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English 315 The Literary Essay

Updated on February 3, 2010

English 315 The Literary Essay
Towson University
Spring 2010

Professor: Holly T. Sneeringer

Course Description


Creative use of language, using the traditional literary essay as the model for personal expression and exploration of the human experience. Advanced Writing Course. Prerequisite: Two ENGL courses. GenEd I.D.

Course Objectives and Outcomes:

Broadly defined, the essay is nonfiction prose that attempts to understand a particular subject matter. While it is based on facts, the literary essay can be described as an imaginative text characterized by a personal voice and intimacy. Our goal is to study it as literature, just as we would a poem or a short story. We will also come to a better understanding of the essay and the role of the essayist by composing our own literary essays. Students will be expected to have a strong understanding of the history of this genre, as well as the literary and rhetorical aspects of the essay and to demonstrate this through close reading, discussion, writing workshops, and student readings.

They haunt you; they strengthen you. ~ Mary Oliver on essays


  • Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
  • Oliver, Mary, Ed. The Best American Essays 2009. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
  • Supplemental readings will be accessed online or as handouts:
    She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body by Cynthia Ozick

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present
The Best American Essays 2009
The Best American Essays 2009

An Essay as the Essayist’s Past

by Hyun Jun Chang

Like a letter, a genuine essay is traces of language, character, mood, temperament, pluck, and chance of the writer’s past. A genuine essay allows its writer to leave his past behind.

An essayist doesn’t write to remember the past, but to let go of his past. An essay is like a letter. An essayist is like a man on a deserted island. He doesn’t have anyone to share his joy or sorrow, so he writes a letter, a letter without an addressee. He writes a genuine letter without fear of criticism. Like a bride groom wanting to let his bride know of the joy inside of him, like a father passing on the secrets of life to his son, or a son asking his father how he can be relieved from his sorrow. Then as he writes, the letter becomes a person; the letter becomes the writer himself.

There are many feelings a man can have, but for the purpose this paper, I will generalize them as joy and sorrow. When either strikes a man’s heart, he can either keep it to himself, or let go. But he must know that his heart has capacity. It can only hold certain amount of joy, sorrow, or both.

Joy and sorrow have a decay rate, and from the time they reside in a man’s heart, the feelings start to diminish. But sadly, men are quick to notice reduced joy, but slow to notice reduced sorrow. If a man’s heart is filled with joy to capacity, the man will be discouraged by the reduced joy every time. On the contrary, if the man’s heart is filled with sorrow, the man will be discouraged by the sorrow still present.

To resolve the problem of an ill-functioning heart, a man must decide to free his heart’s capacity. And an essayist does this by transforming joy or sorrow into an essay. If joy is transformed into an essay, the joy isn’t taken away from the man’s heart, but it is conserved at its highest peak at the time of the transformation. If sorrow is transformed into an essay, the essayist is not littering the world with his sorrow, but rather benefitting the world with a sorrow overcame; the essayist overcomes the sorrow through transformation, and there will always be someone who needs news of victory. Therefore an essayist must check his heart’s capacity gauge constantly, so that he can conserve the joy at its fullest form, and so that sorrow can only pollute his heart for the shortest time.

Some essays will last, and some essays will be gone short after their birth, but no essay is ever wasted. If an essay is created, it has done its job comforting its writer, and if it has been read by someone who can emphasize, it has over accomplished its job by passing on the joy and relief from sorrow. This is the legacy of genuine essays passed on since the earliest essayists.

Everyone can be an essayist if he has the language to write what his heart feels. But one can only be a genuine essayist if he has the courage to transform his past into an essay. Then his past is no longer called the past, it is called an essay. And the essay doesn’t belong only to the essayist, but belongs to everyone who can empathize.


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