Art Of The Personal Essay

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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. .” 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.

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?

Furthermore, as he does not believe in using excerpts, Lopate had to pass on some excellent examples, such as Virginia Woolf’s (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 immediacy of personal witness got bogged down in self-absorption or social protest. 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 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.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.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.


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