Classic British and American Essays and Speeches
From the works of Francis Bacon and Daniel Defoe to those of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr.: more than 200 of the greatest essays and speeches by British and American writers over the past four centuries.
1100 Words, by Christopher Morley
If you have ever faced a tight deadline when composing an essay with a strict word limit, you'll understand the challenge faced by Christopher Morley in "1100 Words."
The Advantages of Having One Leg, by G.K. Chesterton
"The Advantages of Having One Leg" loosely follows the outline of a classical rhetorical exercise (or progymnasmata): the amplification of a proverb.
Advice to Writers, by Robert Benchley
In this review of two books on writing, Benchley uses an extended analogy to illustrate the distinctive method and style of each author.
Advice to Youth, by Mark Twain
In "Advice to Youth," a talk he delivered to a group of young girls, Mark Twain turns the conventional moral lecture on its head.
The Almost Perfect State, by Don Marquis
"The Almost Perfect State" illustrates the delicate balance of biting wit and lyrical reflection in Marquis's finest prose. As Christopher Morley wrote in his introduction to the essay in 1921, "[Marquis's] humor adorns a rich and mellow gravity. When strongly moved he sometimes utters an epigram that rings like steel leaving the scabbard."
An Apology for Idlers, by Robert Louis Stevenson
After reading Stevenson's essay, you may find it worthwhile to compare "An Apology for Idlers" with two other essays in our collection: "In Praise of Idleness," by Bertrand Russell, and "Why Are Beggars Despised?" by George Orwell.
Are the Rich Happy? by Stephen Leacock
In this satirical essay (originally published in 1916), Leacock anticipates F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that the "very rich . . . are different from you and me."
The Art of Controversy, by Ambrose Bierce
In "The Art of Controversy," Ambrose Bierce examines the irrational appeals underlying most arguments. What's more important than winning an argument, Bierce says, is defeating an opponent and entertaining the audience.
Aristotle at Afternoon Tea, by Oscar Wilde
Though best known for his plays, stories, epigrams, and poems, Oscar Wilde was also a skillful essayist and critic. In his review essay "Aristotle at Afternoon Tea," Wilde explains and illustrates his views on the social art of conversation.
The Atlanta Compromise Address, by Booker T. Washington
In September 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered the following speech before a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Although the address was generally well received, in time a number of black leaders criticized Washington for conveying what W.E.B. Du Bois described as "the old attitude of adjustment and submission."
The Art of Walking, by Christopher Morley
In "The Art of Walking," originally published 1n 1918, Christopher Morley pays "reverence and honor" to the practice of reflective walking at a time when automobiles were rapidly making "the highways their own beyond dispute."
The Aspect of London, by Arthur Symons
Arthur Symons' highly descriptive writing shows the influence of the impressionist painters he deeply admired. As critic Nicholas Freeman has observed, "Symons does not confine himself entirely to the visual, but he seems torn between an evocation of the scene and a reaction to it."
At the Turn of the Year, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp)
"At the Turn of the Year" comes from a collection of nature essays originally published by William Sharp under the pen name of Fiona Macleod.
The Battle of the Ants, by Henry David Thoreau
This excerpt from chapter 12 of "Walden," developed with historical allusions and an understated analogy, conveys Thoreau's unsentimental view of nature.
Battle of the Babies, by Agnes Repplier
Though her essays were described as "genteel," Agnes Repplier was capable of delivering some forceful arguments, as in her defense of the "brutal fairy stories" that some felt should be "banished ruthlessly from our shelves."
Bathing in a Borrowed Suit, by Homer Croy
In this narrative essay (originally published in 1922), Croy blends understatement and hyperbole to great comic effect.
Books, by Samuel Johnson
Johnson argues in this short essay that the "multiplication of books" doesn't necessarily lead to the advance of "happiness or knowledge."
Blakesmoor in H-----shire, by Charles Lamb
In "Blakesmoor in H-----shire," Lamb returns to the great country house where his grandmother had been a housekeeper and which he had visited as a child. Now abandoned, this "lonely temple" serves as an emblem of the transience of all human things.
Broken Memories by Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas was born in the London borough of Lambeth, and in "Broken Memories" he describes how the pastoral suburb of his childhood has been "effaced" by the inexorable growth of the city.
Business Letters by Robert Benchley
In this comic essay, a brief model of business writing inspires Robert Benchley to compose a fanciful narrative.
A Brother of St. Francis, by Grace Rhys
In the short essay "A Brother of St. Francis," from the collection "About Many Things" (1920), Grace Rhys draws some thoughtful comparisons between humans and pigs.
Camping Out, by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway's famously economical style is already on display in this article from June 1920, an instructional piece (developed by process analysis) on setting up camp and cooking outdoors.
Caroline's Letters on Marriage and Separation, by Maria Edgeworth
In the following excerpts from her first published work, "Letters for Literary Ladies" (1795), Edgeworth relies on the fictional character of Caroline to explore the relationships between women and men at the end of the 18th century.
By the Railway Side, by Alice Meynell
This descriptive narrative by Alice Meynell contains a brief but powerful vignette.
Child's Talk, by Robert Lynd
Leonard Woolf characterized Robert Lynd as "one of those impeccable journalists who every week for 30 or 40 years turn out an impeccable essay . . . like an impeccable sausage, about anything or everything or nothing." "Child's Talk," originally published in 1922, is one of those impeccable essays.
Christmas, by Washington Irving
In this essay from "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent," American author Washington Irving affectionately describes an English Christmas from the point of view of a stranger who enjoys neither a blazing hearth nor "the warm grasp of friendship."
The Character of the Man in Black
In this essay, Goldsmith introduces us to "the only man I ever knew who seemed ashamed of his natural benevolence."
Christmas Afternoon, by Robert Benchley
Robert Benchley's account of the Gummidge family's "Christmas Afternoon"--written "in the manner" of Charles Dickens--is an especially witty example of parody.
A City Night Piece, by Oliver Goldsmith
Goldsmith's "A City Night Piece" offers a view of London that is at once haunting and compassionate.
The Coffee Houses of London, by Thomas Macaulay
In this excerpt from his popular "History of England" (1848), Thomas Macaulay offers evocative descriptions of the coffee houses in late-17th-century London.
Christmas and the New Year, by Ambrose Bierce
In this end-of-year essay, Ambrose Bierce, author of "The Devil's Dictionary," looks at the holiday season through a dark, satirical lens.
The Clothing of Ghosts, by Ambrose Bierce
In his short sardonic essay "The Clothing of Ghosts," Ambrose Bierce asks, "Who ever heard of a naked ghost?"
Coney Island at Night, by James Huneker
Employing strategies that later came to be associated with creative nonfiction, Huneker records his impressions of Coney Island "during a torrid spell" and relates his heart-breaking encounter with the Levins family.
Coddling in Education, by Henry Seidel Canby
In this critical essay, Canby describes the sort of "mental coddling" that promotes nothing more than "lethargic thinking and tangled idealism."
A Conversation With a Cat, by Hilaire Belloc
In "A Conversation With a Cat," Belloc's fanciful discourse is abruptly interrupted in the final paragraph.
Consideration of the Vanity and Shortness of Man's Life, by Jeremy Taylor
These passages from the opening chapter of "The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying" (1651) are representative of Jeremy Taylor's rich and impassioned prose.
The Decay of Essay Writing, by Virginia Woolf
This short piece on the familiar essay was one of Virginia Woolf's first published works.
Corn-Pone Opinions, by Mark Twain
In an essay not published until several years after his death, humorist Mark Twain examines the effects of social pressures on our thoughts and beliefs.
Conversation, by Samuel Johnson
Notice Samuel Johnson's reliance on classification in his discussion of a topic he had often practiced at a London tavern called the Turk's Head.
A Country Apothecary, by Mary Russell Mitford
Born in the small town of Alresford in Hampshire, England, Mary Russell Mitford supported her family by writing novels, plays, poems, and--most memorably--essays focused on everyday village life.
Crooked Streets, by Hilaire Belloc
A prolific essayist and poet, British author Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) is also remembered for his travel books, religious writings, and nonsense verse for children. In "The Crooked Streets," he argues that the most vibrant parts of European cities are not the squares and boulevards but the many winding streets with curious names.
The Decay of Friendship, by Samuel Johnson
Of the "innumerable causes" of decayed or destroyed friendships, Samuel Johnson examines five in particular.
Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions was signed by 100 women and men at the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Following the model of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, this revolutionary document called for the repeal of laws that enforced unequal treatment of women.
Deaths of Little Children, by Leigh Hunt
In the essay "Deaths of Little Children," Leigh Hunt observes that "it is always false consolation to tell people that because they cannot help a thing, they are not to mind it."
A Defense of Slang, by Gelett Burgess
In "A Defense of Slang," Gelett Burgess likens American slang to poetry--"a picturesque element that spices the language with enthusiasm."
The Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others, the Declaration of Independence is a classic example of a deductive argument. The basic premises stated in the first two paragraphs are followed by evidence (presented in list fashion reinforced by anaphora) that leads inexorably to the logical conclusion in...
Death of a Soldier, by Louisa May Alcott
During the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott served for six weeks as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, and her letters home during this period served as the basis for her first successful book, "Hospital Sketches." In this excerpt, she records the final days of a "stately looking" Virginia blacksmith named John, a man who "seldom spoke,...
A Contrast in Generations, by Helen Mathers
In "A Contrast in Generations," note how Helen Mathers uses a series of comparisons and analogies to defend the younger generation and the "Order of the New."
Cowards, by Simeon Strunsky
Influenced by the British essayists William Hazlitt and G.K. Chesterton, Simeon Strunsky is primarily remembered for his humorous essays. Of these, "Cowards" is one of his best.
The Diary Habit, by A.A. Milne
In "The Diary Habit," Milne observes that "many diaries record adventures of the mind and soul for lack of stirring adventures to the body."
The Cries of London, by Joseph Addison
Composed in the form of a job application, "The Cries of London" is one of Joseph Addison's more playful essays.
A Definition of a Gentleman, by John Henry Newman
From Discourse VIII of "The Idea of a University" comes "A Definition of a Gentleman," a superb example of character writing.
Defence and Happiness of Married Life, by Joseph Addison
In "Defence and Happiness of Married Life," Addison (a bachelor at the time) adopts the persona of Philogamus (literally, "a lover of marriage") to delineate the advantages and pleasures of being a married man.
The Difference of Wits, by Ben Jonson
In this selection from "Timber; or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter," Ben Jonson examines and classifies the "wits"--that is, the diverse talents and abilities of his contemporaries.
The Danger of Lying in Bed, by Mark Twain
In this satire on the growing fashion for life insurance, Twain combines the roles of economist and logician as he calculates the relative death rates of rail travel and staying in bed.
The Essence of Humanism, by William James
"The Essence of Humanism" is an extended definition leading to the conclusion that "ideas and concepts and scientific theories pass for true only so far as they harmoniously lead back to the world of sense."
The Education of Women, by Daniel Defoe
In 1719, Defoe published the novel "Robinson Crusoe" and this essay, in which he challenges "one of the most barbarous customs in the world . . . that we deny the advantages of learning to women."
An Economical Project, by Benjamin Franklin
In this "first detailed proposal to save daylight," Benjamin Franklin uses personification and detailed "calculations" to develop his satire.
The Dignity of Mechanical Art, by John Ruskin
In this excerpt from the opening of John Ruskin's "Cestus of Aglaia," note in particular his awestruck description of a locomotive and his exploration of the questions, "what arts should be generally taught to the English boy and girl, by what methods, and to what ends?"
Do Insects Think? by Robert Benchley
In this short comic essay, Robert Benchley uses a quirky example to refute the notion that insects do not think.
The English House-Martin, by Gilbert White
In the following letter-essay from "The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne" (1789), Gilbert White offers a precise and affectionate description of the Common House Martin.
An Experiment in Modesty, by Peter McArthur
The narrator of Peter McArthur's "Experiment in Modesty" presents himself as a traveler "willing to engage in conversation with any one who is willing to talk."
Disintroductions, by Ambrose Bierce
In this short essay, Bierce proposes a solution to the problem of "promiscuous, unsought and unauthorized introductions."
A Fable, by Mark Twain
Consider what lesson about the nature of perception is contained in "A Fable," by American humorist Mark Twain.
The Double Entendre, by Edward Moore
Moore's essay on the double entendre makes the point that women are "by no means inferior to the men in the happy talent of conveying the archest ideas imaginable in the most harmless words." Note how Moore's own double entendres gently undermine the avowed "purity" of his intentions.
Footprints on the Seashore, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Critic Darrel Abel once observed that "Hawthorne's fantasy life was so strong that he had difficulty in maintaining a sane balance between the life within and the life without." Consider how those two lives are balanced and examined in the essay "Footprints on the Seashore."
Fog Patterns, by Ben Hecht
More than a simple place description, Hecht's essay relies on personification, character sketches, snippets of dialogue, and the recurring symbol of "the monstrous clock" to convey the experience of life in a modern metropolis.
Give Her a Pattern, by D.H. Lawrence
In "Give Her a Pattern," first published in 1929, D.H. Lawrence argues that modern man is "a fool" because of his failure to accept a woman as "a real human being."
False and True Humour, by Joseph Addison
In this short essay, Joseph Addison relies on allegory to distinguish the truly humorous writer from the "imposter."
Ghosts, by Archibald MacMechan
In the essay "Ghosts," Canadian author Archibald MacMechan draws some careful (and fanciful) distinctions between "Dead Ghosts" and "Living Ghosts."
Essays and Essayists, by William Ernest Henley
In "Essays and Essayists," Henley identifies what he regards as the chief characteristics of those essayists who are "worth remembering" and "worth reading."
The Gettysburg Address, by Abraham Lincoln
President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has been described as a prose poem, a prayer, and "the world’s foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."
Free! by Charles Hanson Towne
In the familiar essay "Free!" Charles Hanson Towne assumes the persona of the "young-old philosopher" as he details the pleasures of truancy.
Gin-Shops, by Charles Dickens
"Gin-Shops," with its wealth of descriptive details and snippets of lively dialogue, offers one of the more memorable scenes in Charles Dickens's first book, "Sketches by Boz."
Happiness, by Oliver Goldsmith…
In this essay, Goldsmith introduces three individuals (a slave, a famous cardinal, and a "silly fellow") to illustrate his thoughts on the nature of happiness.
A Happy Home, by Thomas De Quincey
"A Happy Home" is a selection from the last part of "The Pleasures of Opium" in Thomas De Quincey's masterpiece, "The Confessions of an English Opium Eater." The charmingly intimate atmosphere evoked by this descriptive piece stands in contrast to the nightmarish experiences that follow in "The Pain of Opium."
A Few Words on Christmas, by Charles Lamb
In "A Few Words on Christmas" (1822), English essayist Charles Lamb reflects on the food, drink, and music associated with the "season of mirth and cold weather."
Getting Up on Cold Mornings, by Leigh Hunt
In the first part of this essay, Hunt illustrates various ways in which "an ingenious lier in bed" might resist invitations to get up on a cold morning. In the rest of the essay, he offers strategies for persuading others to abandon the "enormous bliss" of a warm bed.
A Glorious Resurrection, by Frederick Douglass
In this narrative passage from Chapter 10 of his first autobiography, Frederick Douglass recounts "the turning-point" in his "career as a slave."
Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves
Graves's autobiography, "Goodbye to All That," with its detailed descriptions of trench warfare, endures as one of the great memoirs of World War I. In the following excerpt, he discovers the implications of an old woman's lament, "Triste la Guerre" ("Sad, the war").
An Experiment in Misery, by Stephen Crane
Best known today for his novel "The Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane also endures as a significant figure in the development of modern literary journalism. His writings often blur the distinction between nonfiction writing and fiction. Though usually categorized as a short story, "Experiment in Misery" first appeared as an article in the...
The Gift o' Gab, by Ambrose Bierce
In this brief essay, noted satirist Ambrose Bierce expresses his "strong distaste" for forensic eloquence--"the art of saying things in such a way as to make them pass for more than they are worth."
Exercise, by A. Bronson Alcott
Amos Bronson Alcott was a passionate educator, abolitionist, and advocate for women's rights in mid-19th century New England. "Exercise" is one of the longer "fragments" in Alcott's essay collection "Table-Talk," originally published in 1877.
Gifts, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
In this short essay (an extended definition), Emerson encourages us to do some "high thinking" about the nature of both gift-giving and gift-receiving. As the critic David Herd has written, "Though it never actually loses sight of the act of giving which is his theme, Emerson's essay is really about the act of judgment."
A Hanging, by George Orwell
From 1922 to 1927, George Orwell served in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. Out of that experience came this classic essay, "A Hanging."
The Haunted Mind, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This second-person account of the spirits that occupy the "intermediate space" between sleeping and waking is one of the dark fables in Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales."
An Encomium on Sleep, by Samuel Johnson
In this encomiastic essay, Samuel Johnson pays tribute to the restorative and consolatory powers of sleep.
In Mammoth Cave, by John Burroughs
In the following essay, first published in 1894, naturalist John Burroughs reports on a visit to Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky.
Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation, by Jonathan Swift
In this essay, the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift enumerates "the faults and errors" of those who lack the ability to participate in an agreeable conversation.
A Glimpse of War's Hell Scenes, by Walt Whitman
In "A Glimpse of War's Hell Scenes," Whitman offers a brief yet vivid account of an incident that occurred in October 1864 near Upperville, Virginia.
In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell
In this 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness," Bertrand Russell argues in favor of a four-hour working day. Consider whether his "arguments for laziness" deserve serious consideration today.
How I Became a Socialist, by William Morris
Despite the informal, conversational style of "How I Became a Socialist," William Morris expresses his credo with passion and conviction.
Entering Wales, by Edward Thomas
"Entering Wales" is the second chapter of Thomas's travel book "Beautiful Wales" (1905). Note the poetic quality and imaginative vigor of Edward Thomas's highly descriptive prose.
Good Souls, by Dorothy Parker
In this character study (originally published in 1919), Parker describes a type of person (a caricature, in fact) rather than an individual personality. In the final paragraphs, she appears to temper her satire with a degree of genuine sympathy.
How to Live to Be 200, by Stephen Leacock
In the essay "How to Live to Be 200" (from the collection "Literary Lapses," 1910), Canadian author Stephen Leacock pokes fun at self-help books and health fads--which were almost as popular a century ago as they are now.
Grace Before Meat, by Charles Lamb
In "Grace Before Meat," the great 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb questions the practice of saying grace before meals. "Gluttony and surfeiting," he argues, "are no proper occasions for thanksgiving."
The Hills of Zion, by H. L. Mencken
Mencken composed "The Hills of Zion" in July of 1925 while covering the notorious Scopes "Monkey Trial."
Hours of Spring, by Richard Jefferies
Published 16 months before his death, "Hours of Spring" was one of Jefferies' final compositions, written when he was too ill to go outdoors. Critic Samuel J. Looker said of this "fine yet pathetic" essay that "There is an almost feverish intensity about it, as if the writer knew that the sands of his life were running out."
Going Out for a Walk, by Max Beerbohm
Here, in the essay "Going Out for a Walk" (1918), the Incomparable Max Beerbohm challenges the notion that walking is a productive mental exercise--especially if one is accompanied by a talkative companion.
Letter to His Son, by Philip Stanhope…
British statesman and diplomat Phillip Stanhope, better known as Lord Chesterfield, is remembered today for his letters to his son. Never intended for publication, the letters provide a guide to 18th-century notions of sophisticated social behavior and good manners.
The Hurricane, by John James Audubon
"The Hurricane," an essay from volume one of Audubon's "Ornithological Biography," describes the effects of a violent storm in a forest by the Ohio River.
How I Conquered Stage Fright, by Mark Twain
In addition to being a great novelist, Mark Twain was one of the most popular public speakers of his day. In this address, Twain recounts his first public appearance--"the first and last time" he experienced stage fright.
The First Inaugural Address of Barack Obama
Because a gift for oratory had helped propel him to the White House, expectations were high when President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 2009. And because the country was mired in a deep recession, hopes were even higher.
Intellectual Ambition, by George Santayana
The nature of perception and thought, the subject of the short essay "Intellectual Ambition," is a topic that Santayana explored at length in his final great work, "The Realms of Being."
Jack and Gill: A Mock Criticism, by Joseph Dennie
In this delightful parody of a critical essay, Joseph Dennie analyzes that "strangely overlooked" epic poem, "Jack and Gill" (better known today as the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill").
Lying Awake, by Charles Dickens
"Lying Awake," a record of the author's fragmented memories and imaginings as he tries to fall asleep, might be characterized as both a "process essay" and a "collage essay."
How to Borrow Money, by Stephen Leacock
In the narrative essay "How to Borrow Money" (1928), Stephen Leacock offers four "little scenes" to illustrate his thesis: "when you borrow, borrow a whole lot."
How It Feels to Be Colored Me, by Zora Neale Hurston
"A genius of the South, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist"--those are the words that Alice Walker had inscribed on the tombstone of Zora Neale Hurston. In this essay, Hurston introduces herself.
The Musical Instruments of Conversation, by Joseph Addison
In this classification essay, Joseph Addison (writing as Isaac Bickerstaff) compares people's conversational styles to musical instruments.
Mary White, by William Allen White
William Allen White's famous eulogy for his 16-year-old daughter originally appeared in the "Emporia Gazette" four days after her death in a horse-riding accident.
Look at Your Fish! by Samuel H. Scudder
In the following essay, originally published anonymously in 1874, entomologist Samuel Scudder recalls his first encounter with Professor Louis Agassiz, who subjected his research students to a rigorous exercise in close observation.
The Lower Depths, by H.L. Mencken
In his review of "The Social Objectives of School English," H.L. Mencken employed his lively, combative style to skewer "the worst idiots" in "the slums of pedagogy": teachers of English.
How Shall I Word It? by Max Beerbohm
As you read Beerbohm's parodies of the letters in a how-to book, decide whether you fit Joseph Epstein's description of the ideal Max Beerbohm reader.
The Making of Harlem, by James Weldon Johnson
In 1925, at the height of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, African-American poet James Weldon Johnson composed this historical narrative for the magazine "Survey Graphic."
The Maypole and the Column, by Maurice Hewlett
Early in the twentieth century, English novelist, poet, and essayist Maurice Hewlett was a popular writer of historical and romantic fiction. In "The Maypole and the Column," composed in 1922 as the preface to an essay anthology, he contrasts the traditional essay (metaphorically represented by the maypole) with the modern newspaper column.
Mr. Barlow, by Charles Dickens
In this wrathful character sketch, Dickens describes the "instructive monomaniac" who presumes to know everything.
The Lowest Animal, by Mark Twain
After clearly stating his thesis in the introductory paragraph of "The Lowest Animal," Twain proceeds to develop his argument through a series of comparisons and examples, all of which appear to support his claim that "we have reached the bottom stage of development."
The Idea of Beauty, by Joshua Reynolds
One of the most celebrated painters of his day, Sir Joshua Reynolds was also an eloquent writer and a close friend of Samuel Johnson. This essay (originally untitled) first appeared in Johnson's "The Idler" (No. 82, November 10, 1759).
A Meditation upon a Broomstick, by Jonathan Swift
Swift's short essay relies on extended comparison to convey a bleak view of human behavior.
I Have a Dream, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
In August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the great march on Washington, where he delivered this memorable speech in front of 200,000 people gathered by the Lincoln Memorial and millions more who watched on television. In addition to being a central text of the Civil Rights Movement, the "I Have a Dream" speech is a model of effective...
London, by Henry James
In this essay, American novelist Henry James recalls his first visit to the "dreadful, delightful" and "above all, overwhelming" city of London, where he later lived for more than 20 years.
Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette, by Dorothy Parker
While serving as a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine, Parker wrote this review of Emily Post's popular advice book, "Etiquette." Notice how Parker uses brief examples and selected quotations from Post's book for humorous effect.
An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter
Published in the last year of Celia Thaxter's life, "An Island Garden" demonstrates that nature writing can be both tender and precise. In this excerpt, Celia Thaxter describes a threatening storm and a small resurrection.
The Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy
John Kennedy's inaugural address is one of the most memorable political speeches of the past century. The young president's reliance on biblical quotations, metaphors, parallelism, and antithesis all recall some of the most powerful speeches of Abraham Lincoln. The most famous line in Kennedy's address ("Ask not . . .") is a classic example of...
January in the Sussex Woods, by Richard Jefferies
Combining close observation with personal reflection, Jefferies writes lyrically about the migratory impulses of birds and people.
Laughter, by Joseph Addison
In these reflections on the nature of laughter and ridicule, British author Joseph Addison relies on the organizational strategy of comparison. Though in his introduction Addison expresses a preference for "the looseness and freedom of an essay," consider whether you agree that his composition lacks any "order or method."
The Most Popular Book of the Month, by Robert Benchley
In "The Most Popular Book of the Month," Benchley parodies the conventions of the book review as he examines the 1920 edition of the New York City phone book.
Niagara Falls, by Rupert Brooke
Although best known for his poetry, Rupert Brooke was also a skilled essayist. He composed this highly descriptive piece of travel writing during a tour of the United States and Canada in 1913.
A Liberal Education, by Thomas Henry Huxley
"A Liberal Education" is an excerpt from a longer essay, "A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It," which Huxley originally delivered in 1868 at the South London Working Men's College. Consider how his opening analogy--comparing life to a chess game--prepares us for his discussion of the value and purpose of education.
A Law of Acceleration, by Henry Adams
In "A Law of Acceleration," the second-to-last chapter of "The Education of Henry Adams," Adams observed that whereas coal output served as the measure of progress in the 19th century, the dynamo would characterize the acceleration of progress in the 20th.
A "Now": Descriptive of a Hot Day, by Leigh Hunt
Leigh Hunt's collage essay "A 'Now': Descriptive of a Hot Day" was a favorite of poet John Keats, who was living with Hunt at the time it was written.
My Chateaux, by George William Curtis
In the familiar essay "My Chateau," George William Curtis relies on various rhetorical strategies to evoke a compelling impression of his fanciful estates in a mythical version of Spain.
A Lark's Flight, by Alexander Smith
In the opening paragraphs of "A Lark's Flight," Smith reflects on the popular appeal of public executions--"a movement of curiosity not altogether ignoble, but in some degree pathetic." Then, in an extended narrative, he recounts the events leading up to a hanging that he witnessed as a child.
The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin
In the first chapter of "The Land of Little Rain," Mary Austin describes the "lotus charm" of "the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands."
The Last Days of John Brown, by Henry David Thoreau
Though generally categorized as a "nature writer," Thoreau was also a vocal opponent of slavery, and after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 he assisted escaped slaves by way of the Underground Railway. This epideictic essay, an encomium to the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, was written shortly after Brown was executed for...
The Modern Essay, by Virginia Woolf
Here, assuming the guise of the common reader, Virginia Woolf offers "a few . . . ideas and opinions" about the nature of the English essay.
The Last Generation in England, by Elizabeth Gaskell
"The Last Generation in England" offers a sketch of domestic life in a country town at the beginning of the 19th century. As in her most famous novel, "Cranford" (1853), Gaskell relies on her memories of growing up in Knutsford, a small town outside Manchester.
A Morning in Marathon, by Christopher Morley
In this playful account of a commuter's experiences on a cold February morning, Christopher Morley finds a bit of magic in the mundane.
Of Conversation: An Apology, by H.G. Wells
In "Of Conversation," British author H.G. Wells argues that the urge to "gabble" is nothing more than "a sign of insecurity."
Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft, by George Eliot
Widely recognized as one of England's greatest novelists, George Eliot (the pen name of Marian Evans) was also a notable poet and critic. In this review essay, Eliot compares two books published 50 years apart: Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792) and Margaret Fuller's "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" (published...
The Mutability of Literature, by Washington Irving
In "The Mutability of Literature," Washington Irving reflects on the ever-changing nature of the English language and the limited shelf lives of most popular authors.
On Giving Advice, by Joseph Addison
In his short essay "On Giving Advice," Joseph Addison considers the persuasive power of fables.
New Year's Eve, by Charles Lamb
In the essay "New Year's Eve," which first appeared in the January 1821 issue of "The London Magazine," English author Charles Lamb reflects wistfully on the passage of time.
The New House, by G.K. Chesterton
The author of dozens of volumes of essays, G.K. Chesterton is known for his sense of humor and his love of paradox. He composed "The New House" shortly after moving from London to the suburban town of Beaconsfield.
Meeting the Vital Facts of Life
Henry David Thoreau composed this journal entry on July 6, 1845, two days after taking up residence on the shore of Walden Pond. This short passage served as the basis for the second half of "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"--chapter two of Thoreau's master work, "Walden" (1854).
Ogres, by William Makepeace Thackeray
In the essay "Ogres," the author of "Vanity Fair" relies on comparison and analogy to develop his social satire.
The Libido for the Ugly, by H. L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken's attack on American architecture in "The Libido for the Ugly" endures as a powerful exercise in hyperbole and invective.
Letting Go, by Phoebe Yates Pember
In this excerpt from her memoir, Pember recounts the final moments of a young Confederate soldier named Fisher, "an especial favorite." Compare Pember's narrative with the deathbed scene described by Louisa May Alcott in "Death of a Soldier."
Night Walks, by Charles Dickens
In the haunting essay "Night Walks," Charles Dickens relies on personification and a number of striking analogies to convey the experience of walking London's streets after midnight.
The Illusion of Historic Time, by Alice Meynell
Alice Meynell's numerous essays on childhood, says Daniel Robinson, "are central to all of [her] prose work because childhood is the foundation of the human life explored in one way or another in all of the other essays." Nowhere does Meynell express that perception more eloquently than in "The Illusion of Historic Time."
Of Discourse, by Francis Bacon
In the essay titled "Of Discourse," Francis Bacon explains how a person can "lead the dance" without appearing to dominate a conversation.
The Nature of Liberty, by H.L. Mencken
Mencken uses an extended narrative example to support his thesis that the police have every right to "crack the skulls" of suspected criminals.
The Irish Character, by Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller's two-part essay "The Irish Character" first appeared in "The New York Tribune," where she served as book reviewer, editor, and foreign correspondent.
On Conversation, by William Cowper
In this slyly comic essay, originally published in 1756, Cowper describes "the faults in discourse and behavior" of several types of unappealing conversationalists.
A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is generally considered to be the most famous satirical essay in the English language.
The Old Oak of Andover, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Published three years after her masterpiece, the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Harriet Beecher Stowe's essay "The Old Oak of Andover" starts out "as a reverie and ends as a sermon."
Of Marriage and Single Life, by Francis Bacon
In his analysis of the essay "Of Marriage and Single Life," contemporary rhetorician Richard Lanham describes Bacon's style as "clipped," "curt," "compressed," and "pointed."
Of Eloquence, by Oliver Goldsmith
In this essay on the art of rhetoric, Oliver Goldsmith challenges the conventional wisdom that effective oratory depends foremost on complex sentence structures and the sophisticated use of figurative language. Instead he advocates a "plain, open, loose style," particularly when addressing the "vulgar" on matters of faith and morality.
On Lying Awake at Night, by Stewart Edward White
White's lyrical prose presents the forest as "a luminous and mysterious place in which 'his deep physical joy' makes him forget his fatigue."
On Friendship, by Eustace Budgell
A cousin of Joseph Addison, Eustace Budgell wrote numerous essays for the "Spectator," including this desultory piece on friendship.
Of Travel, by Francis Bacon
When Bacon published this version of "Of Travel" in 1625, European travel was already part of the education of many young aristocrats.
On Corporate Bodies, by William Hazlitt
In this essay, originally published in 1821, William Hazlitt takes a skeptical view of large corporations. Consider, in particular, his description of the damaging effects of corporate life on the individual.
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech by William Faulkner
William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 "for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel." In his acceptance speech, delivered at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1950, he counseled young writers "to help man endure by lifting his heart."
Of Anger, by Thomas Fuller
Thomas Fuller's intelligence and engaging wit are clearly evident in his meditation "Of Anger."
A Note on the Essay, by Carl Van Doren
In this "note" on the essay, Carl Van Doren discusses the limitless forms and topics available to the essayist. "What matters is the manner," he says, and the distinctive nature of the writer: "His truth must have a tone, his speech must have a rhythm which are his and solely his."
Love, by Henry David Thoreau
Biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr., says that despite the faults of Thoreau's essay, "Love" is "refreshing in its desire to avoid sentimental cant."
My Wood, by E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster's essay "My Wood," first published in 1926, encourages us to think about the nature of materialism and the seductive power of our possessions: "If you own things, what's their effect on you?"
Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin
This essay is an excerpt from chapter four of the first edition of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" (1859).
On Going a Journey, by William Hazlitt
The version of William Hazlitt that emerges from his essays--witty, passionate, plain speaking--continues to attract devoted readers. As Robert Louis Stevenson observed in his essay "Walking Tours," Hazlitt's "On Going a Journey" is "so good that there should be a tax levied on all who have not read it."
On a Rainy Morning, by Charles S. Brooks
In this essay from the collection "Chimney-Pot Papers" (1919), Charles S. Brooks relies on personification and description to convey the pleasures of a rainstorm in the city.
Of Truth, by Francis Bacon
Is anyone capable of finding truth and offering it to the world in the clear light of day? That is the question explored by Francis Bacon in his classic essay "Of Truth."
Of Greatness, by Abraham Cowley
Critic Bonamy Dobree has characterized Abraham Cowley as England's "first really friendly essayist; he never pretends to be more enlightened or more exquisite in feeling than the average man." See if you agree as you read his essay "Of Greatness."
On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake, by William James
When the great earthquake struck San Francisco on the morning of April 18, 1906, philosopher William James was profoundly affected not only by the terrible devastation but also by the heroic human response to this natural disaster.
On a Pleasing Encounter With a Pickpocket, by Louise Imogen Guiney
Though she never achieved fame, Louise Imogen Guiney is admired today for her independent voice and graceful style. Her essay "On a Pleasing Encounter With a Pickpocket," originally published in 1893, transforms a street crime in London into an exhilarating personal triumph.
On Lying in Bed, by G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton's frequently anthologized essay "On Lying in Bed" begins with this memorable opening line: "Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling."
On the Street, by Emma Goldman
In this narrative passage from her autobiography, "Living My Life" (1931), anarchist Emma Goldman recounts her desperate attempt to raise money by working as a prostitute on 14th Street in Manhattan. The money was needed to finance "Sasha" Berkman's plot to assassinate "America's most hated man," wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick.
On Virtue and Happiness, by John Stuart Mill
In this excerpt from his long philosophical essay "Utilitarianism," John Stuart Mill relies on strategies of classification and division to defend the utilitarian doctrine that "happiness is the sole end of human action."
Parental Affection, by Mary Wollstonecraft
The argumentative essay "Parental Affection" was originally published as chapter 10 of Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman," one of the first major works of feminist philosophy.
Outcasts in Salt Lake City, by James Weldon Johnson
In this excerpt from his autobiography, African-American poet James Weldon Johnson recounts a visit to Salt Lake City in 1905 and his encounters with overt discrimination.
On Epitaphs, by E.V. Lucas
"There is no indication that any of these dead ever enjoyed a moment," observes E.V. Lucas in his essay "On Epitaphs."
On Women's Right to Vote, by Susan B. Anthony
When Susan B. Anthony was arrested and fined $100 for casting an illegal vote in the 1872 presidential election, she refused to pay, defending her actions in the speech that follows. Note her reliance on parallelism and antithetical structures to convey her forceful message.
Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others, by W.E.B. Du Bois
The follow essay is an excerpt from Chapter Three of Du Bois's revolutionary collection of essays, "The Souls of Black Folk," published in 1903. Here he criticizes "the old attitude of adjustment and submission" that had been articulated eight years earlier by Booker T. Washington in his "Atlanta Compromise Address."
On the Selection of Epitaphs, by Archibald MacMechan
Consider the reasoning behind Archibald MacMechan's suggestion that we should "each and all, choose our own epitaphs."
Of the Passing of the First-Born, by W.E.B. Du Bois
Du Bois's moving recollection of the birth and death of his son originally appeared in his revolutionary essay collection, "The Souls of Black Folk."
On Heroes and Hero-Worship, by Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle's prose style, as exhibited in this excerpt from his lecture on "The Hero as Divinity," is ebullient, exclamatory, and highly idiosyncratic.
The Patron and the Crocus, by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf considers the relationship between a writer and her readers: to what extent should a writer keep her audience in mind when she writes--and which audience should that be?
The New Year, by George William Curtis
In this reflective essay, originally published in 1887, George William Curtis uses the occasion of the new year to challenge conventional ideas about youth and age. You may find it rewarding to compare Curtis's essay with Charles Lamb's "New Year's Eve."
The Penalty of Death, by H.L. Mencken
Consider how (and why) Mencken injects humor into his discussion of a grim subject.
Of Revenge, by Francis Bacon
A notable jurist who served as both Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, Bacon argues in his essay "Of Revenge" that the "wild justice" of personal revenge is a fundamental challenge to the rule of law.
Of Spring, by Samuel Johnson
After describing the discontent of those who lose themselves in dreams of "future felicity," Johnson encourages his younger readers "to make use at once of the spring of the year, and the spring of life."
Pleasures Natural and Fantastical, by George Berkeley
In "Pleasures Natural and Fantastical," Bishop Berkeley employs comparisons and examples to develop his thesis on the nature of happiness.
Outside Literature, by Joseph Conrad
In this essay, originally published in 1922, novelist and master mariner Joseph Conrad considers the merits of a prose style significantly different from his own.
Of Travel, by Owen Felltham
In this short essay from "Resolves," Felltham considers the various benefits of travel, while cautioning the reader that "unless a man has judgment to direct him, he will, at his return, find all his labour lost."
On the Art of Living With Others, by Arthur Helps
Shortly after Arthur Help's death in 1875, a critic wrote that "such essays as 'The Art of Living With Others' will continue to be printed and reprinted as long as men are human enough to need the help of those who know their weakness because of sharing it."
The Philosophy of Furniture, by Edgar Allan Poe
Note Poe's vigorous use of invective in the first part of "The Philosophy of Furniture" and his reliance throughout this critical essay on precise descriptive details.
On the Difference Between Wit and Humor, by Charles S. Brooks
Here--in an essay developed with examples, analogies, and personification--Charles Brooks offers an extended comparison of wit and humor.
On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth, by William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt composed his essay "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth" three years before his death in 1830.
Readers and Writers, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Both the subject matter and the didactic nature of Bulwer-Lytton's essay "Readers and Writers" invite comparisons with Francis Bacon's "Of Studies" and Samuel Johnson's "On Studies."
The Ph.D. Octopus, by William James
Originally published in 1903, "The Ph.D. Octopus" by Harvard philosopher William James offers a powerful critique of the "tyrannical Machine" of graduate education and the growing obsession with examinations, diplomas, and "decorative titles."
On Dreams, by Sir Thomas Browne
Browne's essay "On Dreams" exhibits both his wealth of learning and rhetorically sophisticated prose style.
The Pleasure of Quarrelling, by H.G. Wells
In this witty essay, British author H.G. Wells combines strategies of classification and process analysis as he examines the four principles of quarreling effectively.
On Laziness, by Christopher Morley
As you read Christopher Morley's short essay (originally published in 1920, shortly after the end of World War I), consider whether your definition of laziness is the same as the author's.
Recollections, by Richard Steele
In "Recollections," Richard Steele reflects on the pleasure of remembering the lives of friends and family members who have died.
On Reading for Amusement, by Henry Fielding
As noted in the dedication of his comic masterpiece, "Tom Jones" (1749), Henry Fielding's goal was "to recommend goodness and innocence" through comedy and satire--a theme he explored in the essay "On Reading for Amusement" (1752).
The Plumber, by Anthony Trollope
Originally published in 1880, "The Plumber" is a late example of character-writing--a generalized but detailed description of the appearance and behavior of a class or type.
The Passenger Pigeon, by John James Audubon
The result of Audubon's collaboration with William MacGillivray is descriptive prose that demonstrates the same faculty for keen observation that characterizes Audubon's renowned illustrations.
Story-Telling, by George Eliot
Novelist George Eliot asks, "Why should a story not be told in the most irregular fashion that an author's idiosyncrasy may prompt?"
Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, by Oscar Wilde
As the title suggests, Wilde's "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young" is a collection of witty aphorisms. Joseph Pearce, one of Wilde's biographers, has argued that these epigrams "were not intended to be taken seriously." See if you agree.
A Ramble From Richmond to London, by Richard Steele
Originally published in the "Spectator" in 1712, Richard Steele's account of 24 hours in the life of London conveys the city's diversity and restlessness.
On Being an Alien, by Robert Lynd
In his essay "On Being an Alien," originally published in 1921, less than three years after the end of World War I, Robert Lynd examines the "anti-foreign feeling which is already vehement enough in most of us, and which must be tamed into moderation if the world is to be civilised."
Rural Hours, by Susan Fenimore Cooper
In recent years, especially since the republication of "Rural Hours" in an unabridged edition, Susan Fenimore Cooper has come to be recognized as a significant figure in the tradition of American nature writing. Here she focuses on the "trifling incidents" observed at the end of a "charming day" in late June.
The Rise of Pancho Villa, by John Reed
In the following dispatch, which appeared in the "Metropolitan" magazine in fall 1913, John Reed offers a memorable profile of the revolutionary general Francisco ("Pancho") Villa.
On Keeping a Secret, by William Cowper
In the essay "On Keeping a Secret," published in 1756, Cowper relies on examples and classification to illustrate "the different methods by which Secrets are communicated."
The Pleasures of Ignorance, by Robert Lynd
In "The Pleasures of Ignorance," Robert Lynd draws on examples from nature to demonstrate his thesis that the "great pleasure of ignorance is, after all, the pleasure of asking questions."
On National Prejudices, by Oliver Goldsmith
In his essay "On National Prejudices," Goldsmith argues that it is possible to love one's own country "without hating the natives of other countries."
On Knowing What Gives Us Pleasure, by Samuel Butler
In the following essay, drawn from "The Note-Books of Samuel Butler," the British novelist encourages us to be honest about expressing our likes and dislikes--"to make sure of our ground and be quite certain that we really do like a thing before we say we do."
The Sedulous Ape, by Robert Louis Stevenson
In this essay, which originally appeared under the heading "A College Magazine" (1887), British novelist Robert Louis Stevenson describes how he learned to write by "play[ing] the sedulous ape"--imitating the distinctive styles of numerous great writers.
Of Studies, by Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, the first major English essayist, comments forcefully on the value of reading and learning.
She Would Have Enjoyed It, by George Bernard Shaw
In this letter to the renowned British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, dramatist George Bernard Shaw recounts his mother's funeral service and cremation with humor and affection.
On Education and Style, by Ben Jonson
In the first paragraph of this selection from "Timber," Jonson outlines his philosophy of education, arguing against home schooling and corporal punishment. In the second paragraph, he explains how practice and imitation may teach a person how to "write well."
On Studies, by Samuel Johnson
In an essay that first appeared in 1753, Samuel Johnson explores some of the themes introduced by Francis Bacon in "Of Studies" (1625). Compare Bacon's terse aphoristic style with Johnson's more expansive prose.
Quality, by John Galsworthy
In the narrative essay "Quality," published in 1912, John Galsworthy depicts a German craftsman's efforts to survive in an era where success is determined "by adverdisement, nod by work."
The Revolt of the Unfit, by Nicholas Murray Butler
In "The Revolt of the Unfit" (1911), noted educator Nicholas Murray Butler argues that the "purpose of the revolt of the unfit is to substitute interdependence on a higher plane for the struggle for existence on a lower one."
The Subjunctive Mood, by James Thurber
One American writer who fought to preserve the subjunctive mood--and use it correctly--was humorist James Thurber. In this essay, originally published in 1929, Thurber re-creates the occasion of a marital disagreement to demonstrate why husbands "are suspicious of all subjunctives."
Slang in America, by Walt Whitman
Here, in an essay published in 1888, poet Walt Whitman offers many examples of slang expressions and "luxuriant" place names--all representative of "the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language."
Truth of Intercourse, by Robert Louis Stevenson
In the essay "Truth of Intercourse," Robert Louis Stevenson reflects on the nature of sincerity and the art of effective communication
Printed by Mistake, by Horace Smith
Horace Smith's humorous essay--marked by far-fetched metaphors, allusions, and puns--should appeal to any "burnt out" writer who feels "at a greater loss for subjects than an ex-king."
Rochester, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne's sketch of legendary daredevil Sam Patch and the "instantaneous city" of Rochester, New York, combines allegory with travel writing.
On Healthy Exercise, by George S. Street
In the preface to his essay collection "Some Notes of a Struggling Genius," Street wrote that "there is a cheerful vulgarity about [these trifles] which I am glad to have achieved; I have even a faint hope that they may be called 'breezy.'" One of the breeziest essays in that collection is "On Healthy Exercise," developed with a series of comic...
The Symbolism of Poetry, by W.B. Yeats
Composed in 1900, Yeats's influential essay "The Symbolism of Poetry" offers an extended definition of symbolism and a meditation on the nature of poetry in general.
The Story of a Garden, by Mabel Osgood Wright
In "The Story of a Garden," Wright combines the whimsy of personification with the precise technical knowledge of an experienced gardener.
On the Decay of the Art of Lying, by Mark Twain
American humorist Mark Twain composed this essay "On the Art of Lying" for a meeting of the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford, Connecticut.
Reflections in Westminster Abbey, by Joseph Addison
Samuel Johnson characterized Addison's prose as "the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling." Keep Johnson's observation in mind as you read one of Addison's most frequently reprinted essays, "Reflections in Westminster Abbey."
The Spoiled Children of Civilization, by Samuel McChord Crothers
"The real thinkers of any age do not remain long in a blue funk," says Samuel McChord Crothers in this essay. "They always find something important to think about." Consider how Crothers uses the image of a spoiled child as a controlling analogy throughout the essay.
Rural Rides: Reigate, by William Cobbett
In this excerpt from "Rural Rides," William Cobbett augments his descriptions of a long-vanished world with "economical and political observations" (as promised by the subtitle of his book).
Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, by W.B. Yeats
As recounted in Chapter One of "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth," the Anglo-Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats spent his early years with his mother's family in Sligo. Though "fragmentary," the descriptions and anecdotes gathered here offer some vivid character sketches as well as a memorable impression of a child's view of the world.
On the Fear of Death, by William Hazlitt
Originally published in 1822, not long after the death of Hazlitt's father, the essay "On the Fear of Death" deals squarely and unsentimentally with the brute facts of human mortality. Yet Hazlitt attempts to provide a kind of dark comfort in the observation that after "our hearts cease to beat," the world "goes on as usual, and thinks no more...
The Superstition of School, by G.K. Chesterton
Consider what compels Chesterton, in "The Superstition of School," to conclude that "without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman's education is complete."
On Various Kinds of Thinking, by James Harvey Robinson
In this well-known essay, Robinson employs classification to convey his thesis that for the most part "our convictions on important matters . . . are pure prejudices in the proper sense of that word. We do not form them ourselves. They are the whisperings of 'the voice of the herd.'"
Street Yarn, by Walt Whitman
"Street Yarn," originally published in 1856, consists of a series of brief character sketches: physical descriptions of certain professional types (ministers, Wall Street brokers, prostitutes) and of individuals well known to Whitman and many of his readers.
Valedictory, by George Bernard Shaw
After three-and-a-half years as theater critic for the weekly "Saturday Review," George Bernard Shaw published this humorous farewell.
Saloonio: A Study in Shakespearean Criticism, by Stephen Leacock
In "Saloonio: A Study in Shakespearean Criticism," Stephen Leacock may not provide any fresh insights into Shakespeare, but in Colonel Hogshead he does leave us with a memorable comic figure.
Talking About Our Troubles, by Mark Rutherford
In this short essay, British novelist and journalist Mark Rutherford (the pen name of William Hale White) encourages us to deal with our misfortunes by practicing "the art of self-suppression."
Writing for My Eye Only, by Virginia Woolf
In this entry from her diary, novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf examines the value of diary writing: "It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles."
The Passing of the Essay, by Agnes Repplier
Although largely forgotten today, Agnes Repplier was for several decades one of America's most popular essayists. She wrote this spirited defense of the "light essay" in 1894, at the height of her fame. But by the onset of World War I, Repplier herself acknowledged that this "genteel" form of the essay had fallen out of fashion.
The Turbid Ebb and Flow of Misery, by Margaret Sanger
In this chapter from her autobiography, Margaret Sanger relates how her social conscience was awakened by the plight of poverty-stricken young women who endured--and often eventually died from--the "chronic condition" of pregnancy.
Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing, by David Hume
In the essay "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing," Hume considers the merits and deficiencies of the ornamented Asiatic style of writing in contrast to the plainer Attic style.
The Watercress Girl, by Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew wrote many successful novels but is best known today for his social survey, "London Labour and the London Poor." His aim was to "consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they will work, they can't work, and they won't work." One of those who "will work" was the eight-year-old girl who...
Three Characters by John Earle
A popular literary form in 17th-century England was the character--a brief sketch of a type or class of person. In 1628, John Earle, a tutor to Prince Charles, published a collection of these character sketches under the title "Microcosmographie." These three characters--a Young Man, a Tedious Man, and a Good Old Man--originally appeared in...
Thoughts on the Subject of Early Marriages, by Benjamin Franklin
In this letter to a younger acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin refutes conventional wisdom and argues that couples who marry at a young age "stand the best chance of happiness."
The Tyranny of Things, by Edward Sandford Martin
In "The Tyranny of Things," originally published in 1893 (a time of severe economic depression in the United States), Edward Sandford Martin argues that by mistaking luxuries for necessities, we "swamp ourselves with . . . vain possessions that we cannot afford." Consider how Martin uses comparisons throughout the essay to illustrate and support...
Why a Classic Is a Classic, by Arnold Bennett
Here Bennett argues that a "classic" work is one that "gives pleasure to the minority which is intensely and permanently interested in literature."
The Two Children in Black, by William Makepeace Thackeray
In this narrative essay (or anecdote), which originally appeared (in longer form) in one of the "Roundabout Papers" (1860), the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray alludes to his own painful separation from his mother.
Street Haunting: A London Adventure, by Virginia Woolf
In this essay by English novelist Virginia Woolf, the quest to buy a pencil serves as an occasion to contrast "street sauntering," with its sense of carefree wandering, with "street haunting," which hints at the more disturbing aspects of walking in the city.
Under the Early Stars, by Alice Meynell
In "Under the Early Stars," Alice Meynell evokes a child's view of the world with sympathy and understanding.
Patriotism, by George Santayana
It has been said that George Santayana "prefers literary imprecision to pedantry," especially in his pithy, aphoristic essays. Compare his thoughts on patriotism with those expressed by Oliver Goldsmith (in his essay "On National Prejudices") and by Max Eastman (in "What Is Patriotism?").
The Persistence of Youth, by George S. Street
In "The Persistence of Youth," originally published in 1901, Street examines the phenomenon of the extended adolescence of the British male: "At the present time he is a boy up to about thirty-five, a young man up to fifty, and he is hardly regarded as old until he has exceeded David's maximum of life by six or seven years."
Success in Life, by Walter Pater
In the famous conclusion to "The Renaissance," Walter Pater says, "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
On Going to Bed, by Christopher Morley
"On Going to Bed" illustrates one of Morley's favorite rhetorical strategies: using figurative language, in particular metaphor and personification, to amplify his discussion of a common subject.
The Vanity of Authors, by Samuel Johnson
Most authors are forgotten, Samuel Johnson says in this essay, "because they never deserved to be remembered." Consider the implications of Johnson's remark that libraries provide the most striking evidence of "the vanity of human hopes."
What Is Patriotism and What Shall We Do With It? by Max Eastman
Compare Max Eastman's extended definition with Alexis de Tocqueville's discussion of patriotism in "Democracy in America" (1835) and with the thoughts of Oliver Goldsmith in his essay "On National Prejudices" (1763).
Virginibus Puerisque: On Marriage, by Robert Louis Stevenson
In this essay, part two of "Virginibus Puerisque," Robert Louis Stevenson explores the differences between hope (which "lives on ignorance") and faith (which "is built upon a knowledge of our life"). With this thought in mind, he says, a man must recognize that a woman is "a creature of equal, if of unlike, frailties; whose weak human heart...
Which, by James Thurber
In this essay, which first appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine in 1929, Thurber introduces several examples to demonstrate both his fascination and frustration with a familiar English pronoun.
What Life Means to Me, by Jack London
In 1905, after gaining fame with his novel "The Call of the Wild," Jack London published this account of his efforts to "climb up out of the working-class" and and enjoy "all that gave decency and dignity to life." As you read this autobiographical essay, consider the causes of London's disillusionment and the significance of the title, "What...
On War, by James Boswell
In this argumentative essay, composed in 1777, James Boswell rejects the "heroic sentiments" of poets who glorify war.
Why Law Is Indispensable, by George Bernard Shaw
In his essay "Why Law Is Indispensable" (published in this revised form in 1907), Shaw argues that laws, although necessary, are not "immutable principles of good and evil."
Essayists on the Essay
To learn more about essays from the essayists themselves, consider these excerpts from our collection of Classic British and American Essays.
A Piece of Chalk, by G. K. Chesterton
In this short essay, English author and critic G. K. Chesterton relies on two common items--brown paper and a piece of chalk--as starting points for some thought-provoking meditations.
Portrait of an Ideal World, by H.L. Mencken
The essay "Portrait of an Ideal World," a proposal to keep "the whole human race" mildly intoxicated "year in and year out," was H.L. Mencken's fanciful response to Prohibition and "the unjust and insane provisions" of the Volstead Act.
The Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln
In his historic Second Inaugural Address--just 700 words delivered in seven minutes--Abraham Lincoln gave what some have called a sermon and others his last will and testament to America.
Who Owns the Mountains? by Henry Van Dyke
In "Who Owns the Mountains?" Henry Van Dyke explores the concepts of "spiritual poverty" and true ownership.
Red-Bloods and Mollycoddles, by G. Lowes Dickinson
In the essay "Red-Bloods and Mollycoddles" (1915), Dickinson offers an extended contrast between two broad categories of humankind. Note how he uses examples to add life to the types (or caricatures) he has introduced.
The Worst Sort of Husband, by Daniel Defoe
Between 1704 and 1713, novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe produced the "Review," one of the first literary and political periodicals in England. In the issue of October 4, 1707, he offered this forthright response to the question, "What is the worst sort of husband a sober woman can marry?"
Professorial Ethics, by John Jay Chapman
In "Professorial Ethics" (originally published in 1910), Chapman argues that big business has taken over higher education in America: college presidents have become "sycophants" to millionaires while "overworked and underpaid" professors are "trampled upon." Yet it is the professor's responsibility, Chapman says, to "teach the nation to respect...
On Gusto, by William Hazlitt
A painter as well as an author, William Hazlitt wrote several important critical essays on art and artists. His short essay "On Gusto" remains one of the most popular.
The Writing of Essays, by H.G. Wells
In "The Writing of Essays," H.G. Wells offers a light-hearted view of the "art of the essayist": "so simple . . . that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists."
The Writing of Essays, by Charles S. Brooks
In this essay, American author Charles Stephen Brooks identifies the key characteristics of a good essayist--an omnivorous reader, a tolerant thinker, and "a kind of poet . . . whose wings are clipped."
Retirement, by Robert Southey
Southey's final, unfinished work, "The Doctor, etc.," is a grand commonplace book--a seven-volume collection of miscellaneous articles and essays. "Retirement," one of the short pieces in "The Doctor," is developed with a series of engaging examples.
Walking Tours, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson says, "We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts--namely, to live."
A Relic, by Max Beerbohm
Limitation is one of the themes of "A Relic," a narrative essay originally published in 1918. The fragment of a fan found in a battered suitcase leads Max Beerbohm to recall his "first effort to write" and his "first hopes of excellence."
The Unnatural Naturalist, by Christopher Morley
In Morley's "instructions" at the front of "Mince Pie," he advises readers not to "scrutinize" his essays "too anxiously." This humorous essay on spring is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of Emerson's central doctrines--"Trust thyself"--is the theme developed in his well-known essay on "Self-Reliance."
Review of "The Memoirs of Percival Stockdale," by Isaac D'Israeli
Here, in the final three paragraphs of a lengthy review, D'Israeli casts scorn on the "self-delusion" of a man who "is forgotten faster than he writes." The reviewer then closes with a prescient observation about the "epidemical rage for auto-biography" that he fears may soon break out.
The Young Pessimists, by Heywood Broun
Rhetorically, "The Young Pessimists" might be regarded as both an extended definition and an argument. Readers might find it rewarding to compare the latter part of Broun's essay with Mark Twain's "Two Ways of Seeing a River."
What I Think and Feel at 25, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Three years after enjoying early success with his first published novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this semi-comic personal essay about "oozing into middle age."
The Solid Flesh, by Simeon Strunsky
Compare Strunsky's views on exercise and "the hygienic life" with those expressed by Canadian essayist Stephen Leacock in "How to Live to Be 200." Both essays were originally published in 1910.
A Word for Autumn, by A.A. Milne
In "A Word for Autumn," first published in 1919, the creator of Winnie the Pooh attends playfully to the "precious root" that represents "the general blessings of the autumn"--celery.
Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake, by Jack London
Novelist and journalist Jack London offers a first-person account of the fiery aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.
Spring, by Leigh Hunt
In the first part of "Spring," Hunt reflects on the "beautiful word" itself, comparing it to the Italian word for spring, "primavera." His thoughts then turn to mortality and our obligation to "behave ourselves" on earth in return for this "promise of a renewed year."
The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, by George Santayana
In this short essay, Santayana makes the claim that every "intelligent man . . . holds a lunatic in leash."
The Perfect Holiday, by E.V. Lucas
In "The Perfect Holiday," Lucas imagines joining the circus for a fortnight to play the role of "a great man"--Pimpo, the clown.
Suite Américaine, by H.L. Mencken
At bottom, the pathos of H.L. Mencken's "Suite Americaine" sketches derives from the same perspective that inspired his more overtly satirical essays: the "eternal war," as he saw it, "of experience and aspiration--the contrast between the world as it is and the world as it might be or ought to be"
The True Friend, by Joseph Hall
An English bishop and the author of numerous devotional works, Joseph Hall is credited with initiating the 17th-century fashion for character-writing. Though he is famous for his plain, Senecan style, the staccato rhythms of his prose were considered by some (including John Milton) to be monotonously tiresome.
Woman's Political Future, by Frances E.W. Harper
"One of the 19th-century's most noted feminists," Frances E.W. Harper delivered this address to the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893.
A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding, by Jonathan Swift
In his "Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding," the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift argues that "rules for common behaviour" are necessary only because good sense "is a gift which very few among mankind are possessed of."
A Wet Night in London, by Richard Jefferies
Originally published in 1885, "A Wet Night in London" combines fragmented impressions of hopelessness with vivid descriptions of people and places.
Words, by Agnes Repplier
As you read the essay "Words" (originally published in 1896), consider what Agnes Repplier reveals about her own tastes in literary subject matter and style.
What Is Wrong With Our System of Education? by George Bernard Shaw
A severe critic of secondary education, Shaw argued that school should be purely voluntary and conducted only by charitable organizations.
The Whistle, by Benjamin Franklin
American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) explains how an extravagant purchase in his childhood taught him a lesson for life.
Reflections on Our Dislike of Things As They Are
In the essay "Reflections on Our Dislike of Things As They Are," Galsworthy presents a challenge to the artists and writers of his time.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, by Henry David Thoreau
Before reading "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" (the second half of chapter two of "Walden"), you might want to take a look at Thoreau's short journal entry for July 6, 1845, "Meeting the Vital Facts of Life." That entry served as the basis for this well-known passage.
When I Come to Be Old, by Jonathan Swift
Composed by young Jonathan Swift in 1699, this list of resolutions was found among Swift's papers after his death in 1745.
Two Ways of Seeing a River, by Mark Twain
In this short excerpt from his memoir about growing up alongside the Mississippi River, Mark Twain considers what may be lost as well as gained through knowledge and experience.
You! by Robert Benchley
In this parody of self-help books, originally published in 1922, humorist Robert Benchley illustrates the persuasive power of the second-person point of view.
A Wind-Storm in the Forests, by John Muir
"When we try to pick out anything by itself," John Muir once wrote, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." That spirit of communion is vividly conveyed in this first-hand account of an "exhilarating" storm in the Sierra mountains, which Muir observed from his perch at the top of a fir tree.
William James, by John Jay Chapman
In this encomium to the philosopher and psychologist William James, John Jay Chapman fulfills his wish to help "the general atmosphere of thought and [enrich] everyone a little."
Shaking Hands, by Edward Everett
In the humorous essay "Shaking Hands," Edward Everett relies on the organizing principle of classification.
The Town Week by E.V. Lucas
Although his essays are now commonly regarded as quaint and sentimental, "The Town Week" offers signs of the darker personality that lay behind E.V. Lucas's urbane persona.
Superstitions and Recollections of Childhood, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Superstitions and Recollections of Childhood" is an excerpt from chapter nine of "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table."
Why Are Beggars Despised? by George Orwell
Drawn from Chapter 31 of Orwell's first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London," this short essay invites us to explore our own attitudes to the "ordinary human beings" known today as "the homeless."