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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Joan Didion

American, 1934–

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: Didion, a native Californian, came to essay writing through journalism, and her meticulous reporting skills shine through everything she writes. While many essayists flee from the topical, she is attracted to it, drawing fascinating connections among various cultural phenomena of the day, from rock songs to California weather to the Manson Family murders. Regardless of the topic, we want to know what Didion has to say about it; after being bombarded by what all the half-wits are saying, we need to see what a sophisticated eye like Didion’s sees. There’s something poignant in her cool, incisive prose style (Hemingway was a major influence), particularly in her presentation of self — generally as small (a kind of little girl in the corner), timid, inarticulate, and not especially likable. Like Baldwin, Didion demonstrates an invaluable skill of the personal essayist: the ability to make herself a compelling character.

If you read just one: “Goodbye to All That”

Memorable lines: “To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F. A. O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (‘Money,’ and ‘High Fashion,’ and ‘The Hucksters’), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.”

Vivian Gornick

American, 1935–

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: The Bronx-born Gornick, a stalwart of the feminist movement, is a quintessentially urban writer, drawing material for her personal essays almost entirely from the streets of New York City. She’s an American version of what the French call a flâneur, or, in her case, a flâneuse: someone who’s constantly on the street, walking around, observing, and having amusing encounters with strangers. Gornick casts herself as an “odd woman” (her latest book is titled The Odd Woman and the City), who is lonely but stubborn and whose friends have become her surrogate family. She builds her essays out of the fragments she picks up as she wanders around the city. It’s territory she’s perfected and owns.

If you read just one: “On the Street: Nobody Watches, Everyone Performs”

Memorable lines: “They’re in the room with me now, these people I brushed against today. They’ve become company, great company. I’d rather be here with them tonight than with anyone else I know. They return the narrative impulse to me. Let me make sense of things. Remind me to tell the story I cannot make my life tell. I need them.”

Richard Rodriguez

American, 1944–

Illustration by P. Sillos

Lopate’s take: Raised by Mexican immigrant parents in Sacramento, California, Rodriguez ’85GS, ’91SOA documented his gradual separation from their world in his celebrated 1982 book Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. This acute assessment of what it means to become an American took an unpopular position, because the book basically says that you can’t go back to the old country; you can’t be a hyphenate in America. When you assimilate, you lose your roots. So the minute Rodriguez became a “scholarship boy,” there was a schism between him and his parents. Accustomed to going against the grain — he opposes affirmative action and bilingual education; he is a spiritual person whose peers are secular; he claims membership in an institution (the Catholic Church) that officially condemns his homosexuality — Rodriguez is comfortable with paradox. And that results in a bemused, disenchanted point of view that I find witty, wise, and very reassuring.

If you read just one: “Late Victorians”

Memorable lines: “At the high school where César taught, teachers and parents had organized a campaign to keep kids from driving themselves to the junior prom, in an attempt to forestall liquor and death. Such a scheme momentarily reawakened César’s Latin skepticism. Didn’t the Americans know? (His tone exaggerated incredulity.) Teenagers will crash into lampposts on their way home from proms, and there is nothing to be done about it. You cannot forbid tragedy.”

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