"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
"Tracing the Essay is a heartfelt and continuously intelligent tribute to the genre that sprang from Montaigne as Athene from the head of Zeus and which has had a recent renaissance. In his own quite remarkably nuanced way, Atkins tracks some of the essay's major practitioners, and brings us the best that has been thought and written about the genre. He illuminates usefully its tension between expressing strong personal convictions and remaining studiously open and exploratory. A sustained essay on the essay, this 'tracing,' while generous in its historical information, avoids becoming a text book and contains quite a few surprises. Atkins not only honors many contemporary writers, including E.B. White and Cynthia Ozick, but suggests that poetry too can become a close relative of the essay, as often in Dryden and Pope. A thoroughly enjoyable, judicious treatment of a mode of writing practiced by some of the greatest literary critics and that could influence the style in which scholarship is conducted."
"The brevity of Tracing the Essay belies Atkins’s ambition. Rather than writing an extended history of the genre or a meticulous survey of its practitioners, he has tried to penetrate deeply, seeking the form’s essence . . . one should come away with a new appreciation for the art of the essay and what is required to practice that art well."
"I’ll recommend it . . . as evidence that academic lit-crit can sometimes be of interest to people not engaged in writing academic lit-crit. Tracing the Essay is something rare: a book that is learned but plain-spoken, very personal yet also discreet."
—Inside Higher Education
"Tracing the Essay is, at its best, gracefully inscribed and thoughtful, essayistic prose . . . a rich assaying of the many aspects of the essay . . . An excellent book . . . the sum of its parts, from cover to cover, provides a reader with no better book about the form."
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.
List price: $23.95
View Shopping Cart
List price: $22.95
Check ebook availability