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Greatest Essayists

The essay is a graduation of the speaking voice - the discursive mode, par excellence - and the best English essayists have, over the past 400 years, built a version of the form that is spectacular, humane, stylish and vernacular. Since the death of Orwell, we are used to hearing that life has become too busy and the media too congested for the quietly mind-altering essay to work its magic on the average British reader, but the times are argumentative and the essay has returned with a well-polished vengeance. The novel and the drama may continue to dominate, but the fleet-footed essay - the four-minute mile of English literature - is awakening a new generation to the fun of good writing, the cut and thrust of intellectual engagement.

The French are happier to speak of the intellect than are the British, which is sometimes surprising, given the way British essayists invented a form of writing in which the pulse of personality and the beat of society can be felt in the rhythm of good English prose.

Earlier generations of novelists and playwrights often saw themselves as being goaded into creative action by the spirited efforts of their period's great essayists. It was Francis Bacon, England's first great essayist, who wrote that "knowledge is power"; his essays provided Shakespeare with a perfect sounding board for searching ideas on the nature of human experience.

Here's the beginning of Bacon's essay "Of Ambition". Could it not serve as an epigraph to everything Shakespeare wrote? "Ambition is like choler; which is an humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous."

It is hard to think of Dickens's novels without the dark essays of Thomas Carlyle. Can one envision Oscar Wilde without Pater and Ruskin? What would the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge have been without the ambient, emancipating zeal of William Hazlitt? When I think of the great British writers of the past 200 years I consider many of them to have been correspondents in an argument about selfhood and society, much of that argument stirred into being by the great essayists.

Just as the French cannot think of Flaubert's experiments in psychological realism without first thinking of Rousseau's beautiful Confessions, the English cannot imagine the works of Jane Austen without Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. George Eliot's novels are, as much as anything, compendiums of ripostes to the great English essays of the day, and no less good for that.

I grew up believing that significant essayists were the great pollinators and the best journals were the majestic hives of the culture. You only have to turn on the news now to see how the great essayists are eternally with us: a discussion of the credit crunch on the Today programme is using terms coined by Adam Smith; a report on population growth in the Telegraph is a living response to Thomas Malthus's famous essay of 1798. Arguments about revolution still grapple with Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke; disputes about God are forever engaged with David Hume and Charles Darwin. It may be that the English essay is our most actively present literary vehicle: our attachment to the best of what has been done in that form only deepens by the hour.

The modern essay can be a piece of work as personal as a love letter, as world-altering as a policy, capturing the spirit of the age in words that can seem to clear the air for new ways of living. Yet some of the best essays act like whispers for your ears alone: Hazlitt on the pleasure of hating is like the most entertaining kind of private pal, and the same can be said for Orwell.

Here's the latter on a good cup of tea: "There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one's ration the 20 good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent."

Orwell's prose is as warm as the thing he describes, as comforting as a well-made cup of tea, and he showed himself a master of this particularly British form of address.

Montaigne may have invented it, but it was writers in English who have succeeded over the years in shaping its place on the common tongue. During the Second World War, VS Pritchett submitted an essay a week to the New Statesman, and readers could still find him, in late old age, unfurling essays about the paintings of Pissarro or the passions of Zola.

I felt my way through the library stacks when I was young, eager to pick up those essays and tune into some of the most beautiful conversation ever to happen in Britain. And in the end that is what the essay gives you - a word in your ear and a thought before bedtime, all the better to speed your dreams and awaken your appetite for life.

  • 'The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America' by Andrew O'Hagan is published by Faber & Faber on June 5 at £20, and is available from Telegraph Books (0870 428 4112; books.telegraph.co.uk) for £18 + £1.25 p&p.

Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal, which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.

Buy Notting Hill Editions essays

"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument.

"As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard.

"It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."

1. George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)

Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.

The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.

2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the Private Conscience (1962)

You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.

Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.

3. Evelyn Waugh, A Call to the Orders (1938)

Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.

The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines."

You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.

4. Michel de Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1595)

Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.

Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.

5. JM Barrie, Courage (1922)

If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector.

Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries [of the war dead] being blown across the links".

It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."

6. Truman Capote, The Duke in his Domain (1957)

Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?

This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied.

For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.

7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)

Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.

The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.

8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776)

Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence.

An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."

The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.

9. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)

For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable.

The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs.

All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.

10. AN Wilson, In Defence of Gay Priests (2003)

Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.

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