Although, historically, essays were the province of revered writers such as Samuel Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.B.Yeats, William Hazlitt, D.H.Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, the word essay has come to be a general rather than specific term for any type of prose writing other than fiction. Formally slighted, excluded from literary study and relegated to a lesser status behind fiction and poetry, the essay nonetheless maintains an uncelebrated popularity through contemporary writers such as Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Paul Theroux and James Baldwin. In "Essays on the Essay", Alexander Butrym has assembled 21 essayists who explore the limits of this "abandoned" genre - through history, criticism and appreciation. Scott Russell Sanders claims that the essay allows a first-person narrator to explore writing in ways not possible in other more strictly defined genres. Barbara Mellix channels into her essays a mastery of and appreciation for language learned through speaking "black" English at home and writing "proper" English at school. O.B.Hardison, Jr, insists that the essay is the predominant form of modern writing and, in fact, is a form of writing read by everyone.
Other essays look specifically at the work of T.S.Eliot, Loren Eiseley and Aldo Leopold, as well as the writings of historically well known essayists who expanded the boundaries of acceptability in essay writing and added their own interpretations of the genre. The collection also includes specific pieces about teaching the form, defining the genre and analyzing the structures of essays. Arguing for the vitality and popularity of an often underrated genre, Butrym presents an assortment of essays reflecting in themselves how varied the form can be.