(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.)