I happened onto a guy named John D'Agata writing about the essay. He's quoted in an old piece in "The Los Angeles Review." Interesting enough, the copy that I have is missing pages. Thus I have part of an essay about the essay. But enough to get my heart started.
The title of this apercu (isn't that a cool word and since this is more a sketch than anything else, it's apt) comes from the French assei: an attempt. To write an essay is to try something. And probably fail though success in the usual sense of the word really isn't the goal.
Here are a few things from my tortured copy of "TLAR" -- The goal is never again think of the essay as five paragraphs. Anybody who has taught composition knows why five paragraphs will get a student from English 400 to English 1A, but he/she also knows the process has probably crippled the student for life. Who would ever want to write something that moribund again? The 5-paragraph essay is not an attempt; it's a foregone conclusion just as anesthesia will render every patient unconscious.
And then this: "A thesis statement . . . denies a text the possibility for reflection, digression, discovery or change." Aren't those attractive nouns! Especially digression -- the path that leads off the well-marked trail and that might take one to a view point that's not on the map or a cave with a half decomposed body.
Let's finish w/ a quote from the editor of the 2000 edition of "The Best American Essays" -- "If the essayist has all the answers, he isn't struggling to grasp, and I won't either. When you care about something, you grapple with it because it is alive in you. It thrashes and moves like all living things."
For the Hamline students who have to write critical essays, keep this in mind: if it's just lying there on the page, it's probably dead. Bring it to life. It is, after all, your monster.