By Liat Faver
Phillip Lopate’s collection of works in The Art of the Personal Essay, takes readers on a journey to and from other civilizations, and delves as far back as Seneca, in the first years of the first century A.D., to the early 1990s. In an exploration of varied styles evolving from measured, deliberate, ornate flourishes, to conversationally-toned expositions and crafty sarcasm, the ride is a marvelous escapade that reminds us how far we’ve come as authors and readers, and how very little we’ve changed as humans.
I was most at home with Lopate’s The Rise of the English Essay, wherein we meet Addison and Steele, Lamb, Hazlitt, Chesterton, and Woolf, among other well-known authors. One must read several paragraphs of each of these entries to adapt to the unique flair of each author. When one has grown accustomed, the waters are smooth and welcoming, especially if one is, like me, an Anglophile.
William Hazlitt’s On Going a Journey is a vivid observation by one whose purpose is communion between the spirit of man, and the soul of nature. Hazlitt’s reverence for the natural world cannot be expressed in words, but if they could, he would “attempt to wake the thoughts that lie slumbering on golden ridges in the evening clouds; but at the sight of nature my fancy, poor as it is, droops and closes up its leaves, like flowers at sunset” (184). For one with a loss for words, his choices are melodic and lovely. Hazlitt turns ordinary sensations into symphonies, and it’s not all romance. His stunning portrayal of humanity in On the Pleasure of Hating stings with its accuracy: “Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal” (190).
Lopate sends us to Other Cultures, Other Continents with offerings by Turgenev, Tanizaki, Benjamin, Borges, and Fuentes, to name a few, and ends the anthology with The American Scene, with selections by classically renowned authors like Thoreau, Fitzgerald, and E. B. White, and brings in a few contemporaries with works by Baldwin, Vidal, Didion, Dillard, and many more. Lopate’s own Against Joie de Vivre, a series of wry observances, gets us laughing with honest portrayals of humans doing what we do.
When faced with Joie’s Doppelganger, Lopate muses about lying on the beach, where “there is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and ‘have fun’ . . . I distrust anything that will make me pause long enough to be put in touch with my helplessness . . . unable to ward off the sensation of being utterly alone . . .” (724). In the Here and Now reflects Lopate’s practical stance on the popular notion of inhabiting the present, a thing “much overrated . . . Besides, the present has a way of intruding whether you like it or not. Why should I go out of my way to meet it? . . . I . . . will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience” (725).
The Art of the Personal Essay is a pleasant and thorough romp through the ages, with more rich variety than can be briefly expressed. Readers will want to return to its pages to revisit its memorable and remarkable narratives, to savor its bounty of hues and textures. I only wish I could take it intravenously.
Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books. 1994. Print.