Do you know that famous novelists and great thinkers found writing essays enjoyable? Of course, when modern students here the word ‘essay’, they immediately have an unpleasant association with a boring, standardized five-paragraph piece of writing on a theme which cannot inspire anyone.
Yet, treasuries of the majority of great authors, including American authors, contain essays. Why would novelists like Ernest Hemingway or poets like Edgar Allan Poe write essays? An essay gives a writer the freedom to analyze urgent issues that would not be a good fit for a bigger literary form. Certainly, writers manage to express their life philosophy in novels through their characters, but essays give them an opportunity to leave the characters behind and use their own voice.
Famous Essayists from Colonial Times till the 20th Century
First American essayists began to write in the early, colonial years. Most of them were clergymen who dedicated their writing to the norms of morality and ethics, etc. The great representatives of the essay writers of this period are John Woolman and Samuel Sewell, who were condemning slave trade in North America.
The next period in the history of America was the democratic period which led to the War of Independence and the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Although these years were not quite beneficial for American writers because of the great influence of the British literature and authors, it gave people a number of prominent political activists and thinkers who also expressed their ideas and theories in essays. Such great thinkers were Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin.
The War of Independence and the existence of the Declaration gave the entire nation that necessary strength they required to establish its own, national literature. The democratic period with its revolutionary moods was followed by the era of Romanticism. This was an epoch of admiration for nature, revealing feelings and emotions, and expressing the inner self. The most outstanding writers and essayists of the Romantic period are James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Romanticism didn’t last for too long. Romantic moods were replaced by war moods which resulted in the Civil War between the industrial North and the agrarian South. After the North’s victory, lives of thousands of people have changed and never went back to how they used to be. It was the rise of a new era, in which the strongest and the smartest survive. This was the era of Realism which ‘gave birth’ to a pleiad of brilliant writers and poets. The essayists of this period were would like to mention are Mark Twain, Jack London, Henry James, Mary Austin, Thomas Nelson Page, and Henry Adams.
Years of piece didn’t last too long. The entire world, including the USA, was impacted by the World War I. The great representatives of the ‘lost generation’ are Ernest Hemingway, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and T.S.Eliot.
Contemporary American Essayists
The 20th and 21st centuries did not leave readers without fantastic essays writers who managed to polish this writing form and make it even more interesting and creative.
One of the most outstanding novelists and essayists of the modern period is Joan Didion. In her works, Didion raised questions about American morals and social fragmentation through her own personality. Through analyzing her inner self and her way of thinking, she tried to comprehend the world. The works of this author are technically and aesthetically brilliant. So, if you are fond of essays and, for some reason, are not familiar with Joan Didion’s art, you should do it immediately. Some of her most prominent essays are Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Marrying Absurd, The Santa Ara, On Morality, etc.
The next author on our list of greatest American essay writers is Gore Vidal. From interviews with Gore Vidal, we can find out that he began to write at the age of five and created his first novel when he was seven years old. He couldn’t remember the time when he was not writing. In his works, he discussed the topics of politics, religion, and sex. Some of his famous essays include The Last Empire, Armageddon, Notes on Our Patriarchal State, Birds and the Bees, and many others.
Themes of democracy, race, and American identity were distinctive in the essays of James Author Baldwin. He was a famous African-American poet, playwright, and social critic. His essays No Name in the Street and The Fire Next Time are known for their book length. Baldwin’s other outstanding works are Many Thousands Gone, Stranger in the Village, etc.
Annie Dillard is another famous American fiction and non-fiction writer known for her distinctive writing technique of giving detailed descriptions and noticing unnoticeable. According to Dillard, essays are so special because they reflect writers’ “self-conscious interest in writing”. In 1975 Annie Dillard became a laureate of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. The winning work was her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Some of Dillard’s essays are This is the Life, The Stunt Person, Total Eclipse, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and others.
The list of brilliant American essayists is, in fact, extremely long. We encourage you to learn more about classic as well as contemporary authors and read their masterpieces.