The message in Christina Nehrings article I hate calling it an essay lest she end up on the wrong side of the Literary Gods is crystal clear. Despite American essays being in trouble, troubled and troubling, the solution may be in widening the circle of acceptable topics, tomes and tone that has inexplicably narrowed over the last few decades. There was a time in American (and, for that matter, world) literary circles when the essayist was revered, a counterpunch to long, turgid novels because they were able to shed light, make a point, possibly amuse and almost always enlighten readers.
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The American History Essay Contest was established to encourage young people to think creatively about our nation's great history and learn about history in a new light.
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(1835–1910). Twain was of course a popular novelist and a lecturer, but his essays—which often combined fictional and nonfictional elements, and so are sometimes difficult to categorize—displayed his deep talent as a humorist just as well as his other work did. Never limiting himself to short pieces, Twain engaged instead in a broad range of essay forms, from travel letters to memoirs to social and political commentary. Though some of his pieces Were journalistic and ephemeral, and others—especially later in his career—were polemical and pessimistic, what characterized almost all of his nonfiction work was not only humor but an interest in storytelling, whether a brief anecdote or a full-fledged account. Such a style complemented his skills as a lecturer—though they were much different skills from those of other popular American essayist-lecturers such as, for example, Emerson. For Twain, essays were about the “high and delicate art” or “how a story ought to be told.”
Literary essays by lesser-known writers had also taken their place in the American essay tradition in the early to mid-19th century, many of them under the intangible influence of Washington Irving. Soon after his success, American writers began to develop a faculty for the criticism of literature as well as its creation.
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In its broadest denotation, the essay has existed in America almost from the arrival of the first English settlers in 1607. While 17th-century colonists had little or no leisure time in which to produce belles-lettres, there did exist what we might now call nonfictional literature, ranging from a paragraph or two of the almanac—short expositions that questioned natural phenomena—to the long chronicle histories. Growing out of the almanacs were early science essays, primarily on astronomical observations but also on other branches of science such as agriculture, zoology, botany, mineralogy, and meteorology. The clergy of the time, who were often the most educated of the colonists, generally adopted the belief that while God’s mysteries were forever unknowable to humans, it was still their duty to ponder those mysteries. Hence, the end aim of science was contemplation. This purpose meant that their scientific writings (which appeared not only in almanacs but also in journals and letters to members of ) were not coldly scientific but tended toward moral interpretation.
The short prose works of the time, in fact, fell into definite literary types, including the “pamphlet of newes” (which described the new country), papers of timely interest on witchcraft and matters of immediate concern, the almanac (which contained short pieces of a moral or scientific nature), and the sermon—in which, apart from spiritual matters, ethics, manners, and social and national progress were also discussed—as well as its related form, the meditation, in which was displayed the most prolific and perhaps most creative prose of the time.
(1663–1728) wrote what is considered the first verifiable book of American essays, Bonifacius (1710; the later edition was called ). The book is divided into sections which are similar to 17th-century essays in being axiomatic and didactic philosophical reflections on abstract subjects, commentaries emerging from the wisdom and experience of the author. Nevertheless, the book is a departure from the writings of the early Puritans in that it contains no tedious laudatory biographies of ministers, no accusations of witchcraft, not even the display of pedantry and scriptural learning ordinarily associated with Mather. Instead it provides, in brief, simple, and forthright prose, a discussion of daily conduct, rules of behavior for ministers, doctors, and teachers, and objections to intemperance and corporal punishment. Each essay (and Mather uses the word literally, meaning “attempts to do good”) is complete in itself, and each is suggestive rather than exhaustive; the work is unique for its time in both spirit and method.In honor of Constitution Day, The Constitutional Walking Tour wants students to give their views about American freedom. The American Freedom Essay Contest challenges educators to get their students to write a 100-300 word essay on the importance of freedom in their lives. Entries will be judged in Elementary School, Middle School and High School categories with the winner in each category earning a free field trip with The Constitutional Walking Tour for his/her class.