ETYM French essai, from Latin exagium a weighing, weight, balance.
1. A tentative attempt.
2. An analytic or interpretive literary composition.
Short piece of nonfiction, often dealing with a particular subject from a personal point of view. The essay became a recognized genre with French writer Montaigne’s Essais 1580 and in English with Francis Bacon’s Essays 1597. Today the essay is a part of journalism: articles in the broadsheet newspapers are in the essay tradition.
Abraham Cowley, whose essays appeared 1668, brought a greater ease and freedom to the genre than it had possessed before in England, but it was with the development of periodical literature in the 18th century that the essay became a widely used form. The great names are Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, with their Tatler and Spectator papers, and later Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. In North America the politician and scientist Benjamin Franklin was noted for his style.
A new era was inaugurated by Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia 1820; to the same period belong Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey in England, C A Sainte-Beuve in France, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau in the US. From the 19th century the essay was increasingly used in Europe and the US as a vehicle for literary criticism. Hazlitt may be regarded as the originator of the critical essay, and his successors include Matthew Arnold and Edmund Gosse. Thomas Macaulay, whose essays began to appear shortly after those of Lamb, presents a strong contrast to Lamb with his vigorous but less personal tone.
There was a revival of the form during the closing years of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, in the work of R L Stevenson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, and Max Beerbohm. The literary journalistic tradition of the essay was continued by James Thurber, Mark Twain, H L Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Desmond MacCarthy, and others, and the critical essay by George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, F R Leavis, T S Eliot, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and others.
1. To put to a test
2. To make an often tentative or experimental effort to perform; try