Is the Essay Dead?

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"The word essay has been hijacked, blasphemed, forced into service for the enemy." Thus thunders essayist Patrick Madden in The Huffington Post. Schools have turned the form into "a punishment ... a brief bit of prose designed as a rhetorical proof of somebody else's ideas." Is there any chance of resurrecting this lost art? What are essays at their best, anyway?

Some readers will see that word, associate all kinds of negative things with it, and move on to the books with their authors' names in huge ALL CAPS on the cover. But others, readers like me, will get that "essays" are humble meditations on the world's wonders; they'll associate the term with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, or, further back, with Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Michel de Montaigne, and they'll long for the opportunity to live in someone else's mind for a while, to co-explore the mysteries of everyday things and to marvel at the simple joy of making meaning through association.

Those writers may never go out of fashion, but the form itself is another question. As Madden asks, "are essays viable in the twenty-first century?" Yet while publishers are reluctant to publish essay collections, some "big-name writers, like John McPhee, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Fadiman, Joan Didion, and Ian Frazier, still choose to write essays and not hide the fact." Is there still a place for those tossing off musing perambulations of prose, "grasping for connection and meaning"?

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