my classmates from Gulliver – Brobdingnag – the very tall people that Gulliver encounters – and which are much more obscure than the Lilliputians that everyone can reference from the story.)  Swift’s essay style can easily appeal to a teenager, rooted as it is in satire – a close but more refined cousin to sarcasm.

I can’t say exactly when I became aware of Mary Schmich and actively started to look for her columns in the Tribune.  I think it was more in retrospect when I was straightening up some files a few years back and realized that many things that I had cut out because they had some resonance were authored by Mary.  She says the most profound things in this wonderful, quiet, graceful way and that really makes the reader think.

And really, that is the essence of the essay isn’t it – hey reader, this made me think and I wanted to share it.


“Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet.  It can never be sculpture. It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts — or predetermined forms — it cannot fly.”

~Peter Mathiessen


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