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Reader's Companion to
The Art of the Personal Essay,
edited by Phillip Lopate

Anchor trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-42339-X, $16.95 US/ $22.95 CAN

Anchor hardcover, ISBN 0-385-42298-9, $30.00 US/ $39.95 CAN

Reader's Companion: Copyright © 1995 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. ISBN: 0-385-47880-1


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 companionship.

* * *

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 matter.

* * *

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 philosophy....

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 of Pain"?

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 unappealing?

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 sympathetic?

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 vice?

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 "Seeing."

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.

For a complete teacher's guide to this book, with writing and discussion ideas, contact:

Teachers & Writers Collaborative
5 Union Square West
New York, NY 10003