The Art of the Personal Essay

by Phillip Lopate
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1505

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.

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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 genre prior to the twentieth century. The same goes for the underrepresentation of certain cultures—not all cultures have been drawn to the personal essay as a form of expression.

That said, this anthology is one of the first to celebrate the personal essay as a distinct literary genre, and it is evident that Lopate’s personal preferences are well represented. Each writer is introduced by a brief biography, in which Lopate’s eloquent turns of phrases add to the reader’s enjoyment of the essays themselves. Regarding William Hazlitt, Lopate writes, “Hazlitt’s very irritableness, which goaded him on like sand in an oyster, led in the end to beautifully formed pearls.” As for E. M. Cioran, Lopate hits the nail on the head with this description of Cioran’s work: “First he isolates and cauterizes the wounds of history with his corrosive intellect, then he cuts away all mental flab, false hopes, and shallow promises to expose the pus underneath.”

A further example of Lopate’s shrewd analysis can be found in the introduction to Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows.” In this essay, Tanizaki begins with a discussion of his building a house, and via his descriptions of woodwork, toilets, plumbing, and lighting, he segues into a lament on the intrusion of Western technology and values on Japanese culture. In the biography of Tanizaki that precedes the essay, Lopate notes, “The essay’s structure keeps opening out like a series of rooms; indeed, reading it is like experiencing a piece of wonderfully complex domestic architecture.” How much more meaningful becomes the essay with this vivid image planted in the reader’s mind.

The Art of the Personal Essay is a volume dense with imagery and insight, a veritable treasure trove of good writing and human idiosyncrasy. After all, personal essayists do not necessarily take the common road; they often play devil’s advocate, coming across as curmudgeonly or even mean-spirited. Yet the personal essays included are ripe with universal words of wisdom, from Montaigne, who writes, “And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump,” to Carlos Fuentes’ “I need, therefore I imagine,” to Samuel Johnson’s “Greatness is nothing where it is not seen, and power nothing where it cannot be felt.” No one recognizes the validity of these people’s work more than their fellow essayists, who, according to one reviewer, “quote classical authors when it suits them and quote themselves when it doesn’t.” Thus Abraham Cowley refers to Montaigne, Hazlitt to Charles Lamb, Adrienne Rich to James Baldwin, and so on.

Despite the span of time evidenced in this anthology, there is a certain timelessness to the themes. When Seneca, writing in the first century c.e., describes the noises he must contend with living as he does above a public bathhouse, he could just as easily have been writing of living in any large city in the 1990’s:

Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years . . . someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap into the pool with a tremendous splash. . . . Then think of the various cries of the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own.

These words, written almost two thousand years ago, retain their familiar ring. Similarly, these words of Sei Shonagon, a court lady writing from tenth century Japan, describe one of her many “hateful things”: “One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place—and then he starts snoring.” Richard Steele, writing in the eighteenth century, describes a phenomenon yet familiar to a twentieth century sensibility: “We, that are very old, are better able to remember things which befell us in our distant youth, than the passages of later days.” James Baldwin’s writing about the Harlem race riots of 1943 calls to mind the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Thus have these writers reached out and latched onto essential truths and passing fancies, pointing up the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Lopate concludes the anthology with a selected bibliography, including works about the personal essay as a literary form, books by authors featured in the anthology, and essays by writers who were not included in the anthology for various reasons. The Art of the Personal Essay is a thorough reference source that will appeal to either the student or the general reader. Ironically, because the personal essay proliferated with the growth in the number of periodicals and was written primarily to entertain, it has traditionally been given short shrift as a literary genre. As a scholarly study of this often ignored or overlooked form, this anthology should not only validate the personal essay as a legitimate literary expression by acknowledging and paying homage to its vast heritage but also promote further study of and contributions to this uniquely personal and intimate writing form.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XXV, April, 1994, p. 376.

Chicago Tribune. March 13, 1994, XIV, p. 4.

Choice. XXXII, October, 1994, p. 276.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 25, 1994, p. 19.

Library Journal. CXIX, February 1, 1994, p. 46.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 27, 1994, p. 4.

The New York Times. March 2, 1994, p. C20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, January 10, 1994, p. 56.

The Wall Street Journal. January 31, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, April 17, 1994, p. 15.

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