"Essay" According To Railton
"Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much." — Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

        What you write your first essay on is up to you, as long as you deal with Stowe, Douglass, Longfellow, Emerson or Poe. But for better or worse, how "essay" is defined in ENAM 315 is up to me. (I'm glad, for example, I don't have to put a grade on any of Emerson's essays – they're great essays, but not at all what I'll be looking for when I read your essay.) So here I'll be as specific as I can about my expectations as your audience, about what I'll be looking for when I read your essay. I'll start with what I don't want to read. Then I'll go on to give you an idea of what I do want by talking about how I'd write this essay.

I'm not looking for:
  • A research paper. There are some topics that might require you to do primary research in Alderman or Google, but not many, and if you think yours does, please come and talk with me about it first. Otherwise I don't want you to look up or rely on published critics' ideas about the text you're interested in. I can find out what other critics have said; only you can tell me what you think.


  • A paper about the "American Renaissance," or "society in those days," or any other topic that would require you to generalize about something you don't know firsthand. This might be hard to resist, because I'm working so hard to emphasize this as a course in the period 1836-1855. But if you think about it, nearly all you "know" about this period as a period comes from me – i.e. unless you've done a lot of reading on your own in American literature and culture, 1836-1855, what you might say about, say, America's ideas about "woman" when Stowe started Uncle Tom's Cabin is something you don't know enough to write about. But in the essay I want you to have a chance to develop your own ideas, to think deeply for yourself. That means keeping the focus on what you do know firsthand and have as much right as anyone to write about. "How women were treated in those days" or "how gender was defined at that time" – these you don't have enough information to discuss, but because you have Uncle Tom's Cabin carefully, you not only know it, you also have every right to develop your own ideas about how it defines gender, or creates a place for "woman" in its narrative. By "limiting" yourself to that kind of specific textual or interpretive question, you're actually opening up the chance to really see and say a lot more than big generalizations can express, and what you say will be your own thought, too.


  • In a 6-7 page essay, you won't have a lot of room to get deeply into a text. For that reason, it makes sense to me to focus your essay on one of the writer's we've read, rather than try developing a comparison. The problem with most comparisons is that they don't give you time to get to the bottom of an issue. Again, because of the way the course is working hard to emphasize relations between the writers and works of the period, it might be hard to resist writing an analysis comparing two of them. And if you've got a point of comparison that really interests you, you can organize the paper that way – just make sure your focus is particularly tight. Have a specific point of comparison in mind. "How Stowe and Douglass define race" is too broad. "How Stowe and Douglass define the relationship between race or skin color and the way people use language" – that's a good point of comparison.


What I will look for:

    Now let me try to be more positive. This is the way I hope you'll go about writing the first essay.

    To me, the best place to begin writing an essay is with your own reading experience. Try to find something in one of the works we've read that really interests, perplexes, aggravates, excites or confuses you – whether it's part of the plot, the role of a character, a pattern of images or thematic concerns, the style, or whatever. If you start with something that genuinely interests you, then you've got two reasons to write the paper: to get a grade, sure, but also to explore the issue and reach a conclusion about it that satisfies your own intellectual curiosity.

    Before you can start writing the essay, you have to turn the topic into a focused argument. The topic is the subject you're writing about. The argument commits your essay to a particular point – it's what you are trying to say, what you want your reader to see, about the meaning of the subject. The importance of women in Uncle Tom's Cabin is a topic. Cassy's character, and how it is transformed by the end (so that, as the narrator says, "our readers would scarcely know her" [p. 437]) – that's a narrower topic. How Tom and Emmeline help Cassy by allowing her to recover her feminity – that's still more focused. That Stowe's novel suggests that it's only when Cassy ceases to resist her fate as a woman and surrenders both to God and to her motherly role that she can be saved – that is an argument.

    One way to know you've got an argument is if you can see how people could argue against what you want to say. No one could disagree with the idea that women are important in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but there wouldn't be much point in writing a whole essay just to say that. You could, however, disagree with what I've just said about Cassy's transformation (a good essay could be written, for instance, arguing that even "in the home," Cassy remains rebellious and subversive, a vengeful ghost in the attic rather than an angel in the house – thus that her story challenges the way "woman" or "mother" is defined in the rest of the novel rather than confirms it).

    I think it's more fun to write an essay when you've committed yourself to an argument – you're not just filling pages, but you're building a case, proving how right your idea is. And I think it's easier to know how to shape and organize such an essay too – because you can plan it around the idea of making your point persuasive, leading your reader to your own idea or conclusion, planning each paragraph as a step in that one direction. And thinking of the paper as an argument helps you know where the boundaries of your discussion are as well – if something isn't directly relevant to the larger conclusion you want your reader to reach, then it doesn't belong in this paper.

    You figure out what you want to say by looking closely at what the text itself says or suggests about the issue that you're interested in, so once you've identified your subject, you should next go back to the text, looking carefully at the passages and episodes and chapters where the issue is prominent (in the case of Cassy and true womanhood, I'd definitely want to re-read all the scenes in which she appears – but I might also want to look at how other women are defined elsewhere in the novel – Eliza, Mrs. Bird, Rachel, &c). The most persuasive essays are the ones that can cite and discuss good textual evidence to explain, develop and support their ideas. In this class, a good essay is going to have quotations in every paragraph, is going to continuously show how its ideas arise from and illuminate the text itself, is always going back and forth between citing and analyzing specific textual details. What I'm looking for is not an intrepretation I personally agree with, but rather a well-developed, well-supported conclusion of your own, a paper that shows me how the text does support its conclusion.

    When I write an essay I don't usually know "what I think" until I see "what I write" – by which I mean that it's usually only as I write a first draft that my interpretation comes into focus. That means I usually have to throw away most of the first draft and begin again, because the whole essay has to be focused on developing that interpretation to a conclusion, and it's not until I have a clear idea of the conclusion that I really know where to start from, what to go to next, &c. That may not be true for you, but you should make sure that before you begin writing you could tell someone else, in twenty-five words or less, not just the general topic of your essay (say, women in Stowe's novel), but the specific point you're going to argue (say, "I'm going to show my reader that Cassy is 'born again' by recovering her own maternal feelings, especially through 'mothering' Emmeline"). By the way, once you know that – the specific argument you're trying to prove – then you know what title to put on your essay: you want a title that points to your particular argument. How about "Cassy Comes Home"?

    There are abstract terms for the basic strengths I'm trying to describe – focus, coherence, &c. But to sum them up more concretely, and I hope clearly: I think good literary analyses have a point and stick to it, that they develop an idea to a conclusion – or ask and answer a specific interpretive question, that they make good and consistent use of examples from the text to develop and support their ideas, that they give the writer and the reader (i.e. you and me) the chance to go deeply into some one aspect of what a text means.

    And one last thought:

  • Another starting point for your essay might be something I said in lecture that seemed to you like a misreading of a particular work. Some of my favorite essays have been the ones that showed me what I missed. As I said above, I don't have to agree with an essay to give it an "A" – I just have to be able to see exactly what its point is, how it defends that point with well-chosen evidence from the text, and so on.