the return of the literary essay

A fascinating conference at Queen Mary, University of London, brings together writers to talk about the neglected genre, the literary essay in the context of English literary history.

Since Montaigne, the essay has been, alongside fiction, poetry, and drama, one of the major genres of literature, distinguished by its appeal to personal experience rather than institutional approval for authority. It is an intimate forum in which difficult political, scientific, and philosophical issues can be introduced to the general public, and to one another. Yet the essay has been almost completely neglected in literary studies, and in contemporary culture there is little understanding of the genre’s history and importance. Its distinctive forms – experimental, exploratory, polemical, introspective, or conversational – have not been charted; nor have the themes which mark the essay through its history: dissent, whimsy, experience, experiment, conversation, unconscious experience, frailty, amateurism, friendship, and intimacy. In the public arena opportunities to publish essays are now very few: the tradition which passes from Johnson’s Idler, through the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Gazette, Hound and Horn, the Dial, the Athenaeum, the Criterion, Horizon, and – finally, perhaps – Encounter – is practically at an end. Hazlitt and Lamb would have few opportunities to publish their essays nowadays. This conference seeks to remedy this neglect, bringing together academics, novelists, and essayists, creating an opportunity for ideas to be exchanged, stimulated, and disseminated.

Saturday 2 July, 2011

Hermione Lee – Dreams and Clouds: Lamb, Woolf, and the Essay
Felicity James – Charles Lamb, Elia, and the Familiar Essay


Uttara Natarajan – William Hazlitt’s Poetics of Familiarity
Adam Phillips – The Psychoanalyst and the Essay


Stefano Evangelista – Walter Pater’s Essays
Andrew O’Hagan – The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson

7pm-8:30pm (at the London Review Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A)

Jeremy Treglown – The History of the Review-Essay
Markman Ellis – Diurnal Form and ‘The Spectator’

Sunday 3 July

Katie Murphy – Bacon, the essay, and experiment
Gillian Beer – ‘Mind-Stuff’ and Science – essays by W. K. Clifford and John Tyndall


Sophie Butler – William Cornwallis and Montaigne
Ophelia Field – Legacies of the Early Eighteenth Century Essay


Peter Howarth – Nonchalance is good, and: Modern Poetry and the Essay
Adam Piette – The Cold War Essay


Karl Miller – Carlyle and Macaulay on Boswell
Geoff Dyer – The Novelistic Essay


Dame Gillian Beer, FBA, FRSL (Former King Edward VII Professor of English, Cambridge and President of Clare Hall, Cambridge) – ‘Mind-Stuff’ and Science: essays by W.K. Clifford and John Tyndall

Sophie Butler (New College, Oxford) – William Cornwallis and the example of Montaigne

Geoff Dyer, FRSL (Novelist and Essayist) – The Novelistic Essay

Markman Ellis (Professor of English, Queen Mary) – Diurnal Form, ‘The Spectator’, and the Eighteenth Century Periodical Essay

Stefano Evangelista (Fellow and Tutor in English, Trinity College, Oxford) – Walter Pater and the Meaning of Things said By the Way

Ophelia Field (author and lecturer at Queen Mary) – Legacies of the Early Eighteenth Century Essay

Peter Howarth (Senior Lecturer in English, Queen Mary) – Nonchalance Is Good, And: Modern poetry and the Essay

Felicity James (Lecturer in English, University of Leicester) – Charles Lamb, Elia, and the familiar essay

Hermione Lee, CBE, FBA, FRSL (President of Wolfson College, Oxford; former Goldsmith’s Professor of English, Oxford) – Dreams and Clouds: Virginia Woolf and Charles Lamb as Essayists

Karl Miller, FRSL (former Lord Northcliffe Professor of English, UCL, and editor of the London Review of Books) – Let them Eat Pumpkin: Carlyle and Macaulay on Boswell

Kathryn Murphy (Fellow and Tutor in English, Oriel College, Oxford) – Bacon, the essay, and experiment

Uttara Natarajan (Senior Lecturer, Goldsmith’s, London) – William Hazlitt and the Poetics of Familiarity

Andrew O’Hagan, FRSL (Novelist and Essayist) – The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson

Adam Phillips (author and psychoanalyst) – Up to a Point: The Psychoanalyst and the Essay

Adam Piette (Professor of English, University of Sheffield) – The Cold War Essay

Jeremy Treglown, FRSL (Professor of English, Warwick, former editor of TLS) – The History of the Review-Essay

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