Personal essays — the form that takes a general principle and brings it home to one person’s experience, or takes one human soul and shows what is universal there — have enormous appeal to me. I’ve read many of them in anthologies here and there over the years, from Anne Fadiman to Annie Dillard to, most recently, Charles Lamb. But Philip Lopate’s anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, tops them all. Lopate is, himself, a practitioner of this charming form, and he has chosen something like 75 essays, throughout history and from around the world, to demonstrate the changes and continuities and delights in the personal essay.
Let’s start by saying that he chose brilliantly. There must have been hundreds of Roman essays from men like Seneca and Plutarch to choose from, but the ones he picked are particularly personal, showing humor, grief, and prickly idiosyncrasy. I admit that I found some of the early essays to be tough going: even with the crabby humor of Hazlitt or the light touch of Addison and Steele, it took me some time to get through it, maybe because I didn’t find much of the universality I was looking for. (Two exceptions to this rule: Lamb and Montaigne. Anyone who doesn’t love them hasn’t read enough of them yet. Back to the re-education room for you!)
But then Lopate moved into the late 19th century, with Robert Louis Stevenson and his “The Lantern-Bearers,” and the early 20th century, with Max Beerbohm and Virginia Woolf and George Orwell’s wonderful “Such, Such Were the Joys,” and I was completely entranced. Borges and Carlos Fuentes, Walter Benjamin and G.K. Chesterton, Thoreau and James Baldwin and H.L. Mencken (and I laughed myself silly), and then there were authors I loved already and was bound to love in this anthology: M.F.K. Fisher and Annie Dillard and Joan Didion’s dead-on description of migraine, E.B. White and Scott Russell Sanders’s heartbreaking account of his father’s alcoholism. Then there were authors I knew in other contexts but whose essays I’d never read: Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry, Gore Vidal, Richard Selzer laying bare the secrets of the human body in “The Knife.”
By the time I was finished, I was breathless, and even at nearly 800 pages, sorry it was over.
Criticisms: yes. I actually didn’t like some of what Lopate did as editor. His choice of the essays was nothing less than brilliant, as I said, but his brief introductions to the pieces fell short, for me. He called authors with religious viewpoints “propagandistic and wrong-headed” even when religion did not enter into the essay; this type of comment did not arise for any other type of belief (say, Fascism or misogyny.) For women essayists, he seldom failed to say something along the lines of “a male essayist would never attempt this sort of [usually domestic] essay.” I found myself skipping the introductions even when I wanted to know something about the author, because I didn’t want to be annoyed. I also strongly disliked Lopate’s own contribution, called “Against Joie de Vivre,” but that’s a matter of personal taste.
Overall, however, this is a superb collection. As I read, I found myself wishing Lopate had not put it together chronologically, but perhaps thematically — and then I realized I didn’t have to read it beginning to end, cover to cover. I could have dipped in here and there, and that might have made it easier: a modern to an ancient, as it were. But then I’m not sure I ever would have read every essay, and I’m very happy I did.
* On a personal note, this was the oldest book on my TBR list. I put it there in 1999, had it given to me as a gift on Valentine’s Day 2000, and just finished reading it. I knew I’d get to it one day!