"Selves by way of essay" : apprehensions of the self in the early English essayists

De Gooyer, Alan Wayne, English, University of Virginia
Fowler, Alastair, English, University of Virginia

In seventeenth-century England, particularly in the decades preceding and during the Civil Wars, the essay provided a base from which to explore a changing consciousness of independent selfhood. Taking advantage of the essay's apparently casual, provisional, and exploratory nature, early essayists used the new genre to communicate new areas of experience by registering changes in how to tell the truth and what that truth may be. As an emerging genre, the essay enabled writers to address conventional topics--such as "truth," "death," "friendship," and "ambition" --through a form that could express their changed experience of these topics. Some of the first essayists in England--in particular, Francis Bacon, Owen Feltham, Thomas Browne, and Abraham Cowley--adapt the essay for their own purposes in order to achieve greater latitude in the expression and assertion of individual perspectives. Each of these writers begin to open new sources of knowledge--both ethically and politically--that require new discursive practices. The essay was for them not merely a tool of logic or description, but a tool of apprehension. I treat the essay, then, as a new literary kind opening up new areas of knowledge and experience. Directly or indirectly these essayists all participate in the large-scale transformations in common assumptions and sensibilities taking place in early modern England.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
seventeenth century, Francis Bacon, Owen Feltham, Thomas Browne, Abraham Cowley, literary analysis
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