Over the years, essayists have used their skill to bring the reading public amazing insights into the world around them, complex philosophical issues and hopes for the future. Throughout history there have been a number of notable voices and here we’ve rounded up a few of the most influential.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement during the mid-19th century alongside fellow writers Henry David Thoreau, for whom Emerson was a mentor, and Frederic Henry Hedge. Emerson wrote on a variety of subjects but focused mainly on nature and the nature of man. His 1836 essay Nature was the basis for the entire Transcendentalist movement, a belief that God, or any divine being, is shown through every natural thing and that studying the world around us is the only way to truly understand spirituality. Emerson remains popular today and the Transcendentalist movement remains a popular belief today.
Louisa May Alcott
Best known for her novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott also wrote several essays and shorter works. Her subjects included human rights, abolitionism and politics which provided a sharp contrast to her works of fiction. Alcott’s writing style is more classic and refined which can make her essays a challenging reading. Her approach on issues regarding human rights and feminism were considered extremely progressive at the time and, even today, her ideas, concepts and observations are keenly astute and remain timely. Alcott’s essays can be harder to come by since she is more well known for her fictional works, but collections of her shorter writings are ideal for an audience with an interest in human relationships.
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain changed his name after working on a river boat where ‘mark twain’ is jargon amongst the crew. Twain used at least two other pen names before settling on his most famous and, as a result, a complete bibliography of his work can be difficult to find. Twain wrote novels and essays and enjoyed injecting humor into all of his writing. In an essay on advice to youth he recommends obeying your parents “when they are present” and to use caution with lying “otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught.” Twain’s casual style of writing made both his essays and novels popular with the public at that time as well as today. His self-depreciating approach has also made him an iconic writer.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Scott Fitzgerald is well known for his books and short stories, especially since so many of them have been developed into movies. Both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Great Gatsby have been adapted recently as big budget movies and his stories and writing style are forever intertwined with the 1920s. His essays aren’t so well known, but for the readers willing to take time and find them among other works, they are real treasure. The most well-known collection of his essays and letters is called The Crack Up and it offers a poignant insight into the author’s transformation from celebrated author to an alcoholic. This chronicle of the lowest part of his life ultimately served as his elegy as the collection was published shortly after his death. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald’s ability to blend romance, opulence and gritty realism has made him one of the most iconic writers in history.
Ernest Hemingway has been compared to an Iceberg not only for his personality, but for his writing style. Hemingway approached all of his subjects by challenging his readers to look beyond the surface and to consider old or common subjects in a new light. The writer is particularly well known for his use of short, powerful sentences and was gifted at conveying larger than life stories and characters in a simple, stripped down voice which gave his words even more power.
Hunter S. Thompson
When it comes to writers who have changed the landscape of American literature, Hunter Thompson rides at the head of the pack. His own brand of immersive writing, known as Gonzo Journalism, redefined journalism and has become a common and popular approach in both printed journalism and television. Thompson’s most iconic work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was originally published in 1971, was made into a successful movie in 1998, introducing a whole new generation to Thompson. His essays are typically described as visceral, offensive and thought provoking. Thompson’s style is especially attractive for young writers, thirsty for their work to make a difference. Thompson’s political essays helped to bring the back-room drama of politics out into the open and his innovative style still resonates with readers today.
These writers are only a handful of the amazing essayists people enjoy. Today, well known authors like David Sedaris, Jesse Bering, Sarah Vowell and John Jeremiah Sullivan continue to make essays contemporary, proving to readers young and old that the format is still as relevant as ever. Essayists give readers the opportunity to expand their minds, challenge their beliefs and reframe their thoughts, proving that a few thousand words can change a life.