For the Love of Other Writers Phillip Lopate Gathers a Personal, Classic Anthology of Favorite Essays through the Ages

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

For the Love of Other Writers Phillip Lopate Gathers a Personal, Classic Anthology of Favorite Essays through the Ages


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


PHILLIP LOPATE is one of those rare individuals who roam through the cultural world as freely as through their own backyards.

He is most widely known as the author of numerous books, ranging from novels and nonfiction to volumes of poetry and essays. He is also a screenwriter and a veteran film programmer, with several years on the New York Film Festival selection committee among his credits. He is a respected architecture critic and a busy university professor, too, and his journalism has appeared in periodicals as different as Esquire and the New York Times Book Review.

Mr. Lopate's latest achievement ranks with his most impressive: "The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present," a hefty new volume (Anchor Books, 777 pp., $30) comprising his selection of favorite works from his favorite category of world literature.

The offerings by its diverse writers, beginning with Seneca and Plutarch and continuing through James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich, are grouped under thematic headings ranging from "Ambition" and "Education" to "Leisure and Idleness" and "Race and Ethnicity," among others. The volume is clearly a labor of deeply felt love and keenly honed scholarship by an essay authority who knows this territory down to his bones.

Discussing the anthology over lunch near his Greenwich Village home recently, Lopate pointed out that his interest in assembling it was not essays in general but personal essays in particular - the kind he himself has ably written for many years, as his collections "Bachelorhood" and "Against Joie de Vivre" attest. This is the essay form he enjoys most, and in the new book he wanted to restore some of the luster that has dropped away from it in recent decades.

"The high-status areas in literature are novels and poetry" he says. "The essay is seen as kind of a mutt. On the other hand, it's a much-beloved form that people secretly like to read.... Readers like to hear a personal voice and the sense of a human being just talking to them.... A lot of my novelist friends look yearningly at the essay, because there you can deliver yourself of all the wisdom and understanding that you have - whereas in the novel you have to construct situations and parcel your insights to the characters, and narrator, and show and not tell. The essay form allows you to tell all you want!"

Early in this century, Lopate notes, such essayists as H.L. Mencken and Heywood Hale Broun became highly influential in American culture through their work in newspapers and magazines, which were riding a surge in popularity. "But then the essay began to lose its bite," he adds, "and acquired the reputation of being genial but bland. If you look at Andy Rooney on `60 Minutes,' he's practicing a kind of essay that I happen to think is pretty bland.... It's a kind of jovial filler. It's the essay stuck in a box, in a dead end."

The truly valuable essay, Lopate insists, is one that goes beyond a single observation or insight. "It has to branch out, to turn against itself, to explore the full area of its subject matter," he says. "It's risky. It has the appeal of a confessional voice.... The essayist is a nonspecialist, a generalist, with a nonexpert voice - the voice of human groping and ignorance."

Although today's mass-audience writing has drifted largely away from the best traditions of personal prose, leaning more toward self-involvement than self-exploration, Lopate says the true essay has a way of getting in through the back door.

"In novels and memoirs," he points out, "there are often passages where the narrative will break off and there'll be a kind of mini-essay. …

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