Graduation Year

2004

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A.

Degree Granting Department

English

Major Professor

Jacobs, Debra L.

Keywords

composition studies, Renaissance, Montaigne, postmodernism, essay

Abstract

The overarching goal of this study is to suggest that the essay as a genre, although seeming to manifest the epistemological conceptions of the modern, possesses certain qualities from its origin that justify and strengthen its position in the paradigm of the postmodern condition. It is my argument that misconceptions about such qualities have led to its mistreatment by writing teachers in accordance with two dominant pedagogical approaches, formalism (current-traditionalism) and romanticism (expressivism). My argument requires a detailed examination of the political, historical and cultural reality that cultivated and nurtured the genre of the essay, and a major focus of my study is on the way Montaigne conceived of the new mode of writing as his response to the new social realities of the sixteenth century, an age marked by discoveries and inventions.

To justify this approach, I consider works by composition theorists who promote an agenda of critical literacy, scholarly works on Montaigne's essays, as well as various relevant works on postmodernism and literary theory. Perhaps more importantly, I look back to the chaotic, unpredictable, and skeptical mentality of the sixteenth century and attempt to draw connections between that time period and the present, as our present postmodern era is also marked by major shifts of conceptions about reality, knowledge, authority, and the self. From this framework, I indicate connections can be drawn between the two revolutionary ages, both marked by explosion of new knowledge and dissipation of authority and certainty.

It is my proposition that the essay, arising from the need to question traditions and to adapt to new emerging realities, possesses qualities--explorative, skeptical, and dialogical--that procure a valid position in the ongoing questioning and challenging of the Modern by the Postmodern. Finally, I examine how essay has been and continues to be taught just for its formalistic merits and ignored for its epistemological, aesthetic, and philosophical values, an examination that serves to repudiate the wrongful relegation and dismissal of the essay and to establish a justification of not only the literary merits, but also the pedagogical values of the essay.

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