Day Essayists Modern

The English word “essay” bears a resemblance to the modern French verb essayer, which means “to try,” but essay actually derives from the Latinexagium, which means “a weighing.” In general, the French writer Michel de Montaigne is credited with “inventing” what he called the “essai,” the “attempt” to sort something out in words. I prefer to think, however, that while essays may be “attempts” to think about things, they also convey the idea that one is not only “weighing” one’s words but also balancing ideas to come to some intellectual conclusion. Or not. Sometimes, an essay can be a short piece intended as a bit of a lark that reflects a writer’s thoughts.

In acknowledgement that the word itself reflects different approaches to the literary form, Signature offers a varied list of women essayists for Women’s History Month. What links these writers, other than their identification as women, is a love for language that shows up in turns of phrase that make the reader want to scribble great lines down to be quoted at the next opportunity.

  • Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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    In a recent interview, Adichie expressed annoyance with those who treat feminism as a fashion accessory, the wearing of feminist statements as if they were hot designer labels rather than words gleaned from hard-fought battles that have cost many women their lives. Adichie has been sampled by Beyonce, and just this week, the New York City government named her novel Americanah as its “One Book, One New York” selection for community read. Dear Ijeawele is written as a series of suggestions to a friend on the raising of a feminist child, something that Adichie is herself engaged in doing. Among the suggestions is this: “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”

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  • Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

    Angela Y. Davis

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    The second of these essayists to be celebrated in song (by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan), Davis has been known for her intersectional politics since the 1960s, when she first began writing about feminism, race, Marxism, economic justice, and prison reform.

    In her most recent collection, Davis knocks down any notion that feminism has accomplished all of its goals — notions of “post-feminism” and “post-racism” tend to be pushed by those who are least affected by the oppression brought to mind by the terms themselves. Feminism is a misnomer. One must always speak of feminisms, multiple philosophies that discuss gender equality. As she writes, “Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that appear to naturally belong together.”

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  • Bluets

    Maggie Nelson

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    “If a color cannot cure, can it at least incite hope?” Nelson asks in one of the small essays — or bluets — that comprise this book. While a meditation on the color blue sounds of interest only to artists, Nelson explores how in the English language, the color blue has come to stand in for a wide range of emotions that  include thwarted passion and intense loneliness and hope. Nelson’s most recent book, The Argonauts, garnered reviews that lauded her as a genius (with which the MacArthur Foundation concurred). Bluets demonstrated Nelson’s intellectual acuity and command of language nearly a decade ago.

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  • Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay

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    Roxane Gay demonstrates in writing that is personal, political, and carries a punch that she is not the perfect feminist. None of us are, but Gay makes readers laugh at the idea that any of us could ever be some kind of feminist Stepford wife. We’re too full of our own contradictions trying to negotiate a culture that still hasn’t decided if it even likes women. Most days, it feels as if it doesn’t. And intersectional feminism is not just about women, but is about the various ways that a person’s identity can intersect to create privilege or pain. And calling oneself a feminist is still risky. As Gay writes, women are often called “feminists” as a form of insult, but “I am generally called a feminist when I have the nerve to suggest that the misogyny so deeply embedded in our culture is a real problem requiring relentless vigilance.” Gay may consider herself a “bad feminist,” but most of her peers consider her a funny and terrifically talented writer.

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  • The Fame Lunches

    Daphne Merkin

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    Daphne Merkin has written a lot of celebrity “profiles” for outlets such as the New Yorker. But recently, Merkin’s newest book, in which she details her struggle with depression, has captured the attention of critics who have lauded her for her “excruciating clarity” and humorous prose.The Fame Lunches, released a couple of years prior, is a series of essays that explore the modern-day fairy tale of Princess Diana or the doomed love affair of Scott and Zelda, or writers such as V.S. Naipaul, whom she terms a “brilliant monster.” She begins the Naipaul essay, “It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that those whom the gods grant special gifts often also get stuck with neurotic difficulties up the kazoo.” Merkin is not intimidated by the gigantic personalities she has interviewed and profiled. The same take-no-prisoners approach that she brings to describing her own experiences of depression populate her essays about people who, for reasons not often understood, are “famous.”

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  • The Unspeakable

    Meghan Daum

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    Meghan Daum has a low tolerance for b.s., which makes her a perfect chronicler of modern life. In “The Best Possible Experience,” she writes of one former lover, who, when she had told him that she didn’t like the circle design he had suggested for her new business card, said to her, “If you don’t like circles, you don’t like me.” Not surprisingly, the relationship didn’t work out, and Daum reports that he married the next woman he met who did like circles. She applies her mordant way of looking at the foibles of our culture to reflect her decision to remain childless, and rejects the false sentimentality that happens when you have a near-death experience.

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  • Let Me Clear My Throat

    Elena Passarello

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    Before she gave voice to the creatures in Animals Strike Curious Poses, Passarello performed the amazing trick of throwing her voice onto the page in such a way that her words echoed. In this collection of essays about aspects of sound, Passarello identifies the Pittsburgh “Yinzer” accent (“a dialect of squarshed vowels and muddied consonants,”); analyzes both the “Rebel Yell” and the “Dean Scream;” and, how to identify the “Wilhelm Scream,” which is heard in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Spaceballs,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Thank you for Smoking,” but which originated in “Charge at Feather River.” Her essay about Judy Garland’s 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall will convince a reader that they witnessed it, even if it occurred before they were born.

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  • When Women Were Birds

    Terry Tempest Williams

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    A book that can be read on its own, or as a bookend to her earlier work,Refuge, When Women Were Birds is based on Williams’ reading of her mothers’ journals. The journals were empty. Distressed by the silence her mother had left to her after her death, Williams set out to explore what it is to speak as a woman in the world. As she said in an interview, “I believe it’s not just a woman’s struggle to find her voice, but a human struggle to speak from a place of integrity and authenticity. It is never easy. What is unique to our voices as women is the power when we do choose to speak.”

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  • The Solace of Open Spaces

    Gretel Ehrlich

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    Ehrlich has published many collections since this 1985 publication, but her essays about Wyoming in this slim book are startling in their beauty. In describing the laconic speaking style of the cowboys, she says that “Sentence structure is shortened to the skin and bones of a thought.” Elsewhere, “The seasons are a Jacob’s ladder climbed by migrating elk and deer.” Like Solnit and Williams, what Ehrlich seeks from the land is a space of quiet in which she can find her voice. Her language conveys the rough magic of Wyoming’s challenging terrain.

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  • The Mother of All Questions

    Rebecca Solnit

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    Solnit’s expertise ranges from the photography of Eadweard Muybridge to the resistance to President Trump. Her work explores the intersection between art and action, politics and passion, and women and wilderness. The mother of all questions is the question nearly all women are forced to answer: whether to become mothers. The privileging over the maternal function of the female body over any other capabilities that women have is insidious. Just this week, when Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney spoke at the United Nations regarding genocide, magazines focused on what clothes she was wearing to hide her pregnancy.

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  • The Boys of My Youth

    Jo Ann Beard

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    “The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream,” begins “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard’s essay about her experiences working as an editorial assistant for a science journal at the University of Iowa. What begins as an essay about Beard’s sick dog turns into a devastating essay on physics and the measurement of time — the fourth state of matter of the title. The other boys of her youth include her husband, childhood friends, and roommates. Beard’s debut collection is timeless.

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  • The Empathy Exams

    Leslie Jamison

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    Jamison’s essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” examines how the stereotype of the wounded woman is scattered throughout literature. Despite the prevalence of real pain in women’s lives, the wounded woman has become an object of scorn rather than empathy, causing women writers to develop an ironic way of diminishing their own pain and denigrating those who hurt. In this and other writings, Jamison explores pain, suffering, and the development of empathy in herself and in our culture.

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  • How We Speak to One Another

    Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold

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    While the collection was edited by two men, this bounty of essays are taken from the site Essay Daily, which allows writers to engage with others writers’ essays by writing responses, ruminations, or riffs. It features everything from Elena Passarello reflecting on her love for the Book of Days to responses to writing from Joan Didion, Claudia Rankine, and Alison Bechdel. Chelsea Biondolillo has written an essay in response to Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, an essay she admits made her angry the first time she read it. To read the collected essays here is to feel invited to a salon. Regardless of whether one has read the source material for each essayist’s words, the new essays evoke opinions, emotions, and a desire to be part of the conversation.

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  • Too Much and Not the Mood

    Durga Chew-Bose

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    The collection will be released on April 11, to mark the anniversary of an entry in Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, in which she wrote “too much and not the mood” to describe her own struggles to assert her own authority and to not make her work smaller in response to criticism.

    Durga Chew-Bose writes in piercing prose and courage about her own decision to push back against those who have made her question her work. She writes of the tensions inherent in being a child of immigrants, of the random acts of erasure that occur when strangers cannot pronounce her Indian name. In that essay, “D as In,” she puts into words the quandary of writing in the first person: “How can an ‘I’ contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered?” Her work will resonate with those whose own coming of age involved the discovery of the authority to assert “who I am.”

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Getty Images – Archive photos | PhotoQuest

I write essays to clear my mind.
– Taiye Selasi

Certainly, Ms. Selasi did not speak about academic essay writer’s block in particular, but essay writers block in general. Have you ever thought how essay writers could influence other people, and how important they could be for events’ coverage in history?

Thanks to these people we have a chance to learn interesting facts and understand the world around us better, and thanks to their works we perfectly know what sources to use as references when we write our academic papers.

A writer’s profession is among the most ancient ones. Great essay writers have been working since the early days of American history, and we can be proud of this fact for sure. Each period of our history has its own famous essay writers, and their works are a great example of what a power words have and how beautiful our speech can be when we express our thoughts consistently and concisely.

Let’s take a look at the brightest representatives of American essayists from the different historical periods and check their most famous essays to understand their originality and importance better.

Early American and Colonial Period: to 1776

A revolutionary spirit was in the air then. So, it is not surprising that this theme is perfectly displayed in all works of famous essay authors of that time. They wrote about laws they considered unjust, they described slavery and were against of it, they criticized authorities and their policy, they disagreed with aristocrats, and they warned what the circumstances of such a situation could be.

It was the period of colonial and revolutionary literature, and the greatest representatives of American essayists there were:

  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and his work Of Youth and Age, Of Truth, Of Studies, Of Revenge, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Discourse
  • Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) and his work The Selling of Joseph (1700)
  • John Woolman (1720-1772) and his two essays Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754 and 1762)

Democratic Origins and Revolutionary Writers: 1776-1820

The triumph of American independence influenced the moods and literature of those times. It was a period of early national literature, when essays by famous authors described antislavery, democratic sensibility, American exceptionalism, support of the Constitution, American generations, and relations between England and America.

Moreover, this is the time when essay writers pay publishers to see their works live. Writers perfectly know what hooks to use for their essays, and they have no doubts as for their works’ topicality, informational content, utility, and uniqueness. The best and well-known essayists of that period are:

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and his works Advice on the Choice of a Mistress, The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams, The Temple of Learning, The Whistle
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and his two works: Common Sense (1776), The American Crisis (1783)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and his The Declaration of Independence
  • Washington Irving (1783-1859) and his The Mutability of Literature (1820)

Romantic Period : 1820–1860

This very period is called the American Renaissance, as it was inspired by the Romantic movement originated in Germany but spread to other European countries, such as England and France. The writing representatives here were both poets and essayists, as well as fiction authors, and their ideas centered around spirit, organic growth, inspiration, and the importance of art for society in general and individual in particular.

The major theme for every essayist of romantic age was self-development. A man should express himself and find ways for self-awareness and self-expression. The development of society is impossible to imagine without arts. Self and nature are one. Every essayist of romantic period found himself obligatory to describe similar moods in his works.

The names of famous essayists of that period are well-known today:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): Gifts, Self-Reliance, The Poet
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894): The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850): Papers on Literature and Art
  • Joseph Dennie (1768-1812): Jack and Gill: A Mock Criticism
  • Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): On Women’s Right to Vote
  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): The Philosophy of Furniture
  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): The Destiny of Colored Americans

The Rise of Realism: 1860-1914

As far as you understand, all those romantic moods could not last forever. 1860 was a year when realism had come back home and started to flourish in full. Famous essay writers of those times were inspired by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), and the period of innocent optimism gave its way to a period of total exhaustion.

This is a period of America’s transformation into a huge and strong industrial nation. All these themes (a war, a person’s and nation’s strength, industrialization, urbanization, and alienation) find their output in many books, articles, and essays. Every famous essayist quotes were known by heart and cited, as they perfectly knew how to write an essay that would really work. The greatest works of that time were:

  • Mark Twain (1835-1910): Advice to Youth, The Danger of Lying in Bed, On the Decay of the Art of Lying
  • W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963): Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
  • Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): Death of a Soldier (1863)
  • Henry Adams (1838-1918): A Law of Acceleration (1907)
  • A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888): “Exercise” essay collection Table-Talk (1877)
  • Mary Austin (1868-1934): The Land of Little Rain (1903)

Modernism and Experimentation: 1914-1945

Gertrude Stein, a well-known literary portraitist, has called young people of that time “the lost generation”; and we all know and remember writers of that time on this definition. This period between two world wars had been quite traumatic for American youths, as they were disillusioned with wars, did not like aristocrats, wanted to achieve something special in their lives… Such moods found the output in fiction works and essays of that time.

Writers and essayists were influenced by the Depression as well. They experimented with their writing forms, trying to express their points of view in quite unusual but still catchy and meaningful ways. The names of notional authors and essayists of this time are known by everyone today, and their works can be a great example for those people who want to become successful writers:

  • Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  • William Faulkner (1897-1962): The Sound and the Fury
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): What I Think and Feel at 25
  • George Ade (1866-1944): Luxuries 1922

American Essay Writers of Postwar Period

Essay writers of 1945-1990 were very reflexive. They observed everything that happened around them, described it and commented on it. Essays of that time have a really big value for us, as they help understand the nature, moods and development of Americans in the postwar period.

As oral genres become more popular and influential now, essayists use speeches, movies, songs to understand situation and people’s moods better and do their best to express them in writings. The literature of that time was extremely multifaceted, as it was influenced by Latin American realism and European existentialism. Such strong personalities as Nelson Mandela with his writings also gave American essay writers food for their works:

  • Norman Mailer (1923-2007): The White Negro
  • John McPhee (1931-present): The Search for Marvin Gardens
  • Joan Didion (1934-present): The White Album
  • Edward Hoagland (1932-present): Heaven and Nature

More names of the most famous essays’ authors of that time can be found here.

Contemporary American Essayists

Modern essayists are brave enough to challenge old ideas and adapt them to suit today’s quickly changing world. The fact Americans are one of the most diverse nations influences the writing moods much. Such themes as religion, feminism and post-feminism, various social issues, etc. get their new life now.

The Internet gives a way to a short story’s development. This genre becomes more and more popular: people do not want (and do not have) to spend much time on reading and analyzing long manuscripts, and most of them prefer quick reading online. Such a tendency helped many novice writers declare themselves by simple sharing of their short stories with online audience.

The best representatives of modern essayists are (all they can be found in the list of top 10 contemporary essayists to check):

  • Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead
  • Stephen King: Great Hookers I Have Known
  • Sarah Vowell: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
  • David Shields: Reality Hunger

As we can see, the term “essay writing” does not come to college application essay writer’s block only. The best essay writers of all time try to share their thoughts and views for us, readers, to learn the world around us better. Taking a look throughout American history, each of us can understand the importance of these people’s work and their influence on general moods in society.

Keep reading and examining American essay writers, and who knows… Maybe you will have a chance to join them and become an influential and popular essayist one day.

By Lesley Vos, a staff blogger and essay proofreader, who is a big fan of reading as well. You are welcome to join her on Facebook or Google+.

Writingamerican writers, essay writers, famous essayists, history of writingMike Hanski

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