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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George Orwell

British, 1903–1950

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: Writing from the perspective of a decent everyman, Orwell tries, in all his autobiographical work, to position his own experience within the larger historical context. And, curiously, everyone finds his own Orwell; he’s a hero to the right and the left, and everyone likes to quote him for his own purposes. “Good prose is like a window pane,” he says in his essay “Why I Write,” and his own style is a model of clarity. Above all, Orwell is notable for his integrity, evident in his unwavering honesty about his own petty or ugly impulses (as in “Shooting an Elephant,” in which he admits to hating both the empire he serves as a police officer in Burma and the Burmese people, who make his life a living hell). With Orwell, the reader always feels that he’s leveling with us. He’s showing us how a decent, civilized person can have these appalling tendencies when faced with difficult options. Like all the best essayists, Orwell moves us toward complexity.

If you read just one: “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Memorable lines: “It is not easy for me to think of my schooldays without seeming to breathe in a whiff of something cold and evil-smelling — a sort of compound of sweaty stockings, dirty towels, faecal smells blowing along corridors, forks with old food between the prongs, neck-of-mutton stew, and the banging doors of the lavatories and the echoing chamber-pots in the dormitories.”

James Baldwin

American, 1924–1987

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: In my view, the Harlem-raised Baldwin (who lived most of his adult life as an expatriate in Europe) is the most important American essayist of the postwar period. And perhaps nothing makes that case more eloquently than his masterwork, “Notes of a Native Son.” As with the best essays, what drives it is the writer’s need to figure out what he thinks. And “Notes” also showcases Baldwin’s trademark honesty and ability to turn himself into a character who comes alive on the page. In it, he braids together the Harlem riot of 1943, his father’s death, and his own young man’s confusions: Does he hate his father? Does he love his father? Is he becoming his father? He juggles all these different perspectives, moving between past and present and between individual psychology and the sociological. It’s a twenty-page essay with the density of a novella.

If you read just one: “Notes of a Native Son”

Memorable lines: “It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”

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