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English Literature

What do a Renaissance-era French aristocrat, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., and an English student have in common? They are all essayists! As the diverse members on this list suggest, "essayist" is a broad category that can include many different types of writers. Read on to find out the definition of an essayist, the different types of essayists, and how some of the major essayists have contributed to this fascinating form of writing.

What is the Definition of an Essayist?

An essayist is a writer of short pieces of non-fiction that are either personal and autobiographical or formal and academic.

The word "essay" comes from the French assai, meaning to test or try. In a broad sense, an essayist is someone who "tries' to explore a topic or argue a point using the written word.2 The topics are usually non-fictional and may be related to the essayist's personal experience. The essay's limited scope means that essays are typically short (although there are exceptions!).

Did you know: The word 'assay' in chemistry shares the same etymology as "essay" but still carries the original French meaning.

Types of Essayists

Essays and essayists are notoriously hard to define, but they can usually be placed within two broad categories: personal or familiar and formal or critical.

Personal or Familiar Essayists

The essay originated as a way of writing about a variety of topics from a personal, autobiographical perspective. This type of essay has had an enormous influence on American and British literature for over 400 years. One or more of the following features can usually be attributed to essayists in the personal tradition:4

  • Flexible form - The personal essay could be structured around a narrative story (or stories), an argument, a certain object, person, event, thought, memory, etc. There is no limit to the ways in which a personal essay can be organized—or disorganized.
  • First-person perspective - By definition, the personal essay is written from the author's perspective, so the first person pronouns "I" and "we" make frequent appearances.
  • Conversational tone - Personal essays are often written in a friendly, approachable way that makes the reader feel like they were sitting down with the writer for a chat. As will be seen in the American essayist's section, there is also a close connection between the lecture, the speech, and the essay.
  • Self-exploration - Personal essays are about their writers just as much as they are about the addressed topic. The essayist gives an account of themselves in the hope that their readers will be prompted to self-reflect in a similar fashion.
  • Confessional, private, and honest tone - In discussing their innermost private lives, personal essayists hold nothing back and don't shy away from addressing sensitive or taboo topics such as sex, illness, death, bodily functions, and addiction.
  • Humility - Relating to their confessional and first personal nature, personal essayists quickly admit the limitations of their experience, understanding, and perspective. Although these writers may be very knowledgeable, the purpose of personal essays is usually not to convince the reader with absolute certainty but to make their readers think and explore.

  • Contrariness - Personal essayists often take a stance against popular opinion; this can range from serious political or social stances (on corporal punishment or euthanasia, for example) to seemingly unimportant things (such as popular music or travel). These writers are eager to give their readers new and fresh perspectives on various topics.
  • Humor and irony - While personal essays are not usually purely comedic in intent, they often use of humor and irony. The strong rapport that writers develop with their readers is often reinforced in this way.

Formal or Critical Essayists

Formal or critical essays have had comparatively less influence in English and American literature. They are, however, a prominent form of academic writing and have had a major impact on political history. Formal essays in this tradition usually have one or more of the following features:4

  • Logical organization - Formal essays will be clearly and logically organized around a guiding argument (usually called a thesis statement) with evidence and argumentation directly supporting that thesis statement throughout the rest of the essay. Dividing an argument into sections on cause and effect or similarity and difference, for example, also fall under this category.
  • Seriousness - Formal essays are more conservative in style and take serious social, political, scientific, artistic, or other academic topics as their subject matter. The use of humor or any kind of personal information from the author is rare.
  • Objectivity - Formal essayists aim to convince their readers that what they say is true using objective standards of argumentation and evidence. They are more interested in giving objective proof (that is, proof that any person would accept) for their position than exploring human subjectivity. First-person pronouns will make only rare appearances in formal essays.

Note that, while this difference between personal and formal essays generally holds true, it is not always so easy to distinguish one from the other. You may, for example, find a writer using objective standards of argumentation and evidence in a personal essay. Given the many different forms that the personal essay can take, this variation is to be expected.

Famous Essayists

Let's look at some key essayists who have been influential in developing the essay genre, from its origins and the rise of the British essay to the essayists of today.

Origins of the Essay

The modern essay began in the late 16th century in France and England.2,4

  • Montaigne (1533-92) - Hugely influential and often considered the father of the modern personal essay (his 1580 book, Essais, was the first use of the word in its modern sense). By mixing his personal observations, emotions, and sensations with philosophy and quotations from classical Greek and Roman literature, Montaigne was able to write in a way that was at once disorganized and inconclusive but also deeply profound, searching, and unique.
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626) - An early scientist, writer, and pioneer of a more formal style of essay. In contrast to Montaigne, Bacon kept his writing impersonal and objective, aiming to convince his readers through evidence and argumentation.

The Rise of the British Essay

Taking their lead primarily from Montaigne, British essayists reached their peak in the 18th century with the rise of periodical newspapers and an increasingly literate public audience.2,4

  • Joseph Addison (1672-1719 ) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) - Publishing in their own newspapers, The Tatler (1709-present) and later The Spectator (1711-present), this legendary duo introduced the British public to a broad set of topics ranging from the comedic to the melancholy, from high art to descriptions of street life in 18th century London. Their writing was enormously influential in both England and America.
  • Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) - The writer and poet Dr. Johnson is best known as the producer of the very first English dictionary, but he also published essays in his own newspapers, The Rambler (1750-52), The Adventurer (1753-54), and The Idler (1758-60). While taking inspiration from Addison and Steele, Johnson's essays tended to be a bit more serious and moralizing.
  • Charles Lamb (1775-1834) - Charles Lamb was a clerk at the South-Sea House (and likely the inspiration for Melville's Bartleby). Lamb rubbed shoulders with the great poets of the Romantic era, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth. He wrote vaguely autobiographical essays under the pseudonym Elia that were often ironic and satirical or devastatingly confessional.
  • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) - While best known as a novelist, Woolf's feminist declaration in "A Room of One's Own" (1929), as well as the more existential "Street Haunting" (1927), and "The Death of a Moth" (1942) have all become classic essays.

The American Essay

The first essays published in colonial America typically resembled those published in England. After an explosion of political writing around the time of the Revolutionary War, the essay took a more philosophical and personal turn with the writings of the Transcendentalists. The personal essay flourished in 19th and 20th century America and often took political undertones, dealing directly or indirectly with issues of race, gender, and class.2,4

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) - Franklin famously made his fortune in the printing and publishing industry. Inspired by the wit and humor of Addison and Steele, he wrote essays chock full of proverbs, irony, and humor under pseudonyms such as Silence Do-Good, The Busy-Body, and Richard Saunders (also known as Poor Richard of Poor Richard's Almanack fame).
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809) - An Englishman by birth, Paine was a writer who published a number of political essays in pamphlet form, particularly in America. The most famous of these, "Common Sense" (1775-76), argued forcefully against the British monarchy and for the American Revolutionary cause.
  • Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), James Madison (1751-1836), and John Jay ( 1745-1829) - These three statesmen worked together, publishing anonymously as a single writer called Publius, to produce a series of political essays that would come to be known as The Federalist Papers. These essays went on to significantly impact the drafting and approval of the U.S. constitution.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) - Emerson was a popular intellectual, poet, and one of the founders of the literary and philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism. He was a sought-after speaker in both Europe and the United States, and his popular lectures such as "Nature" (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), "Self-Reliance" (1841), and "Experience" (1844) were all published in widely-read collections of his essays.
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) - A reluctant disciple of Emerson, Thoreau was also a sought-after lecturer and popular writer. While most of his writing is concerned with humanity's relation to nature, he is also famous for his political essays such as "Civil Disobedience" (1849) and "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854).
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) - A legendary Civil Rights leader also known for his speeches and essays, most notably "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). Echoing Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," King argued forcefully for the necessity of non-violent street protests in the struggle for Civil Rights in this open letter.
  • James Baldwin (1924-87) - Often considered the greatest American personal essayist of the 20th century, Baldwin's autobiographical essays collected in books such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963) directly confront his experiences with racism in the United States.
  • Susan Sontag (1933-2004) - Sontag began her career writing as an art critic with "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964), and her essays on philosophical and artistic topics went on to become some of the most widely read and discussed formal essays of recent decades.
  • Joan Didion (1934-2021) - Also a famous novelist, Didion was at the forefront of the revival of the personal essay in the late 20th century, capturing the hedonistic and fragmented atmosphere of life in suburban California.

Contemporary Essayists

The essay writing tradition is alive and well, especially in the United States. An incomplete list of important contemporary essayists, most of whom are still alive and actively publishing, includes:

  • David Foster Wallace
  • Christopher Hitchens
  • Michael Pollan
  • David Sedaris
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • John D'Agata
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • Ross Gay
  • Zadie Smith
  • Rahawa Haile

Essayists - Key takeaways

  • The modern essay dates back to the late 16th century writings of Montaigne and Bacon.
  • There are two types of essays: personal or familiar and formal or critical.
  • Personal essays usually present a loose exploration of a topic through the essayist's own experience.
  • Formal essays are tightly organized and aim to convince their readers.
  • A large number of essayists have made important contributions to both British and American literature and history.

1 Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. B 1820-1865, 2007.

2 J. A. Cuddon. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 1999.

3 S. Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, 2012.

4 Lopate, P. The Art of the Personal Essay, 1995.

Frequently Asked Questions about Essayists

An essayist is the author of a short work of non-fiction, usually either personal in nature or argumentative.

Famous essayists include Montaigne, Bacon, Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, to name just a few. 


There are two broad types of essayists: formal and informal. Informal essayists write autobiographically, with loose organization, and on familiar terms with the reader. Formal essayists write highly organized, objective pieces using high standards of argumentation and evidence.

Informal essayists write with open form in the first person, maintaining a conversational tone and making use of devices such as humor, irony, confession, contrariness, and self-exploration. Formal essayists, on the other hand, are characterized by their use of logical organization, seriousness, and objectivity.

Here is an incomplete list of modern essayists, most of whom are still actively writing: David Foster Wallace, Michael Pollan, David Sedaris, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marilynne Robinson, John D'Agata, Rebecca Solnit, Ross Gay, Zadie Smith, and Rahawa Haile

Final Essayists Quiz

Question

What type of essay has had more influence in literature?

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Answer

The personal/informal essay

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Question

What type of essay has been more influential in politics and academia?

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Answer

The formal essay

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Question

Which of the following is a characteristic of the personal essay?

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Answer

It is conversational

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Question

Which of the following is a characteristic of the formal essay?

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Answer

It is organized around a central argument or thesis statement

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Question

Who is generally considered to be the father of the modern personal essay?

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Answer

Montaigne

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Question

Which pair below were influential British essayists of the early 18th century?

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Answer

Addison and Steele

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Question

Are essays usually fictional or non-fictional?

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Answer

Non-fictional

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Question

Which famous essayist below was also an American Civil Rights leader?

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Answer

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Question

Which essayist below is most famous as a novelist?

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Answer

George Orwell

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Question

Which of the following is a characteristic of the personal essay?

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Answer

Self-exploration

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Question

Which famous essayist produced the first English dictionary?

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Answer

Samuel Johnson

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Question

Which essayist likely had the most influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.?

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Answer

Henry David Thoreau

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