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Undergraduate English Courses

359:312 The Essay

01  MW5  CAC  18074  JURECIC  MU-114

The Essay
“What do I know?” This question inspired Michel de Montaigne to ponder topics ranging from friendship to vanity, idleness to cannibalism, and to invent a literary form that he called “essais,” meaning attempts. Montaigne’s legacy of experiment and inquiry remains influential to this day. Like Montaigne, contemporary essayists combine the subjectivity of the personal essay— what John D’Agata calls “a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments”—and the objectivity of the public essay— “a fact-hungry pursuit of solutions to problems.” In this seminar, we will begin by examining the essay’s origins, reading examples from Montaigne as well as from several 18th- and 19th- century writers, such as Jonathan Swift and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But we will spend most of our time discussing essays from the 20th and 21st centuries, including work by writers such as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this seminar students will write a traditional essay of literary criticism, and they will also experiment with writing exploratory essays that pose versions of Montaigne’s question, “what do I know?”