book 19 of 24 books in 28 days: the art of the personal essay
Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay is another big book that has been untouched on a shelf until recently. The class-syllabus-esque subtitle, “An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,” made it easy for me to pass by it on my way to, say, The Liar’s Club. This was an error in judgment; the book is a treasure trove.
The table of contents is presented in three ways: by chronology, by theme, and by form.
I chose to read most of the essays in the “Memoir” section: Richard Steele’s “An Hour or Two Sacred to Sorrow,” George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Walter Benjamin’s “Hashish in Marseilles,” Carlos Fuentes’s “How I Started to Write,” Mary McCarthy’s “My Confession,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Scott Russell Sanders’s “Under the Influence.” This book will remain off the shelf so that I can dip into it again.
Orwell and Baldwin are often-read-and-discussed classics; I found Steel and Benjamin and Fuentes slightly opaque for my current obsessions with revelations and undercurrents; I was most taken with McCarthy’s and Sanders’s essays.
But before I get to them, some insights from Lopate’s “Introduction”–fortunately for me, they line up with the things I’ve been thinking (and quoting everyone else saying) about self-disclosure of not only one’s shortcomings but of the gaps in one’s memories and understanding:
“So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”
“The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. We must also feel secure that the essayist has done a fair amount of introspective homework already, is grounded in reality, and is trying to give us the maximum understanding and intelligence of which he or she is capable. . . . Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure of their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.”
McCarthy’s confession has to do with her interaction with members of the Communist party during the 1930s. She sees everyone, including herself in her post-college arrogance and naive shallowness, through a clear lens, and doesn’t shrink from showing herself in a “negative” light. One example, from the beginning of the piece, exemplifies her wit turned on herself:
Yet whenever I entered the New Republic‘s waiting room, I was seized with a feeling of nervous guilt toward the shirtsleeved editors upstairs upstairs and their busy social conscience, and, above all, toward the shabby young men who were waiting too and who had, my bones told me, a better claim than I to the book I hoped to take away with me. They looked poor, pinched, scholarly, and supercilious, and I did not know which of these qualities made me, with my clicking high heels and fall ‘ensemble,’ seem more out of place.
Later, she writes, concerning the comrades’ assumption that she cared about what they cared about, she writes, “Speaking for myself, I cannot remember a single broad altruistic emotion visiting me during that period. . . .” The story of her unwitting alliance with Trotsky plays out through her unblinking self-analysis.
Scott Russell Sanders’s piece about his alcoholic father mines the depths of his emotions and memory. He is aware of the limitations and demands of memory, self-conscious. He has done the “homework” that Lopate says his genre demands. At the beginning of the piece, he refers to “the perennial present of memory,” and he introduces a description of his father’s car with “in memory,” as if memory is a country always available for exploration.
He is aware of the risk of telling a tragic addiction story, and gets that out of the way early, making instead the point that he writes in pursuit of understanding: “I do not wish to compete for a trophy in suffering. I am only trying to understand the corrosive mixture of helplessness, responsibility, and shame that I learned to feel as the son of an alcoholic.”
He returns to shame of secret-keeping again, and implicitly to the redemption of secret-telling: “The secret bores under the skin, gets in the blood, into the bone, and stays there. Lon after you have supposedly been cured of malaria, the fever can flare up, the tremors can shake you. So it is with the fevers of shame. You swallow the bitter quinine of knowledge, and you learn to feel pity and compassion to the drinker. Yet the shame lingers in your marrow, and, because of the shame, anger.”
In the last paragraphs, he restates why he overcomes the shame and tells his story: “I am moved to write these pages now because my own son, at the age of ten, is taking on himself the griefs of the world, and in particular the griefs of his father. . . . I write, therefore, to drag into the light what eats at me–the fear, the guilt, the shame–so that my own children may be spared.”