New Book 'On Essays' edited by Dr Kathryn Murphy

  • Cover image of the book 'On Essays: Montaigne to the Present'
14 September, 2020

Tutorial Fellow in English, Dr Kathryn Murphy, has edited a new book, On Essays: Montaigne to the Present, published by Oxford University Press, with Dr Thomas Karshan of the University of East Anglia.

On Essays is "the most substantial book to date on the history of the essay in English", according to publishers OUP, and brings together seventeen chapters on this most elusive of forms, from its beginnings in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne in the 1580s, to the present day. 

Sometimes called the ‘fourth genre’, the essay has been over-shadowed in literary history by fiction, poetry, and drama, and has proved notoriously resistant to definition. Montaigne called it a ramble; Chesterton the joke of literature; and Hume an ambassador between the worlds of learning and of conversation. But what is an essay, and how did it emerge as a literary form? What are the continuities and contradictions across its history, from Montaigne through the familiar intimacies of the Romantic essay, and up to more recent essayists such as Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Claudia Rankine? And how does its literary version differ from the way the essay is conceived as the task of schoolchildren and students?

The introduction to the volume, co-written by Dr Murphy and Dr Karshan, reveals in the essay a pattern of paradox: at once a pedagogical tool and a refusal of the methodical languages of universities and professions; politically engaged but retired and independent; erudite and anti-pedantic; occasional and enduring; intimate and oratorical; allusive and idiosyncratic. Other chapters present fresh thought and writing on topics which link the essay to the encyclopaedic writings of the ancient world; philosophy; psychoanalysis; the novel; sermons; city walks; coffee-houses; smoking; surrealism; photography; and film. Dr Murphy’s own chapter, entitled 'Of Sticks and Stones: The Essay, Experience, and Experiment', traces the origins of the essay’s close association with personal experience and scientific experiment, in the writings of Montaigne, Francis Bacon, and Robert Boyle.