Postgraduate Course: The Personal Essay: History and Theory (ENLI11239)
|School||School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures
||College||College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
|Credit level (Normal year taken)||SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate)
||Availability||Not available to visiting students
|Summary||This course explores the history and theory of the personal essay, a genre that is notoriously difficult to define. In addition to studying the historical development of the essay from Montaigne to Baldwin, students will examine its relation to broader social and cultural issues, including: the rise of science and ¿systematic¿ paradigms of knowledge; the fashioning of ideas of the ¿subject¿ and ¿experience¿; the commercialisation of literature and the rise of the periodical; the development of ideas of the ¿public sphere¿ and sociability; the relationship between essayistic prose and poetry; the conflict between the essayist as artist and the essayist as philosopher/sage; ¿essayistic¿ Marxist critiques of ideology; and the relationship between the essay as a ¿minor¿ or marginal genre and ideologies of gender, class and race. Students will be introduced to a range of critical and theoretical methods in their analysis of particular essays, and will also be encouraged to assess the relations (historical and formal) between the essay and other literary genres, such as the novel and the lyric poem.
On this course, students will explore the history and theory of the personal essay. Samuel Johnson, an accomplished essayist himself, described the essay as a ¿loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition¿ as well as a ¿trial; an experiment.¿ This idea of the essay as an unfinished first attempt or ¿assay¿ has stuck. The genre has variously been labelled as ¿unsystematic¿, ¿provisional¿, ¿protean¿, ¿amphibious¿, ¿ludic¿, ¿improvisatory¿, ¿allusive¿, ¿digressive¿, ¿mosaic-like¿, ¿fragmentary¿¿to name but a few descriptors. One of the paradoxes that the course will examine stems directly from the essay¿s lack of identifiable form. Throughout its history, the essay has accommodated both ¿open¿ and ¿closed¿ forms; from the ¿unlicked, incondite¿ essays of Charles Lamb, to formal treatises and dissertations, such as the philosophical essays of Leibniz.
The course traces the origins of this ambiguity back to two distinct conceptions of ¿experience¿ fostered by the modern essay¿s principal progenitors: Montaigne and Bacon. For the former, experience is porous and constantly shifting, ¿a shapeless subject¿; for the latter, experience is a primary instrument for the practical advancement of learning. Due to this mixed inheritance, the essay comes to present both a means of expressing subjectivity as process and a tool for sound scientific discovery. The course will trace how the conflict between ideas of ¿system¿ and ¿essay¿ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries heightened the division between the fundamentally different epistemological perspectives encoded into the early innovations in the genre. Other topics covered will include: the essay¿s role in the rise of periodical culture and the cultivation of a ¿public sphere¿; the relationship between non-fictional prose and poetry in an age of revolutions; and how the growth of science contributed to the ¿decline¿ of the essay in the nineteenth century, before its reemergence in the early twentieth century.
Finally, the course will examine the connection between the essay¿s status as a ¿protean¿ or ¿amphibious¿ genre and its use by writers working on the margins of society. While the essay shares family resemblances with forms such as the novel and biography, some argue that it retains a ¿minor¿ status that other genres have shed. For instance, Claire de Obaldia refers to essaying as ¿literature in potentia,¿ a form of writing that moves between creativity and criticism, narrative and analysis. For Réda Bensmaïa, this highlights the essay¿s radical status as a ¿fourth genre,¿ or, indeed, as ¿an anti-genre [¿].¿ By reading the essays of female and black writers in the twentieth century, students will engage with issues of cultural and political history and reflect upon some of the ways in which the essay¿s liminality has been used as a form of social critique.
Seminars will be used to examine the texts carefully and consider the ways in which they present the course's key themes. The seminars will be discussion-based, focusing on shared arguments, constructing presentations and engaging in debate. Students will prepare for these discussions by meeting in Autonomous Learning Groups (ALGs) in order to prepare a presentation for a specific topic set by the course coordinator.
The course will be assessed by the completion of a 4000-word essay.
ESSAYS IN EXPERIENCE: THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES
Week 1 (Introduction)
Michel de Montaigne, ¿To the Reader,¿ ¿Of Friendship,¿ ¿Of the Inconstancy of our Actions,¿ ¿Of Practice¿ (1572-80). (H)
Francis Bacon, excerpts from Advancement of Learning (1605) (EE), ¿Of Truth,¿ ¿Of Friendship,¿ (1597). (H)
Robert Boyle, from ¿A Pröemial Essay¿ (1661) (H)
THE PERIODICAL ESSAY: THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, essays from The Spectator (1711-14) (NAEL vol. C) (EE) (H)
Samuel Johnson, essays from The Rambler (1750-52) (EE) (H)
David Hume, ¿Of Essay-Writing¿ (H)
PROSE POETRY: THE ROMANTIC PERIOD
William Hazlitt, essays from The Round Table (1817), Table-Talk (1821-22), The Plain Speaker (1826) (EE) (H)
Charles Lamb, essays from Elia (1823) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833) (H); ¿Review of Hazlitt¿s Table-Talk¿ (1821) (EE)
Thomas De Quincey, ¿On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth¿ (1823) (H)
PHILOSOPHY AND THE ARTIST: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Ralph Waldo Emerson, essays from Nature and Selected Essays (1836-62)
Alexander Smith, ¿Of the Writing of Essays¿ (1861) (EE)
Matthew Arnold, ¿Literature and Science¿ (1882) (H)
Oscar Wilde, essays from The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose (1891)
Max Beerbohm, ¿The Pervasion of Rouge¿ (1896) (H)
Walter Pater, from ¿Dialectic¿ (1893) (EE)
Essay Completion Week
ESSAYING THE MARGINS: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Virginia Woolf, essays from Selected Essays (1925-41)
Hilaire Belloc, ¿An Essay upon Essays upon Essays¿ (1929) (EE)
G.K. Chesterton, ¿The Essay¿ (1932) (EE)
James Baldwin, essays from Notes of a Native Son (1955)
Gerald Early, excerpts from Introduction to Tuxedo Junction (1989) (EE)
Conclusion: Essaying the Essay.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
||Other requirements|| None
Course Delivery Information
|Not being delivered|
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
- understand the historical development of the essay;
- build clear and coherent arguments about essay genre¿s relation to culture and society;
- analyse examples of the essay genre using a range of critical and theoretical methodologies;
- evaluate the relationship between the essay and other literary genres;
- present the results of their research in both written and oral form, as well as both individually and in small groups, and engage critically and constructively with work undertaken by others;
|Graduate Attributes and Skills
|Course organiser||Dr Tim Milnes
Tel: (0131 6)50 3615
|Course secretary||Miss Kara McCormack
Tel: (0131 6)50 3030