As accommodating as they are to subject matter and formal experimentation, essays permit no substitutes; every piece of short nonfiction prose is not an essay. And yet, it is sometimes difficult for many of us who teach the essay to acknowledge and even more frequently to act on this fact, which is far from a simple one. It is hard to acknowledge because we do not have a rich and consistent enough language for what it means to ask for essays; the term “essay” is ambiguous and thus allows those who use it to project onto it whatever it is that we either find most desirable or objectionable about certain kinds of nonfiction writing. It is hard to act on because once we say we want to write or read, teach or learn the essay, we feel we must immediately and securely define this kind of writing in some way.
As Phillip Lopate tells us, “It is easier to list the essay’s practitioners than to fix a definition of this protean form.” It is also easier to define the essay by insisting on what it is not. A habitual skepticism and self-awareness are qualities of mind we often associate with the genre’s most famous practitioners—Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Woolf, White, Baldwin, Didion, and Sontag; these stances tend to ensure that essayists undo certainties almost as soon as they dare to appear in their own minds, or at least on their pages. Likewise, there has been a strong tradition among the genre’s commentators to reject imposters and poor substitutes: genuine essays must not be confused with stories, and formulaic school writing . . . and worst of all, scholarly articles.
William Gass identifies the essay as “obviously the opposite of that awful object, ‘the article’,” which tends to ignore “the process, the working, the wondering” inherent in essays. The article is not just neglectful, it’s a liar, too, “very likely a veritable Michelin of misdirection.” An article draws attention away from lapses in its author’s logic or method and toward its own verities, which are siphoned from others’ reputations and trustworthiness: “it furnishes seals of approval and underwriters’ guarantees . . . it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect.” The article acts as “proof of the presence, nearby, of the Professor, the way one might, perceiving a certain sort of speckled egg, infer that its mother was a certain sort of speckled bird.” For Gass, then, the “Professor,” produces articles to pretend to know and be more than they should. Even so, Gass acknowledges that articles and those who write them have some power—noble or not.
Gass’s mistrust of scholars revives the concerns of Michel de Montaigne, who was the first to name his compositions “essais” when he first published them in 1580; these 94 pieces range widely in length, tone, and approach. His titles reveal curiosity and reach: several of his most famous essays on topics with broad appeal, “Of friendship,” “Of books,” and “Of experience,” find for company more unexpected foci, “Of the custom of wearing clothes,” “Of smells,” and “Of thumbs.” In his author’s note to the volume, Montaigne makes a promise to his readers, a disclaimer that dissociates his work from scholarly books with their built-in approvals: “This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one . . . If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture.” For Montaigne, this “posture” of the scholar, however, is not merely an affectation; it expresses a fundamentally corrupt relationship with knowledge and knowing.
Montaigne envisions his own goals as the opposite of those scholars—“pedants”—who, “go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the ends of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it and scatter it to the winds.” However, Montaigne acknowledges how he is implicated in their practices: “I go about cadging from books here and there the sayings that please me, not to keep them, for I have no storehouses, but to transport them into this one, in which, to tell the truth, they are no more mine than in their original place.” Unlike these scholars who might write articles to assemble their “cadged” quotations as a bulwark for their own authority, Montaigne has the essay, a praxis (in Paolo Freire’s sense) that promotes self-critique: “We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; there are the very words of Aristotle.’ But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.”
With his own example, Montaigne offers his reader the possibility that the essay itself can protect us from our worst impulses—to “parrot”—and gives us something to do with what we know. We need such outlets, because knowledge can be dangerous: “Knowledge is a good drug; but no drug is strong enough to preserve itself without alteration and corruption, according to the vessel that contains it. A given man sees clear but not straight, and consequently sees the good and does not follow it, and sees knowledge and does not use it.” For Montaigne, the primary way to “see” and “use” knowledge ethically is to filter it through the alembic of his own capacities in essays.
As Graham Good suggests, “‘essays’ were essays of something (natural faculties, or the faculty of judgment) on something else (a topic or occasion).” As Kurt Spellmeyer has noted in his analysis of Montaigne’s “Of the Education of Children,” none of us, not even a teacher, is immune to a false belief in “the rigor of scholarly discourse [which owes] to its exclusionary purity—its abstractness, its power of discrimination.” Instead, Montaigne seeks an education that would require students to examine “the relationship between individuals and the conventions by which their experience is defined and contained.” It is not learning itself that Montaigne troubles, but its distance from life-as-lived: “The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives.” Let us not miss Montaigne’s proposition; here he is most concerned not that our language reflects our actions, “the course of our lives,” but that we will shape our lives to fit the language we have learned to value; his essays model a use of language that encourages us to examine lies we are tempted to tell about those lives.
From Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. Used with permission of Utah State University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Nicole B. Wallack.
|Born||(1943-11-16) November 16, 1943 (age 74)|
Brooklyn, New York
|Occupation||film critic, essayist, fiction writer, poet, and teacher|
|Education||Columbia University, B.A., 1964|
Union Institute & University, PhD, 1979.
|Genre||fictional prose, essay, poetry, literary criticism|
|Notable works||Being With Children|
|Relatives||Leonard Lopate (brother)|
Phillip Lopate (born 1943) is an American film critic, essayist, fiction writer, poet, and teacher. He is the younger brother of former radio host Leonard Lopate.
Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated with a BA degree from Columbia University in 1964 and received his doctorate from Union Institute & University in 1979.
Lopate is the younger brother of Leonard Lopate.
His sister Joan was the art department coordinator for Broadway Danny Rose.
Lopate worked as a writer-in-the-schools for twelve years and his memoir Being With Children came out of his association with the artists-in-the-school organization Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Lopate coordinated T&W's first project (at Manhattan's P.S. 75), the model for which led to similar programs in all 50 states.
He has taught creative writing and literature to undergraduate and graduate students at several institutions, including Bennington College, Fordham University, Cooper Union, the University of Houston, New York University (NYU), Columbia University School of the Arts, and The New School. He is currently professor of writing at Columbia University. He held the Adams Chair at Hofstra University until 2011, where he was Professor of English.
Lopate's essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in several Pushcart Prize annuals, the anthologies Congregation and Testimony, and The Paris Review, Harper's Magazine, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Harvard Educational Review, The New York Times Book Review, Boulevard,The Journal of Contemporary Fiction, Double Take, and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
Lopate has written for the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, European Travel and Life, Sidestreets of the World, and American Way.
Lopate has written about architecture and urbanism for Metropolis, The New York Times, Double Take, Preservation, Cite, and 7 Days, where he wrote a bimonthly architectural column. He has served as a committee member for the Municipal Art Society and as a consultant for Ric Burns' PBS documentary on the history of New York City.
He has written about movies for The New York Times, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cinemabook, Threepenny Review, Tikkun, American Film, The Normal School, and the anthology The Movie That Changed My Life, among others. A volume of his selected movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically, was published by Doubleday-Anchor in 1998. He edited a massive anthology of American film criticism from the silent era to present day, entitled American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now, was published in March 2006 for Library of America.
Awards and fellowships
Lopate has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants. He also received a Christopher Medal for Being With Children, the Texas Institute of Letters award for best non-fiction book of the year (for Bachelorhood), and was a finalist for the Spielvogel-Diamonstein PEN Award for best essay book of the year (for Portrait of My Body). His anthology Writing New York received an honorable mention from the Municipal Art Society's Brendan Gill Award, and a citation from the New York Society Library. He was also a Lila Wallace Foundation writer-in-residence. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[better source needed]
- Bachelorhood (Little, Brown, 1981)
- Against Joie de Vivre (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
- Portrait of My Body (Doubleday-Anchor, 1996)
- Totally Tenderly Tragically (Anchor, 1998)
- Getting Personal (Basic Books, 2004)
- Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009)
- Portrait Inside My Head (Free Press, 2013)
- To Show and to Tell (Free Press, 2013)
- Confessions of Summer (Doubleday, 1979)
- The Rug Merchant (Viking, 1987)
- Two Marriages (Other Press, 2008)
- The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open (Sun Press, 1972)
- The Daily Round (Sun Press, 1976)
- At the End of the Day (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010)
- Being With Children (Doubleday, 1975)
Anthologies (as contributor):
- The Best American Short Stories (1974)
- The Best American Essays (1987)
Anthologies (as editor):
- The Art of the Personal Essay (Doubleday-Anchor, 1994)
- Writing New York (The Library of America, 1998)
- Journal of a Living Experiment (Teachers & Writers Press, 1979)
- The Anchor Essay Annual (Anchor, 1997-9)
- The Phillip Lopate Reader (Basic Books, 2003)
- American Movie Critics (Library of America, 2006)
- Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (Anchor, 2005)
- A Mother's Tale (Mad River Books, 2017)
- ^ abcdef"Phillip Lopate". Hoftsra University. Retrieved September 16, 2014.[dead link]
- ^Lopate, Phillip. "My Brother, My Life (with apologies to Pasternak)". Smith Magazine. Retrieved March 4, 2015.
- ^Hechinger, Fred M. "About Education: An Experiment in 'Activism,'" New York Times (December 4, 1979).
- ^"Accomplishments,"Hofstra Pride. Accessed February 8, 2011.