Tracing the Essay
Through Experience to Truth

G. Douglas Atkins

A fresh look at a venerable, resurgent literary form


"It is Atkins's own passion for the essay form that is most apparent in Tracing the Essay. The breadth of his knowledge of the history and criticism of this genre is also almost staggering. It would seem that he has read and studied almost everything that touches upon his subject matter. Atkins makes a strong case for the importance of the essay, for its role in providing reflection on experience, and for its nature as an embodiment of the speaker."
—Lynn Worsham, coeditor of Critical Intellectuals on Writing

"Tracing the Essay offers an original, economical, useful, and lucid argument about the nature and range of the essay as an art form. I welcome Atkins's book for its larger view, for its provision of a context in literary and intellectual history, for its close readings of individual essays, and for its clear articulation of a paradigm for the essay."
—Scott Russell Sanders, author of The Force of Spirit

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The essay, as a notably hard form of writing to pin down, has inspired some unflattering descriptions: It is a “greased pig,” for example, or a “pair of baggy pants into which nearly anything and everything can fit.” In Tracing the Essay, G. Douglas Atkins embraces the very qualities that have moved others to accord the essay second-class citizenship in the world of letters.

Drawing from the work of Montaigne and Bacon and recent practitioners such as E. B. White and Cynthia Ozick, Atkins shows what the essay means—and how it comes to mean. The essay, related to assaying (attempting), mines experience for meaning, which it then carefully weighs. It is a via media creature, says Atkins, born of and embracing tension. It exists in places between experience and meaning, literature and philosophy, self and other, process and product, form and formlessness. Moreover, as a literary form the essay is inseparable from a way of life requiring wisdom, modesty, and honesty. “The essay was, historically,” notes Atkins, “the first form to take the experience of the individual and make it the stuff of literature.”

Atkins also considers the essay’s basis in Renaissance (and Reformation) thinking and its participation in voyages of exploration and discovery of that age. Its concern is “home-cosmography,” to use a term from seventeenth-century writer William Habington. Responding to influential critiques of the essay’s supposed self-indulgence, lack of irony, and absence of form, Atkins argues that the essay exhibits a certain “sneakiness” as it proceeds in, through, and by means of the small and the mundane toward the spiritual and the revelatory.

Page count: 192 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 8


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G. Douglas Atkins is a professor of English at the University of Kansas. His other books include Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth, Reading Essays: An Invitation, and Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing (all Georgia). His book Reading Deconstruction/Deconstructive Reading was named an Outstanding Academic Book by Choice magazine.