Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Writing the Essay

ENGL 125.601
TR 5-6:15

In his thought-provoking inquiry into the nature and form of the essay, George Lukacs has suggested that "were one to compare the forms of literature with sunlight refracted in a prism, the writings of the essayists would be the ultra-violet rays." We will begin our analysis of the essay by deciphering this and other conceptual frameworks that will help us understand the unique effects this literary form is able to produce, as well as help us to comprehend and practice the various functions essays perform within the culture of letters as a whole. Reading a wide variety of stimulating essays that cover a broad historical and cross-cultural spectrum, we will focus upon three functional categories in some depth, namely: (1) the essay as a repository for, and exploration of, personal identity or self-actualization; (2) as a mode of social commentary, cultural critique, political action, moral debate, or evaluation that together constitute a crucial component of the print public sphere; and (3) as a particular literary form that reshapes rhetorical principles, makes brilliant use of tone, style, and figurative language as a way of reordering our perception of reality. Our readings will include both individual essays and short collections by single authors. The essays cover issues such as ethics, film analysis, modernity, gender, political freedom, class conflict, ethnicity, and selfhood. Likely authors may be: Montaigne, John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, R. W. Emerson, William James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and several others. Students are encouraged to participate in lively debates, as well as write periodic essays of varying purposes to share with the class. Our goal is to survey and understand the complexity and flexibility of the essay form, and to expand our own writing skills, creativity, and rhetorical power as a way of clarifying and disseminating our ideas. The course is a hands-on immersion not only into the world of ideas, but also into the energies and possibilities of the contemporary print public sphere. For further information or questions, contact Joseph Dimuro via email:

fulfills requirements