1. An introduction to the personal essay
2. Questions for Discussion
3. Phillip Lopate's Selections for Further Reading
4. About Phillip Lopate
5. For more information
Reader's Companion: Copyright © 1995 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, a
division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
An introduction to the personal essay
While it may be argued that the essays themselves reveal the most about the
history and form of this genre, Phillip Lopate's introduction is a wonderful
(and quite amusing) way to get to know the personal essay. The following are
excerpts from that introduction:
This book attempts to put forward and interpret a tradition: the personal
essay. Though long spoken of as a subcategory of the essay, the personal essay
has rarely been isolated and studied as such. It should certainly be
celebrated, because it is one of the most approachable and diverting types of
literature we possess.
The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be
speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.
Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the
personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue--a
friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and
* * *
The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his
or her core of sincerity. We must also feel secure that the essayist has done
a fair amount of introspective homework already, is grounded in reality, and is
trying to give us the maximum understanding and intelligence of which he or she
is capable. A dunderhead and a psychotic killer may be sincere, but that would
not sufficiently recommend them for the genre...
How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilations, aches and
pains, humorous flashes--these are the classic building materials of the
personal essay. We learn the rhythm by which the essayist receives, digests,
and spits out the world, and we learn the shape of his or her privacy.
* * *
The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the
freedom to move anywhere, in all directions. It acts as if all objects were
equally near the center and as if "all subjects are linked to each other"
(Montaigne) by free association. This freedom can be daunting, not only for
the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to
pin down its formal properties...
The essayist attempts to surround a something--a subject, a mood, a problematic
irritation--by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk,
each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the
* * *
There is something heroic in the essayist's gesture of striking out toward the
unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything
worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents
a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and
Still, we must not make excessive claims. The essay is not, for the most part,
philosophy; nor is it yet science. How seriously ought we to take its claims
of being experimental? It lacks the rigor of a laboratory experiment; it does
not hold on to its hypotheses long enough to prove them. But it is what it is:
a mode of inquiry, another way of getting at the truth.
Excerpted from The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate.
Introduction copyright © 1994 by Phillip Lopate. Reprinted by permission
of Anchor Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. No
part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in
writing from the publisher.
Questions for Discussion
1) In his introduction, Lopate suggests that the personal essay implies a
"certain unity to human experience." Does this principle of universality apply
across different eras, different cultures?
* How does a contemporary reader find meaning in such essays as Seneca's "On
Noise" and "Scipio's Villa," Montaigne's "Of Books," or even Orwell's "Such,
Such Were the Joys..."? Can you read your own concerns and experiences into
the framework of these essays?
* Choose an essay (or essays) from the "Other Cultures, Other Continents"
section. To what extent does its theme have meaning for you despite the
aspects of its content that may be alien to you?
2) Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows" is a value-inverting essay, meaning that
the writer takes something usually denigrated or despised and shows its
worth--or takes something usually valued and cuts it down to size. Compare
Tanizaki's approach with other value-inverting essays: Montaigne's "Of a
Monstrous Child," Cowley's "Of Greatness," Hazlitt's "On the Pleasure of
Hating," Stevenson's "An Apology for Idlers," Chesterton's "On Running After
One's Hat," Beerbohm's "Going for a Walk," Lopate's "Against Joie de Vivre."
What elements and/or techniques seem common in this type of essay?
3) On page xxix of the introduction, Lopate probes some of the differences
between autobiographies and personal essays. With these distinctions in mind,
think about the pieces listed in the Contents by Form under "Memoir." How
(other than in economy of space) do these pieces differ in focus from
traditional memoir writing? When you tell a story from your own life, do you
use similar techniques?
4) How do the authors of memoir essays (or any that take their own lives as
their subjects) keep from sounding egotistical and self-absorbed? Do they
ever seem self-indulgent to you?
5) In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White presents a more or less idyllic
picture of an American boyhood tinged with innocence. Compare to the boyhoods
in Stevenson's "The Lantern-Bearers," Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys...,"
and Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son."
6) Many of these writers (quite self-consciously) use contradictory arguments
to make their point. How do you see this technique used in Montaigne's "On
Some Verses of Virgil," Lamb's "A Chapter on Ears," Stevenson's "On Marriage,"
Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows," and Hoagland's "The Threshold and the Jolt
7) In a slight variation on the above technique, an essayist may adopt a tone
that seems inappropriate to his or her subject, even perhaps to the point of
undermining it. Consider Cowley's sincerity in "Of Greatness," Edgeworth's in
"An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification," Hazlitt's in "On the
Pleasure of Hating," and Beerbohm's in "Laughter." In each case, does the
essay's tone provide an implicit commentary on its content? What effect does
this tactic have on you?
8) Compare White's description of a spectacle in "The Ring of Time" with
Hazlitt's "The Fight" and Turgenev's "The Execution of Tropmann."
9) Compare Didion's way of handling a physical problem (discussed in "In Bed")
to Lu Hsun's illness, Fitzgerald's crack-up, and Hoagland's stuttering.
10) Examine the personas of one or more of these essayists. What sort of man
does Montaigne strike you as being? How does Lamb present himself to the
reader? (How about Thoreau or McCarthy?) List their traits and
characteristics: Which of these does the author admit to and which do you
deduce by reading between the lines? Do you find these personas sympathetic or
11) In any given essay, how does what the author conveys to you about him or
herself affect your reading? How important is it to you to find the author
12) "The enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness," writes Lopate.
How does the essayist put forth a strong opinion without falling back on this
13) Compare Thoreau's approach to nature in "Walking" with Hoagland's in "The
Courage of Turtles," Berry's in "An Entrance to the Woods," and Dillard's in
14) Lopate finds ample support for his description of the personal essayist's
"idler" persona in the many essays included in this anthology simply on the
subject of walking. Compare the content and tone of these essays by Steele,
Hazlitt, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Woolf, and Thoreau.
15) Unlike the more meandering tone of some of these essays, a number of them
begin very suddenly, with a strong first line that grabs the reader's attention
immediately. Look at the beginnings of such essays as Seneca's "On Noise,"
Mencken's "On Being an American," Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up," and Sanders's
"Under the Influence." How might you read these differently from the other
pieces in the anthology?
16) What other contemporary authors have you read whose writings might be
called personal essays? What qualities do their pieces have in common with the
essays in this anthology?
17) If you were to write a personal essay, what topics would you consider
appropriate or interesting? Do you see it as a format for light, diverting
commentary or for more weighty issues and assertions (or both)? What
experiences of yours might you draw on to get your point across?
Phillip Lopate's Selections for Further Reading
De Montaigne, Michel, The Complete Essays
Didion, Joan, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Hazlitt, William, Selected Writings
Hoagland, Edward, Heart's Desire
Orwell, George, Collection of Essays
About Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate is the author of Against Joie de Vivre, Bachelorhood, The Rug
Merchant, Being With Children, and Confessions of Summer. A
recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, his
works have appeared in Best American Essays, The Paris Review, Pushcart
Prize annuals, and many other publications. He lives in New York City and
is Adams Professor of English at Hofstra University.
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