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Essays on Writing and Politics

by Jay Parini

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1998
ISBN: 0-231-11070-7
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

 Parini is an accomplished novelist (Benjamin's Crossing, p. 410, etc.), poet, biographer, and critic, so it is no surprise that these essays roam all over the literary map. In fact, this volume feels like three shorter books cobbled together. The 20 pieces included here (some appearing for the first time), written over the past 25 years, are grouped in three categories: personal essays with an autobiographical bent; appreciations of other poets; essays on the embattled ground of literary theory. The result highlights Parini's strengths and weaknesses as a writer of nonfiction. The personal essays exhibit considerable charm, particularly when Parini is discussing the process of writing. Regrettably, there's a fair amount of repetition here; for example, we learn several times that Parini and his wife (also a writer) both take considerable pleasure in writing in restaurants and cafes, once in an essay on that habit, again in a piece on the year they spent in Italy, and yet again in a paean to small-town life. By contrast, the middle section is mercifully free of this problem. Unfortunately, with the exception of an excellent piece on Frost--one which helps make that icon of literature seem new once more--the rest of this section is stodgily written, fragrant with the aroma of footnotes left behind and about as compelling as an evening with someone's old graduate seminar papers. That said, it's a complete surprise, then, that Parini's writing on the current wars over theory are incisive and engaging. Drawing on his own experiences as poet, teacher, biographer, and novelist, he makes some nicely forthright judgments on the simultaneous need for and suspicion of theory. Steering a modest middle ground, he makes a sound case for the poststructuralists without being chained to their excesses. A book to be dipped into--at least in its first and last sections--rather than read through, but not without its felicities.