Accessibility statement

The Contemporary Essay

Organisers: Dr Lola Boorman, Ella Barker, Bryony Aitchison, Dr Alexandra Kingston-Reese (Department of English and Related Literature)

In 2017 contemporary essayist Jia Tolentino proclaimed the “personal essay boom” in American literary culture over. But while the essay has seemed ubiquitous in contemporary American literary culture, its status as a major form has remained largely unexplored. While “the essay” may be familiar to readers of The Atlantic or the New Yorker, pinning down what its formal characteristics are—beyond its formal malleability—presents a serious critical challenge.

The Contemporary Essay seeks to address the critical vacuum in the study of the essay and its problems of aesthetic categorisation. What happens when we look at the essay historically? Or try to situate it within national literary traditions? Are the parameters of the personal essay at odds with its political valence in today’s literary landscape? How do contemporary essayists, such as Emilie Pine and Leslie Jamison, reshape a longstanding tradition of cultural criticism in the “program era”? The objectives of this strand are twofold: to stabilise an emergent field and to establish an international, interdisciplinary, and cross-period network of scholars.

If you are interested in joining our network or our programme of events please sign up to our mailing list here.

Essayisms Reading Group

The Contemporary’s Essay’s reading group ‘Essayisms’ meets four times per term on Monday evenings at 5pm via Zoom. For each session we will choose an overarching theme and discuss a selection of essays related to this period or subject. We will pay careful attention to how we can historicize the essay or root it in a particular political, institutional or (trans)national culture as well as working together to generate a critical and aesthetic vocabulary for this elusive literary form. For further information or for access to the readings please contact either Ella Barker ( or Bryony Aitchison (

Forthcoming Events:

Wednesday 18 November 2020, 4.30pm: Philip Coleman (TCD) A “denser, richer, warmer spectacle”?: Europe in the Nineteenth-Century US American Essay

Taking its cue from Henry James’s ruminations on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s engagements with Europe in Hawthorne (1879), this paper will explore some of the ways in which US American authors from the first half of the nineteenth century, in particular, used and contributed to the development of the essay form. James’s Hawthorne, Coleman will suggest, represents a particular, if problematic, high point in the development of the US American essay in the later part of the nineteenth century, but it is preceded by major contributions that are distinctive and tricky in themselves, most notably by Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Lydia Maria Child. For each of these writers, and others, what James called the “spectacle” of Europe assumed different forms but it also served as a backdrop, and foil, against which their own individual aesthetic and ideological contributions were formed. 

Philip Coleman is an Associate Professor in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Fellow. He has published extensively on US American poetry, especially on John Berryman, and his edition of Berryman’s letters, co-edited with Calista McRae is out now from Harvard University Press. He has also published on US American short fiction with recent publications on George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. He is currently working on essays for the Cambridge History of the American Essay and the Cambridge History of the English Essay

Location: Zoom. Please register your attendance via this link. Any queries should be directed to Dr Lola Boorman (


Monday 9 November 2020, 5.00pm: Essayisms Reading Group: The Machine in the Garden

Please join us to discuss the nature essay at the third meeting of the Essayisms Reading Group as part of the CModS The Contemporary Essay Research Strand. 

This week considers nineteenth-century writers who employed the essay to react to the rapid industrialisation of the British and American countryside. With this turbulent era producing figureheads of the American essay such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, this event will invite conversation about the essay’s ability to reveal our personal and societal relationships with nature. How does the essay respond to time and technology? How did nineteenth-century nature essayists approach the issue of race? Can the essay form transcend the individualism of capitalist society? What is the role of the essay in our current climate crisis?

We will be discussing:

Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walking’ (1862):

Chapter 1 of Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes (1843):

Letter IX from de Crèvecœur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782):

Emily Bronte’s ‘The Butterfly’ (1842):

Introduction and Chapter 1 of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’ (1836):

All are welcome! Please contact Bryony Aitchison ( for access to readings or any questions about getting involved. 

Please register your attendance via the Zoom link.


Monday 23 November 2020, 5.00pm: Beyond the Anglo-American Tradition: Essayisms Reading Group

This week we are grappling with the tradition of zuihitsu: a singular genre of Japanese literature (translated literally as “following the brush”), which “has no close European counterpart” but is usually termed “essay” or “miscellany” (Keene 1993). The genre provides an analogue for our attempts to classify the multivalent genre of the essay and its anglophone iterations so far since the zuihitsu similarly encompasses “everything from reportage and travelogue to poetry, literary criticism, biography, confession, journalism – and so on, almost ad infinitum” (Carter 2014). Drawing on The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays (ed. Steven D. Carter, 2014), we begin with Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a tenth-century lady-in-waiting whose writings are oft-credited as being at the forefront of zuihitsu. We will also consider Ishiwara Masaakira’s self-reflexive reflections on the genre in Year by Year: A Miscellany (c.1804-05) and the “confessional” mode espoused by twentieth-century writer Mukōda Kuniko in Looking for Gloves (1976).
You can access the readings via this shared google folder. If you don’t have a York institutional email address, please request access via the folder. Any queries, contact Ella Barker

Please register your attendance via the Zoom link:

Location: Online via Zoom

Admission: All are welcome!


Previous Events:

Monday 26 October 2020: The Transatlantic Lecture Tour: Essayisms Reading Group

The second meeting of the Essayisms Reading Group.

Monday 12 October 2020: Black History Month: Essayisms Reading Group

The inaugural meeting of the Essayisms reading group which is marking Black History Month with a selection of essays by contemporary black American authors.