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What is an Essay? Thirteen Answers from Virginia Woolf

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Abstract

In her 1927 essay ‘Street-Haunting’, Virginia Woolf rambles across the history of the essay, realising various metaphors which the essay has offered for itself. Being miscellaneous and anti-methodical, essays resist being placed generically or defined theoretically, while for these very reasons they are always required to explain themselves. The diverse and paradoxical answers which essayists have given as often as not derive from the meaning of the word essai in Montaigne or from his account of his writings, and give rise to metaphors which have in turn shaped the subjects of the essay over the centuries. The thirteen descriptions of the essay here brought to a focus through Woolf’s essay are that the essay is a destroyer of generic categories, an apprenticeship, a haunting, a room of one’s own, homework, a bookshop, an assay, a taste, a ramble, an assault, a deformity, a sport, and everything and nothing.

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Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOn Essays
Subtitle of host publicationMontaigne to the Present
PublisherOUP Oxford
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020
Peer-reviewedYes

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ID: 169998532

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