The Great Age of the English Essay

Yale University Press
The Great Age of the English Essay


From the pens of spectators, ramblers, idlers, tattlers, hypochondriacs, connoisseurs, and loungers, a new literary genre emerged in eighteenth-century England: the periodical essay.  Situated between classical rhetoric and the novel, the English essay challenged the borders between fiction and nonfiction prose and helped forge the tastes and values of an emerging middle class. 

This authoritative anthology is the first to gather in one volume the consummate periodical essays of the period. Included are theSpectator cofounders Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, literary lion Samuel Johnson, and Romantic recluse Thomas De Quincey, addressing a wide variety of topics from the oddities of virtuosos to the private lives of parrots and the fantastic horrors of opium dreams.

In a lively and informative introduction, Denise Gigante situates the essayists in the context of the contemporary Republic of Letters and highlights the stylistic innovations and conventions that distinguish the periodical essay as a literary form.  Critical notes on the essays, a chronology, descriptions and a map of key London sites, and a glossary of eighteenth-century English terms complete the anthology—a uniquely pleasurable survey of the golden era of British essays.

About the Author

Denise Gigante teaches British Romantic literature, and poetry from the 17th through the 20th c. Her interests include poetic form and aesthetics, 19th c. bibliomania and literary antiquarianism, gastronomy (or literature and food), the history and genre of the literary essay, and relations between William Blake’s poetry and visual culture.

She is completing The Mental Traveller: William Blake, a study of Blake’s illuminated poetry in relation late Medieval and Renaissance Christian iconography and the literary tradition of Pilgrimage, in a heavily illustrated volume with artwork from the Italian Papal states and Tuscany, to be published as part of the Clarendon Lecture Series by Oxford University Press. Her most recent book is Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (forthcoming from Yale University Press), an experiment in associational literary history that explores different pockets of book collecting in mid-19th c. America. The story focuses on the sale of Charles Lamb’s antiquarian books—a quintessential book lover’s library—in New York in 1848. She is editing The Cambridge History of the British Essay, a fifty-chapter historiographical study of the development of the essay genre by authors from Europe, America, India, and Australia that includes her chapter on bibliographical writing, “On Book.s”

She is also the author of The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, (Harvard UP, 2011), Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (Yale UP, 2009), Taste: A Literary History (Yale UP, 2005), and two anthologies: The Great Age of the English Essay (Yale UP, 2008) and Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy (Routledge, 2005).