Help me become a man of letters.
December 21, 2008 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Looking for older but well written essays that are available online at project gutenberg or other source. The style might be humorous or very serious. I am to some extent familiar with the shorter writings of J K Jerome and Bertrand Russel and looking for more in a similar vein.

Thing that I like are especially reflections on everyday life, basicly the blogging of the 19th century.
posted by ilike to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: William Hazlitt
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:22 PM on December 21, 2008

Best answer: One of my favorites: Charles Lamb
posted by frobozz at 4:55 PM on December 21, 2008

I was actually going to particularly recommend Lamb's "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist" and "Distant Correspondents," which can both be found here - not sure if they're in the other one I linked to, but it has a lot of good stuff as well.
posted by frobozz at 5:04 PM on December 21, 2008

George Orwell
H. L. Mencken
posted by yclipse at 5:17 PM on December 21, 2008

Best answer: Stephen Leacock.
Definitely in the humorous vein, though.
posted by nasreddin at 5:20 PM on December 21, 2008

Hume - essays on suicide and immortality
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:41 PM on December 21, 2008

Best answer: The complete essays of George Orwell.
posted by Jahaza at 5:44 PM on December 21, 2008

Some good stuff here ... collections of 'essays' by:

Robert Lynd
AA Milne (yes, the 'Pooh' man)

These are 'familiar essays', mostly written for weekly magazines in the early years of the 20th century.
posted by woodblock100 at 6:39 PM on December 21, 2008

My boyfriend 2nds Mencken
posted by fructose at 8:08 PM on December 21, 2008

In roughly chronological order:

Montaigne. Easily the best value for your time in terms of "historical importance to the essay form" + "being really interesting about everyday things". There's lots and lots of 'em - "Of Books", "Of Thumbs", "Of a Monstrous Child", of pretty much anything you want - using (developing, even!) the autobiographical essay form as a way of examining the world at large. (These are translations; I can't read sixteenth century French, but if you can, I imagine it's worth finding the originals.)

Francis Bacon. Early 16th century; unless I'm forgetting someone (which I probably am) the first big name in English essay-writing. Try "Of Revenge", "Of Anger", "Of Gardens". Maybe a bit less everyday-life than Montaigne.

The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin. Early nineteenth century, and if you're at all interested in the food-related parts of everyday life then this is a very good one to go for: essays titled things like "Financial Influence of the Turkey", "Varieties of Thirst", "Longevity of Gourmands". They're really, really lovely, interested and interesting and taking in all sorts of peripheral parts of history and society in order to talk about his main focuses. (Again, this is a translation.)

G.K. Chesterton: early twentieth century English writer - light in tone but with occasional serious intent. Chesterton is great for meaning things an awful lot: he invests everything he says with a lot of genuine-ness and energy. Very good on people and enthusiasm and cities. On the down side he has some kind-of dubious opinions on women and Islam. Try On Running After One's Hat and Asparagus.
posted by severalbees at 3:07 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

And oh, Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book is brilliant, tenth century blogging rather than nineteenth; full of lists (surprising things, distressing things, elegant things, things that look better painted than they do in real life), little essays about incidents in her life. I can't find a full text online, but this page has links to a number of excerpts and individual essays, enough to give a good taste anyway.

Going a little further away from the question, but hopefully still answering its intent: a lot of essay-ish writing before the mid-twentieth-century is to be found not in formally published essays but in letters. Madame de Sévigné is a good one - again I can't find anything comprehensive online, but there's links to a number of the letters here. Written from Paris in the late seventeenth century, to her daughter and various others; they were copied out and distributed during her lifetime, so she knew they were semi-public documents and they're written as such. Byron's letters can also be very engaging.
posted by severalbees at 3:30 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It seems like you're not so much interested in nineteenth century writing as a certain style of writing, true? If so, I highly recommend E.B. White's essays. I'm having a bit of difficulty finding his stuff online, though googling by essay title seems to help.

Death of a Pig is perhaps my favorite.
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.

The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.

Once in a while something slips - one of the actors goes up in his lines and the whole performance stumbles and halts. My pig simply failed to show up for a meal. The alarm spread rapidly. The classic outline of the tragedy was lost. I found myself cast suddenly in the role of pig's friend and physician - a farcical character with an enema bag for a prop. I had a presentiment, the very first afternoon, that the play would never regain its balance and that my sympathies were now wholly with the pig. This was slapstick - the sort of dramatic treatment which instantly appealed to my old dachshund, Fred, who joined the vigil, held the bag, and, when all was over, presided at the interment. When we slid the body into the grave, we both wore shaken to the core. The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world. But I'm running ahead of my story and shall have to go back.
But followed hard upon by Farewell My Lovely (about the decline of the Ford Model T; nothing to do with Raymond Chandler that I know of, except their shared but different mastery of a lovely prose style).
See also The Ring of Time and Freedom (warning, geocities).
posted by felix grundy at 9:09 AM on December 22, 2008

Also, I feel like no one thinks of Edgar Allen Poe as a delightful fellow, but his description of the characteristics of the diddler in Diddling. Considered as One of the Exact Sciences is great. Here's a partial list:
Originality:—Your diddler is original—conscientiously so. His thoughts are his own. He would scorn to employ those of another. A stale trick is his aversion. He would return a purse, I am sure, upon discovering that he had obtained it by an unoriginal diddle.

Impertinence.—Your diddler is impertinent. He swaggers. He sets his arms a-kimbo. He thrusts. his hands in his trowsers' pockets. He sneers in your face. He treads on your corns. He eats your dinner, he drinks your wine, he borrows your money, he pulls your nose, he kicks your poodle, and he kisses your wife.

Grin:—Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done—when his allotted labors are accomplished—at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainment. He goes home. He locks his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle. He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done, and your diddler grins. This is no hypothesis. It is a matter of course. I reason a priori, and a diddle would be no diddle without a grin.
I skimmed the JK Jerome you linked to, and it seemed like this might be up your alley as well. Maybe WNP Barbellion, too—The Journal of a Disappointed Man—though that's fiction masquerading as a diary of a man of science. (Or possibly vice versa.)
posted by felix grundy at 9:27 AM on December 22, 2008

Late to this, but surprised no-one mentioned Virginia Woolf. Some of her essay collections are online - The Death of the Moth and The Common Reader (the latter is specifically about literaure, if that isn't clear).
posted by paduasoy at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2009

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