Essayist: Definition & Famous Examples

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Explore the role of the essayist in the arenas of both art and social change through a definition and famous examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.


At the heart of its definition, an essayist is simply a person who writes essays; however, when we dig a little deeper into the concept, we find writers who use their acumen for words, research, and an insatiable curiosity about life to rock the boat for social change or make an artistic statement.

Montaigne is first credited with the conception of the essay, but his work draws back to such writers as Cicero and Plato. Essayists in general are a varied sort with a large range of specializations, so it's very possible to find essays that span many sub-genres: literary criticism, manifestos, memoirs, personal narratives, arguments, reflections on nature, and so on. An essay falls within the boundaries of nonfiction, so the literary world distinguishes it from poetry and fiction, meaning it's assumed there is a large element of truth in it.

When an essayist produces a successful essay, Arthur Benson, in his piece, The Art of the Essayist, suggests that the subject of the essay does not matter as much as the charm of the personality that comes through in the writing. He elaborates on the open possibilities for subject by saying, 'The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules.'

Thoreau; Walden Pond

To better understand the sheer vastness of possibilities for subjects and purpose in writing, let's look at some examples of famous essayists and their work.


C.S. Lewis

When we hear the name C.S. Lewis, we may automatically think of the creator of the world of Narnia and the great lion, Aslan, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, C.S. Lewis, a brilliant professor and literary critic, was also an essayist. Lewis, in particular, is said to be a Christian apologist, because he used his nonfiction books, such as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, to argue certain lines of religious thought. After becoming a popular lecturer and radio speaker in his day, many of his essays and lectures are collected in the works God in the Dock and The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, who coincidentally died on the same day as C.S. Lewis, is also a famous essayist. Huxley has a diverse repertoire of experience as a screenwriter, novelist, essayist, and a legally blind man, which undoubtedly contributed to range of subject matter. His most well-known novel, Brave New World, was originally a collection of essays where he explored questions of overpopulation, hypnosis, and government control. In other essays, he examined the threat of environmental concerns.

Brave New World; Huxley

Perhaps based on his range of writing, Huxley also provides us with an incredibly helpful three-poled frame of reference for categorizing essays. He suggested these three categories:

  • Personal/autobiographical
  • Objective, factual, concrete-particular
  • Abstract universal

The sky may be the limit on subject choice for essayists, but the choice is bound to fall in one of the above categories.

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