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Volume 9, No. 7 (October 1999)
More in this Issue



Phillip Lopate, editor of Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 1998) and, for the past three years, editor of The Anchor Essay Annual.

"The practice of the essay is an ancient one, as natural for the writer as walking, so we ought not to be taken in by boom promoters who think it is back in vogue, nor doomsayers who consider it moribund. Having attempted, these past three years, to keep up with all the essays in periodicals as well as bound collections, I can testify to the form's hardihood, even as I find it hard to pinpoint any one or two books that might be categorized as 'breakthroughs.' Rather, let me cite some of those amazing practitioners who continue to essay willingly and well, regardless of scant commercial rewards.

"Edward Hoagland's Tigers & Ice: Reflections on Nature and Life (The Lyons Press, 1999) is a flavorsome, far-ranging collection by one of our masters, who attends to the interconnectedness of all living things. Joseph Epstein's Narcissus Leaves the Pool (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) demonstrates the former American Scholar editor's shrewdly literary intelligence, leavened by self-mockery and more intimacy than usual. Sam Pickering continues to turn out a volume of eccentric meditations every year: His latest is the delightful A Little Fling and Other Essays (Tennessee, forthcoming). The Hunter Gracchus (Counterpoint, 1996) treats matters of literature and art with Guy Davenport's characteristic, awe-inspiring erudition and clarity. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye has given us an immensely charming and quirky collection of personal essays, Never in a Hurry (South Carolina, 1996), about being a transplanted Palestinian in San Antonio, Texas. In her strong collection, Approaching Eye Level (Beacon, 1996), the New York--besotted Vivian Gornick conveys the gritty texture of life and relationships in that city.

"If any recent essay collection can be considered revelatory, it is Jorge Luis Borges's Selected Non-Fictions (Viking, 1999), edited by Eliot Weinberger. Borges's manner always seemed 'essayistic' at the core, whether he was writing stories or poems; but now, with this five-hundred-plus-page collection in hand, we can appreciate that he was also one of the great modern essayists. What he wrote of the polymath John Wilkins could be said about Borges himself: 'He was full of happy curiosity.' What a pleasure to follow his mind through the caves of literature. Meanwhile the man stands before us, less veiled, more personal, than in any of his other books."

Paula Backscheider, Pepperell Eminent Scholar at Auburn University and author of Reflections on Biography (Oxford, forthcoming).

"With the birth of the modern press in the eighteenth century, the essay became a powerful tool in the hands of its greatest writers. Essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele set the standard for good taste in Tatler and Spectator, and Daniel Defoe made great progress toward freeing news commentary from the iron hand of the government in his Review. Political propaganda, book reviewing, and magazines were born and took the shapes we now know. Until recently, almost nothing has been known of the many women writers who worked alongside men as equals--as Delarivière Manley did with Jonathan Swift on the Examiner--and even had their own essay-rich periodicals. Paula McDowell's The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678--1730 (Clarendon, 1998) is a stunning reconstruction of the prominent roles women--from a complete range of socio economic backgrounds--played in writing, publishing, and distributing publications. The essay was the most accessible and powerful means of polite political expression for these women. Patricia Spacks's Selections from the Female Spectator (Oxford, 1999) presents a collection of essays by Eliza Fowler Haywood, the first woman to have her own essay periodical, which covered science, literature, fashion, politics, and women's legal rights in the 1700s."

Tracy Chevalier, editor of Encyclopedia of the Essay (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997) and author of Girl With a Pearl Earring (Dutton, forthcoming).

"The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate (Anchor, 1994), includes selections that range widely in voice, subject matter, time, and place. Starting with precursors like Seneca and Plutarch, moving on to Montaigne, 'patron saint of personal essayists,' and ending with a cornucopia of twentieth- century writers, the collection is a journey for both reader and writer. Besides reacquainting us with classics such as E.B. White's 'Once More to the Lake' and George Orwell's 'Such, Such Were the Joys,' it also introduces lesser-known writers such as the wonderful tenth-century Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon, who kept lists in her Pillow Book of 'Embarrassing Things' and 'Hateful Things,' or the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote with honesty and humor about her relationship with her husband in 'He and I.' Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade (Norton, 1997), a collection of twelve personal essays by a part-time poet and full-time undertaker, is a moving and often funny exploration of dying and death from someone who sees it at close range. Lynch deftly links personal experience--marital breakdown, his father's alcoholism--to universal issues, even while he lances the boil of our reluctance to consider death an essential part of our lives. The essay form is perfectly suited to his subject, for death is best addressed not through treatise or novel, but on a scale that is human and unintimidating."

Robert Atwan, editor of numerous college essay anthologies and founder and series editor of The Best American Essays, which has been published annually by Houghton Mifflin since 1986.

"The essay has long been confined to academic obscurity. Today's students read essays almost exclusively in freshman composition programs, where they are taught primarily as models of exposition or argumentation. Most college students--and even many educated readers--have no idea that essays are actually a form of literature. Essays and essayists are rarely covered in scholarly journals or critical monographs. But the genre is making a comeback: Graham Good's The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (Routledge, 1988) and G. Douglas Atkins's Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing (Georgia, 1992) are two very readable and groundbreaking studies. For those interested in recent criticism with a pedagogical emphasis, I recommend two collections: What Do I Know? Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Essay (Boynton/Cook, 1995), edited by Janis Forman, and Approaches to Teaching Montaigne's Essays (MLA, 1994), edited by Patrick Henry. Both books offer practical and theoretical reflections on a critically neglected genre that deserves to play a larger role in college education."

R. Lane Kauffmann, associate professor of Spanish and humanities at Rice University and author of various articles on the essay and modern literature.

"In The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay (Oxford, 1995), Claire de Obaldia suggests that the essay is a form of 'potential literature' that flourishes in periods of cultural crisis. Starting with Montaigne--and with the etymological sense of 'essaying' as trying out--Obaldia proposes an experimental, essayistic mode of writing that confronts questions of genre and literature. She thinks that this essayistic spirit, with its penchant for paradox and intertextuality, can be seen at play in various fictional or novelistic forms: Roland Barthes's autobiographical fragments, Robert Musil's essayistic novel The Man Without Qualities , and Jorge Luis Borges's fictions. Her study provides a rich theoretical matrix for thinking about the essay across the boundaries of nation and genre."

Graham Good, professor of English at the University of British Columbia and author of The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (Routledge, 1988).

"The mammoth Encyclopedia of the Essay (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), edited by , signals that the importance of the essay as a genre is finally being recognized by scholars and students. Treated for far too long as a mere adjunct to 'major' genres, the essay is a personal form of prose inquiry practiced by poets like Pound and Eliot, novelists like Woolf and James, as well as critics like Johnson and Hazlitt. The Encyclopedia provides fascinating browsing as well as a starting point for research. It is comprehensive in scope and has several types of entries: individual authors who have made major contributions in the form; types of essay, such as the critical essay and travel essay; cognate forms, like the feuilleton, newspaper column, or prose letter; and magazines and periodicals that have been influential in publishing and promoting the form.

"For me, George Orwell is the doyen of twentieth-century essayists. His Collection of Essays (Penguin) are also scattered through the new twenty-volume Collected Works, edited by Peter Davison. They range from considerations of school stories (humorous tales about life in an English school written for a schoolboy audience) and dirty postcards (cultural studies has never really acknowledged his pioneering role in the study of popular culture) to political and aesthetic controversies like P.G. Wodehouse's 'collaboration' with the Nazis, or Tolstoy's scathing attack on Shakespeare. The infectious energy of these pieces justifies Orwell's aim to turn political writing into an art, and they compare well, both intellectually and stylistically, with many of the current attempts to turn aesthetic writing into politics."

--John Palattella

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