One of the Earls of Essay returns with a collection that illustrates both his knowledge of the genre and his considerable skill in practicing it.
Some of these pieces have appeared earlier, and they range in nature from struggles to define the genre, to pedagogical strategies he’s tried (and recommends), to reviews of the essays of other writers—living (Ben Yagoda, whose chin is the target for some Lopate left hooks) and not (Lamb, Hazlitt, James Baldwin). Lopate (Graduate Nonfiction/Columbia Univ.; At the End of the Day: Selected Poems and an Introductory Essay, 2010, etc.) is both at ease and ill at ease with the definitions of “creative nonfiction,” “memoir” and “lyric essay,” and he continually revisits his discomfort. He confesses that he’s neither a philosopher nor a professional rhetorician, so he sometimes has difficulty articulating precisely what he means. Most readers will disagree. Lopate also repeatedly uses moments from his own classroom to illuminate his points, mentioning struggles that students have finding a “voice,” defining the “I” they will use, figuring out how to organize and how to end a personal essay. He urges all to ignite the curiosity and follow its flames. In the piece “The Essay: Exploration or Argument?” he somewhat softens his earlier view that the personal essay contains no argument. We learn that he’s kept a journal since age 17 and that he recognizes, though grates, at the lower status nonfiction inhabits in academe. He takes a little poke at Facebook (though he fears no real evil from it) and expresses great admiration for Emerson and Baldwin, “the most important American essayist since the end of World War II.”
A useful collection of bracing thoughts and sinuous sentences.