A Robert Coles Omnibus

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

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A ROBERT COLES OMNIBUS comprises three varied and challenging collections of essays: ESSAYS, 1987-1992; THAT RED WHEELBARROW; and TIME OF SURRENDER. Insightful social commentary and astute literary criticism, sometimes interwoven, mark these essays, reflecting the author’s medical and humanities backgrounds and his social activism.

Many of Coles’s essays embody the advice given him by his mentor William Carlos Williams. The famous New Jersey poet-physician taught Coles the importance of careful observation and a love of the concrete, while also emphasizing the benefits for a writer of involvement with the world outside the academy.

Following Williams’ lead, Coles examines subjects ranging from populism to existentialism, Jimmy Swaggart to Anton Chekhov, always with an eye for the concrete detail. Even when he addresses more abstract concerns, as in his essays on Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and other writers, he still tends to anchor his writings with specific selections, anecdotes, and observations.

Both a keen observer and a talented writer, Coles rarely rails to pique the reader’s interest in the seemingly mundane or to clarify that which initially appears complex. Most important, Coles possesses the rarest of gifts among essayists: the ability to describe and analyze a subject without draining the life out of it. It is this ability that makes him an essayist of the first rank.