Phillip Lopate Celebrates the Personal Essay

(and recommends six great essayists he really thinks you should read)

by Lorraine Glennon Published Spring 2016
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Illustrations by Demetrios Psillos

One day in the 1980s, the writer Phillip Lopate ’64CC stood before the bookcase of a vacation home he had rented for the summer, looking for something to read. His eyes fell on a volume by William Hazlitt, and though Lopate wasn’t deeply familiar with the Romantic Age essayist and critic, he pulled the book from the shelf and carried it outside to a hammock. Instantly, he became immersed in Hazlitt’s forthright, conversational voice.

Hazlitt led Lopate to Charles Lamb, Hazlitt’s close friend and a distinguished essayist himself. Both these Englishmen referred often to Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer who is credited with inventing the modern essay and giving it its name (which derives from the French verb essayer, or “to try”). “By the time I got to Montaigne,” Lopate says, “I was completely hooked on the form.”

Thirty years later, Lopate, who is the director of the nonfiction concentration in the graduate writing program at Columbia’s School of the Arts, sits in his light-filled four-story brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and speaks about the personal essay — the literary form of which he is a leading practitioner, advocate, and connoisseur.

Lopate, seventy-two, has worked hard to get this underappreciated form embraced not merely within the academy (long dominated by poetry, drama, and fiction), but also, perhaps more improbably, in bookstores and on bestseller lists. Meghan Daum, Leslie Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, John D’Agata, and a host of other writers who’ve recently published popular personal-essay collections owe at least a modicum of their success to this man.

Lopate doesn’t disagree with that assessment (“There are far more essayists and the essay is definitely more popular today than it was thirty years ago, and I’ll take a little credit for that”), but he also believes that the genre is uniquely suited to the times we live in. The rise of digital media has brought with it a flood of sharing and storytelling in the form of blogs, and in an era of ever-briefer attention spans, “an essay is short and rarely takes more than an hour to read.”

“There’s also the fact that this form is comfortable with skepticism, doubt, and self-doubt,” says Lopate. “Instead of lecturing you, it invites you into the pathways of the mind of a writer who’s examining, testing, and speculating. As [German social theorist Theodor] Adorno said, the essay isn’t responsible for solving anything. And that suits an historical moment that’s filled with uncertainty and mistrust of dogmatism.”

Lopate had always been fond of first-person narration, both in his writing (fiction, poetry, and the memoir-like pieces he began publishing in the 1970s) and in his reading. “I loved Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,’” he says. “The narrator didn’t have to be reliable or even likable; he or she just had to be lively.” So, naturally, when he encountered the confiding, distinctive voices of essayists like Hazlitt, Lamb, and Montaigne, he began to seek out similar writers, for the pure pleasure of their company. His discovery of these past masters of the essay deepened his interest in the form and its roots, and he began teaching the personal essay in his literature courses at the University of Houston, where he was a faculty member from 1980 to 1988. But when he started scouring the book catalogs for an anthology to assign his students, he found nothing suitable. “There were collections of contemporary works, but there was nothing historical, nothing that suggested the canon going all the way back.” Now Lopate had a mission: “It was up to me to produce the anthology I was looking for.”

He got a contract for that collection, and the result, published in 1994, was The Art of the Personal Essay, which takes the reader from the ancient musings of Seneca and Plutarch to the modern ones of Annie Dillard and Gore Vidal. The book has been widely adopted by colleges and universities, for use in survey courses as well as courses that focus specifically on the essay. And thus did this Rodney Dangerfield of genres (“The essay has been considered minor even though it’s an ancient, distinguished form,” Lopate says) assume its rightful place in academia. Lopate’s collection follows the development of the essay as it becomes ever more elastic, expanding to encompass personality-suffused criticism as well as the “new journalism” of the sixties and seventies, as practiced by Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer.

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