Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens).
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
The essay is perhaps one of the most flexible genres: long or short, personal or analytical, exploring the extraordinary and the mundane. The first collection of personal essays is credited to Michel de Montaigne; his Essais was first published in 1580. The word essay comes from the French verb essayer, which means, "to try."
American essayists examine the political, the historical, and the literary; they investigate what it means to be an "American," ponder the means of creating independent and free citizens, discuss the nature of American literary form, and debate the place of religion in American society. The essay adopts myriad forms, from letters and speeches, to sermons and treatises. Famous American essays range from Thomas Paine's Common Sense and the Federalist Papers scribed by "Publius" (the pen name for Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison), to Twain's incisive wit and Emerson and Thoreau's writings on nature and religion in the 19th century.
This lesson plan serves as an introduction to American literary non-fiction writing and focuses primarily on teaching some basic approaches to recognizing rhetorical strategies adopted for persuasive effect in essays and non-fiction. The lesson plan concludes with some suggestions for essay topics and websites that provide guidance in writing essays. Students are encouraged to write an essay using the strategies learned in this lesson or critique a well-known essay based on their new knowledge of rhetorical strategies.
This lesson provides only an overview of essay writing, drawing on commonly referenced excerpts from longer non-fiction writing or on short essays from American literary and political figures. Look for links to other lesson plans or websites to expand this lesson for your students, depending on the subject of the class. An English class, for example, might use this lesson as an introduction to the longer EDSITEment curriculum unit on Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A history class might choose to turn to the Federalist papers; two EDSITEment lesson plans can be adapted in this case: Before and Beyond the Constitution: Chief Executives Compared: The Federalist Papers and The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments.
The EDSITEment reviewed website Silva Rhetoricae describes the Topics of Invention from Aristotle's Rhetoric, from which most of the current types of essays (Compare/Contrast, Definition, Narrative, etc.) derive.
Read an excerpt from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, often anthologized as the essay "Two Ways of Seeing a River." The essay is available, with questions, as a PDF here, or online as the last three paragraphs of chapter 9 in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, available from the following EDSITEment reviewed website Documenting the American South.
Bartleby, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, maintains a copy of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, which includes a brief introduction to Life on the Mississippi. Locate Douglass's 1845 Narrative at the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory Project. The selection used in Activity 2 of this lesson is from Chapter One.
The answer to "what is an essay" brings to mind an old Indian folk tale in which blind men examine an elephant and debate what kind of creature it is. As the folk tale concludes, an essay, like an elephant, can appear to be many things, depending on one's approach. There are many ways to approach an essay topic: by telling a story (Narrative), by making comparisons (Compare/Contrast), by defining (Definition) or categorizing (Division and Classification). There are essays that are specifically written for persuasion, like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and others that make an argument or debate a point more subtly, through the description of a scene or a review of an event. Some essays make use of satire, while others rely on deductive and inductive reasoning.
Introduce the various types of essays by asking students to brainstorm some common methods that they use to persuade someone. For example, if students were going to visit Washington, D.C., ask them to argue what museum or historical site they would want to visit and why. How would they decide what to visit? How would they convince their classmates to choose their selection? You might point students to the EDSITEment-reviewed website ExploreDC to aid in this task (click on "Browse" in the upper-right-hand corner to get a list of popular sights). Note: alternatively, you might places students into groups and pass out examples such as those listed below, asking them to consider the "type" the example represents.
Track answers and suggestions by writing them on the blackboard or projecting them on a screen. Listed below are various common essay types (rhetorical strategies adopted from Aristotelian "Common Topics," discussed more below) with sample answers for the hypothetical trip to Washington. Clearly, student answers will vary, but the important aspect of the exercise is to invite students to recognize the different approaches taken in making an argument. It is also important to note to your students, of course, that rarely does a single essay or argument use only a single technique (as they will discover in the second activity).
Ex: "My uncle was a Vietnam War veteran who died in the war; I would like to see the Memorial."
Ex: "I would visit the FDR Memorial to see the cascading waterfalls, the bold engravings, and the amazing sculptures."
Ex: "To decide on what to visit, I would first buy a guide to the Washington D.C. area; I would mark the pages for the places I would like to visit. Next, I would research them further on the Internet before making my final decisions."
Ex: "The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is less museum and more memorial, as evidenced by its dedication to the memory of all the innocents who were killed in Nazi Germany's attempt to create a "pure" race." Division / Classification (as explained in the EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae website: "[The Division] topic is very closely related to the topic of Definition, but differs in that it is not attempting to classify something by placing it as a species within a genus." Rather, this common topic focuses on "describing a whole and its constituent parts, or the parts that make up a whole.") Ex: "The Museum of Natural History is the best museum to visit because it has sections dedicated to Dinosaurs, a whole new area for Mammals with lots of stuffed examples, and has the best cafeteria in the entire Smithsonian system."
Ex: "The Lincoln Memorial's Greek style is less appealing to me than the garden feeling inspired by the FDR Memorial, with its open style and rushing water."
Ex: "I want to visit the Vietnam War Memorial because it was built as both a monument to the soldiers' sacrifice as well as a testament to the severe cost of the war, reflecting without bias the tensions surrounding the conflict in an effort to bring reconciliation and healing." As you review with students the various ways that they make arguments, note that such methods come from a long history of rhetoric, a system of argumentation and persuasion first extensively detailed by Aristotle around 332 BCE. The EDSITEment-reviewed website Silva Rhetoricae provides a brief Rhetorical Timeline that helps situate the development of rhetoric.
The rhetorical approaches detailed above—which are often assigned as types of essays—derive from the "common topics" detailed in Aristotle's Rhetoric. Common topics are part of the "Topics of Invention," literally meaning "places to find things." See Silva Rhetoricae's description of Topics of Invention for more information and detailed descriptions of most common topics, such as Definition, Division, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstances, and Testimony.
After reviewing the different approaches, students should have enough background information to enable them to locate different essay strategies in a work of prose, such as Mark Twain's "Two Ways of Seeing a River."
Mark Twain (aka Samuel Longhorne Clemens) wrote with distinct wit and style, whether chronicling the fictional journey of a youth and an escaped slave down the Mississippi or recollecting his own experience as he learned to pilot a riverboat. The last three paragraphs of chapter 9 from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi are commonly excerpted in essay anthologies, often titled as "Two Ways of Seeing a River" (or, "Two Views of the Mississippi").
Bartleby, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, maintains a copy of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, which includes a brief introduction to Life on the Mississippi.
Ask students to read "Two Ways of Seeing a River." The essay is available as a PDF here, or online as the last three paragraphs of chapter 9 in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Documenting the American South.
The essay is short enough (three paragraphs) to be read in class or at home as an assignment.
As students read the essay, ask them to consider how they would classify this essay, according to the types of essays explored in Activity One. Ask students to note specific references in the text as evidence to support their claim.
Descriptive essay: Twain certainly employs description through the rich language used to detail the Mississippi river at sunset.
Cause and Effect essay: students might point out the first two sentences, "I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too," sets the stage for a Cause and Effect essay. The essay's theme certainly explores the effect of experience on perception, where gaining knowledge about the river reveals the dangers hidden beneath, replacing innocent awe with informed analysis.
Compare / Contrast essay: this is certainly a compare / contrast essay, where Mark Twain details both the innocent beauty and the analytical dangers of the sublime Mississippi. Students might note how the essay is written as "subject by subject" rather than "point by point," which is to say that each topic is covered fully in turn, rather than each point being compared individually one-to-one.
Finally, students should examine the concluding paragraph. Twain draws on his comparison of the river in order to offer a thoughtful consideration on the nature of experience and learning. Ask students to consider the analogy (yet another technique in essay writing) of the doctor and patient. What are the benefits and drawbacks of both the innocent and the experienced view?
This section on Douglass is adapted from Lesson One in the EDSITEment curriculum unit From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative. Teachers who would like to use this lesson plan to segue into a longer unit on narrative non-fiction might choose to continue by following the Douglass curriculum unit to its conclusion.
Frederick Douglass used the narrative non-fiction form to argue against slavery and for emancipation after escaping from a lifetime in slavery. To do so was quite courageous—when Douglass's 1845 Narrative was published, he was still legally considered an escaped slave. Had he been caught, he would have been returned to his master, who certainly would have sold him 'down the river' as punishment.
In this section, students learn how to write for an audience and how to use persuasive appeals to sway the audience into adopting their point of view.
One of the primary considerations in writing is audience. How does one write for a friendly audience? A hostile audience? An indifferent one?
The slave narrative played a part in a larger cultural movement: the abolitionists often used slave narratives as persuasive tools exhibiting the evils of slavery and the necessity for emancipation. William Andrews, in his "Introduction to the Slave Narrative" at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Documenting the American South writes:
Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the English-speaking world, a significant number of antebellum slave narratives went through multiple editions and sold in the tens of thousands. This popularity was not solely attributable to the publicity the narratives received from the antislavery movement. Readers could see that, as one reviewer put it in 1849, "the slave who endeavors to recover his freedom is associating with himself no small part of the romance of the time."
Ask students to consider who might be Douglass's audience? What was at stake for him to persuade readers of his Narrative of his point of view? What effect might making his Narrative exciting—the "romance of the time," as Andrews puts it—have in connecting with or expanding his audience? Use this as an opportunity to explore with students the climate of pre-Civil War United States and the tension between North and South over the issue of slavery and states' rights.
Alert students to the fact that Douglass is a great master of words; he'll never use a word or a phrase without having a persuasive intent. Ask students to list things that help convince them to try something, buy something, or believe something. You might ask students to think about commercials that they find persuasive. After they brainstorm, use the examples to explain that there are three kinds of proof for convincing arguments (described in the Persuasive Appeals overview via EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae
As explained in Silva Rhetoricae's overview of Persuasive Appeals, Aristotle called such proof "intrinsic," meaning that it is rhetorically supported, as opposed to "extrinsic" proof, such as witnesses.
Read this chapter aloud in class and allow as many students as possible to have a paragraph to read. While the chapter is being read aloud, students should listen and concentrate not only on Douglass's voice, but also on what aspects of slave life he is trying to convey. As they listen, each student should write down what aspects of slave life shocked them, surprised them, pained them. The students should try to put themselves in Douglass's place and imagine what he might have felt.
During class discussion, students might point out
Review with students the definition of ethos provided by the EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae:
Ethos names the persuasive appeal of one's character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse. Aristotle claimed that one needs to appear both knowledgeable about one's subject and benevolent. Cicero said that in classical oratory the initial portion of a speech … was the place to establish one's credibility with the audience.
Revisit the first introductory paragraphs—ask students what they think of Douglass.
Narrative? Along with the details above, students might point out that:
Review with students the definition of logos provided by the EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae:
Logos names the appeal to reason. Aristotle wished that all communication could be transacted only through this appeal, but given the weaknesses of humanity, he laments, we must resort to the use of the other two appeals. The Greek term logos is laden with many more meanings than simply "reason," and is in fact the term used for "oration."
The Topics of Invention, discussed in Activity 1, above, oftentimes support the logos of an argument.
Douglass outlines a topic that he will continue to pursue in much of his writing—the false use of Christianity as a justification of slavery. He writes (pages 4, 5):
Every year brings with it multitudes of this class of slaves. It was doubtless in consequence of a knowledge of this fact, that one great statesman of the south predicted the downfall of slavery by the inevitable laws of population. Whether this prophecy is ever fulfilled or not, it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase will do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.
Ask students to revisit this passage and discuss Douglass's argument. You may need to introduce your students to the story of Ham being cursed, which is briefly outlined in The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library:
The "curse of Ham" refers to the biblical story in which Ham, seeing his father drunk and naked, refused to turn away as his two brothers did. When Noah awoke, he cursed Ham and his son Canaan, supposedly causing a darker pigmentation in their descendants. This so-called curse has often been wrongly used to justify racism.
[Please note that Lesson 3 of the Curriculum Unit, Frederick Douglass: From Courage to Freedom, continues the discussion of Douglass's critique of the misuse of Christianity to justify slavery.]
Review with students the definition of pathos provided by the EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae
Pathos names the appeal to emotion. Cicero encouraged the use of pathos at the conclusion of an oration, but emotional appeals are of course more widely viable. Aristotle's Rhetoric contains a great deal of discussion of affecting the emotions, categorizing the kinds of responses of different demographic groups. Thus, we see the close relations between assessment of pathos and of audience. Pathos is also the category by which we can understand the psychological aspects of rhetoric. Criticism of rhetoric tends to focus on the overemphasis of pathos, emotion, at the expense of logos, the message.
Discuss the following passages in which the master Captain Anthony whips and beats Douglass's Aunt Hester. Either have the students consider the emotional, visual, auditory, and tactile impact on the reader of the underlined words OR give the students the passage WITHOUT the underlining and have them choose the words that create an impact on them.
He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an old aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move hisiron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it."
What do all of the details add up to? Students might highlight the failure of slave owners to recognize slaves as human beings with human feelings and attachments, which has a dehumanizing effect not only on the slave but also the slave owner (an important theme for Douglass and is discussed in more detail in Lesson Two of the Douglass curriculum unit if you wish to extend the lesson).
1. Ask students to write an essay, focusing on one of the key essay types. Remind students that they should incorporate other strategies (essay types and persuasive appeals) into their essay if it aids in their argument.
Consider encouraging students to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities We The People Essay Contest.
If students need help in writing their essay, the list below provides various lesson plans, websites, and tutorials for essay writing, all drawn from various EDSITEment reviewed resources.
From Silva Rhetoricae:
2. Have students read a famous essay or speech and examine the rhetorical strategies used. What makes the essay or speech great? How does the author effectively convey their ideas? EDSITEment Websites with Famous Essays, Speeches, and other non-fictional prose:
Writing Guides and Handbooks via Internet Public Library
2-3 class periods