The Personal Essay


Here find samples of and about the personal essay especially for use in 441/541 English. We live in a world awash with essays. They are to be seen in newspapers, magazines, journals, anthologies, and heard on radio and television. The essays range from the polemical to the sublime, from the refined to the vulgar, and represent every shade of opinion. Some letters-to-the -editor make better essays than many professional efforts. The links section of this website provides some venues for quality essays. Some names that quickly come to mind as accomplished essayists include: Harry Bruce, Mark Steyn & Robert Fulford (National Post), Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Camille Paglia (Salon), Cynthia Ozick, George Orwell, Lewis Lapham (editor of Harper's), and Rex Murphy and Margaret Wente (Globe & Mail). There are many voices worth listening to (and no doubt, many more not)- find your own and try to read half a dozen every week, in one form or another. The best site on the web for my money is Arts&Letters Daily which offers a digest of the best essays on the rest of the web. Reading its three new entries each day is an efficient way to keep in touch with the world of ideas. Read this for a year and you will have catapulted into the world of ideas. Having opinions is easy, but actually knowing something, and not just latching onto the first political cliche you hear, is rare.

Reading great essays is probably the best way to learn how to write them, but there are innumerable online writing sites willing to help and give advice. The best of these (and linking to most of the others) can be found at a fine resource called The Five Paragraph Essay. Take the time to explore and you'll be ready to give a course on the subject.

  • Simon Blackburn, Cambridge philosopher, here points out the dangers of relativism in moral thinking
  • An interview with Simon Blackburn where he reveals a distrust for "global warming" alarmists

  • Read Chapter One of Annie Dillard's book length essay For the Time Being which Paul William Roberts called one of the most important books of the last half century

  • "Self-Reliance": The 19th century master, Ralph Waldo Emerson, reminds us of a forgotten virtue

    The following essays are by "Aristides", or Joseph Epstein, brilliant former editor of The American Scholar and first out of the blocks to defend Philip Larkin against the charges of his lessers:

  • Decline
  • Gossip
  • Heroes and Role Models
  • Pets
  • Taste
  • Time

  • Joseph Epstein on "The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery"
  • Joseph Epstein (Aristides) is interviewed.

  • Ian Hunter's "definition essay" on tolerance

  • Sehdev Kumar considers the limits of science and the reach of poetry

  • Barry Lopez Interview which includes remarks on the essay "Who Are These Animals We Kill"
  • A Conversation with Barry Lopez
  • Barry Lopez and Rick Bass on Hunting
  • Barry Lopez discusses the genre of Nature Writing
  • An interview with Barry Lopez which considers "what is it makes a worthy life?"

  • Secularism's Blind Faith by Peter Marin

  • Poet W. S. Merwin's unusual take on the process essay: "Unchopping a Tree"

  • "The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth. That is the source of the beauty and passion of intellectual pursuits" Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel poet, considers religious faith in a technocratic age.

  • Rex Murphy considers Bill Clinton and lying in an amazing feast of words: "Pinocchio Priapus on the Potomac"

  • George Orwell's narrative essay: "Shooting an Elephant"

  • Cynthia Ozick: "She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body"
  • Cynthia Ozick's Introduction to her new book of essays, Quarrel and Quandary
  • Cynthia Ozick Reports on T. S. Eliot's First Effort to Publish Prufrock

  • Roger Shattuck on the temptations of "Evil as Cool"

  • Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

  • Glenn Tinder wonders at considerable length: "Can We be good Without God?"

  • Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

  • The Virtue of Simplicity as explained by H. D. Thoreau who lived alone on Walden Pond for two years in the 1840's

  • Thoreau's Famous Essay that inspired Gandhi, Tolstoy, and King: On Civil Disobedience

  • Link to 21 Essays of Michel de Montaigne, 1575

  • Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham is interviewed re: television and language: Get a sample of the intelligence and eloquence behind America's best magazine

  • Theodore Dalrymple on Tatoos--the book review as essay (and bound to annoy you who are tatooed)

  • Read Chapter One of Morris Berman's book length essay, The Twilight of American Culture, where he suggests we are on the edge of a new kind of dark age


  • Why Study/Teach English (B Bauld)

  • "Don't Kill the Mockingbird": Why literature should come ahead of social activism(B Bauld)

  • School Spirit (originally in Expressions, 1998(B Bauld)



  • How to Join the Phil-Lit Discussion group - try it!


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