The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature, seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative — in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives. Few writers have pursued this more resourcefully than Phillip Lopate, who started out as a novelist and poet but gained traction when he began writing lively first-person essays in the late 1970s, later editing a landmark anthology, “The Art of the Personal Essay” (1994).
Lopate belongs to the generation — my own — that came of age in the ’60s, a decade that gave a huge push to all sorts of self-expression, including the essay. Suddenly everyone seemed to have a story to tell, and it could be told directly, not dressed up as fiction. But this avalanche of essays and memoirs began falling into predictable patterns: politically shaded accounts of victimization, self-help homilies, therapeutic tales of abuse and recovery. The immediacy of personal witness got bogged down in self-absorption or social protest.
Lopate’s essays have taken a different course. His gods are Montaigne, the father of the essay, whose field of research was his own mind, and William Hazlitt, who, besides being an incomparable literary critic, sketched vehement novelistic impressions of what no one else thought worth noticing, from boxing matches and Indian jugglers to “the pleasure of hating.” Lopate’s three earlier collections and his book-length essays match Hazlitt’s promiscuous host of interests with Montaigne’s piercing attention to his inner life, his quicksilver thoughts and fugitive impressions. No other writer could have written books on both Susan Sontag (“Notes on Sontag,” 2009) and the Manhattan shoreline (“Waterfront,” 2004), each of them exhaustively well informed yet disarmingly subjective. Lopate’s new collection, “Portrait Inside My Head,” gives full play to an even wider range: immensely readable essays on his family, on remaining a baseball fan, on his sex life (“Duration; Or, Going Long”), on the tense romance between movies and novels, on old and new features of New York’s urban landscape, and on elusive writers like James Agee and Leonard Michaels, themselves bold essayists who blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction.
To get such a mélange published, most writers would have grasped at some theme to give the appearance of a “real” book. Lopate’s introduction takes the opposite tack, making a case for this “motley collection” as a frank miscellany. What holds it together is an engaging voice, the projection of a curious, appealingly modest, sometimes self-mocking character behind that voice, and “the fluent play of a single consciousness.” He’s gifted at staging his inner conflicts, radiating intimacy without descending into the confessional. Again and again Lopate writes less about a stable subject than about his own constantly evolving views of it. In an ingenious essay, “On Changing One’s Mind About a Movie,” he writes: “The ultimate question may not be, What is the correct critical judgment to make of a particular film? but, What are our different needs and understandings at various stages in life?” With a wealth of examples of movies that felt different for him when he was younger, he serves up an oblique sliver of autobiography, taking the measure of his middle-aging self through the movies that formed him.
The personal essays that open the book are like snapshots, a memoir by glimpses, each from a different angle: his parents’ ill-fated camera shop in their mostly black and Hispanic — and poor — Brooklyn neighborhood; his loving but competitive relationship with his older brother, Leonard, the well-known radio host; an embarrassing episode as a youthful Hebrew tutor, sliding down “the slippery slope of disbelief,” behaving badly, losing his small store of Jewish faith; and best of all “The Lake of Suffering,” a wrenching account of a grave illness that kept his baby daughter in the hospital for many months after her birth. These last two, one comic, the other near tragic, are as riveting as short stories, with arresting openings, sculptured scenes worthy of fiction, introspective passages fingering his own feelings, and haunting conclusions that resonate with everything that came before.
Lest we miss the craft that shapes these pieces, Lopate has brought out a second collection of essays, “To Show and to Tell,” that gives away all his trade secrets — a thoughtful guidebook for writers of literary nonfiction that could serve as a commentary on his essays. It threads its way around the pitfalls of personal writing: the need to turn oneself into a character; to write honestly, assertively about friends and family; and to find exactly where and how to sign off. From experience he counsels writers to “make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few,” and “for the same reason, try to come from a large family.”Continue reading the main story
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present is an extensive collection of essays compiled by Phillip Lopate, an English professor at Hofstra University in New York City and himself the author of two essay collections. Here, Lopate has selected some seventy-five essays written by fifty authors—including himself—spanning the last two thousand years and representing cultures from all over the globe.
Lopate’s thirty-two-page introduction provides a detailed analysis of the personal essay as a literary form. According to Lopate, the personal essay is noted for “its friendly, conversational tone, its drive toward candor and confession, and its often quirky first-person voice.” The reader becomes privy to the essayist’s most private thoughts, written in a conversational manner, avoiding big words and complicated ideas. Honest, heartfelt, and confessional in tone, the personal essay points up the universality of human experience. According to Michel de Montaigne, the patron saint of the personal essay, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Yet at the same time, the personal essay serves as a constant reminder of the sheer solitude involved in the very act of writing.
The anthology is divided into five sections. Section 1, “Forerunners,” is dedicated to five early writers whose work is akin to the personal essay: the classical Seneca and Plutarch (Montaigne’s favorites), Japanese Sei Shonagon and Kenko, and Chinese Ou-yang Hsiu. Section 2, “Fountainhead,” consists entirely of three essays by Montaigne.
Section 3, “The Rise of the English Essay,” focusing on the essay’s golden age, is deservedly one of the longest sections of the book. Beginning in the seventeenth century with Abraham Cowley’s “Of Greatness,” this section moves through the centuries with selections by such celebrated authors as William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Virginia Woolf, ending with George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys. . . .” Section 4, “Other Cultures, Other Continents,” features such nineteenth and twentieth century greats as Russian Ivan Turgenev, Chinese Lu Hsun, Japanese Junichiro Tanizaki, Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, French Roland Barthes, and Nigerian Wole Soyinka.
The fifth and final section, “The American Scene,” which is by far the largest section in the collection, begins in the nineteenth century with Henry David Thoreau and features examples of such fine essayists as James Thurber, E. B. White, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and Lopate himself. Although this section is overly large, part of it is devoted to essays by such relative newcomers as Scott Russell Sanders, Gayle Pemberton, and Richard Rodriguez.
Besides the standard table of contents, the essays are listed by theme and by form. The themes are as varied as the talent pool, tending toward the familiar and the domestic, with such subjects as friendship, solitude, city versus country life, walking, leisure, writing, food, and death. The essays also take many forms—from humor to meditations to diaries to letters to newspaper columns to mere lists.
Acknowledging the fact that many writers have written personal essays, Lopate states that he tended to choose those who were specifically dedicated to the form. Furthermore, as he does not believe in using excerpts, Lopate had to pass on some excellent examples, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1930) and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), simply because of their length. Lopate further acknowledges the dearth of women writers in the collection, attributing this to the fact that few wrote in this...
(The entire section is 1505 words.)