Forethoughts: The Art of the Personal Essay

Aside from the fact that essays get so little attention in the reviewing world, there are two reasons why I choose to focus on this literary form at RobAroundBooks. The first came about because of my adoration for the ‘father of the essay’, Michel de Montaigne, and the second, well that’s entirely down to this anthology – The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books) edited by Philip Lopate.

It’s little wonder that this hefty tome convinced me to put more of my reading focus into essays. I’ve yet to read the entries contained within this particular anthology, but I already hold this book close to me as if it were a prized possession. This all seems a bit premature of me I know, but I think I have good reason. Not only does a quick sweep of the contents tell me that The Art of the Personal Essay is a comprehensive and wide-ranging study of the form, but through my affinity with anything New York City I already know that Philip Lopate has exquisite skill in editing anthologies (mainly through his editing of the equally weighty tome, Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (Library of America)). Before I go on to tell you something more of the content, I’ll let the cover blurb have its say:

The personal essay offers a feast of individuality, and The Art of the Personal Essay is the first anthology to celebrate this rich and vibrant literary form. More than seventy-five essays represent this robust tradition, beginning with influential forerunners from ancient Rome and the Far East and ranging from the mastery of the essay’s sixteenth-century founder, Michel de Montaigne, and the golden age of the English essay, to its variegated outcroppings in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa and its efflorescence in the United States. With generous selections by writers from around the world, as well as an illuminating introduction by Philip Lopate, himself an acclaimed essayist, The Art of the Personal Essay is a landmark collection of brilliant, discerning, and immensely entertaining writing.

So that’s the blurb, which is short and sweet, but it’s also very good at summing up the anthology I think. What it doesn’t tell you however, is how the book is laid out. I’ll do that myself because it is rather interesting and important to note.

The Art of the Personal Essay is presented in five separate sections. The first section looks at a couple of the forerunners to Michel de Montaigne (the man I mentioned at the head of these forethoughts as being the person that many credit with being the inventor of the essay), namely Seneca, Plutarch and a trio of selections from China and Japan. You’re going to ask me now aren’t you, why if Montaigne invented the essay are there inclusions in this anthology that pre-date him? Good question, and full marks for your razor-sharp observation :). The answer? Well, firstly Lopate tells us that Montaigne continually credits and references the ‘ancients’ in his own essays, hence his decision to incude a couple of key Graeco-Roman examples, in the hope that the reader may see how these ancient world philosophers influenced Montaigne’s way of thinking. Secondly, with relation to the Oriental inclusions, Lopate informs us that the East built up it’s own tradition of a form, independent of the West, which in many ways resembles the form of the personal essay.

The second section of the anthology focuses on the essays of Montaigne himself – no explanation needed. Moving on to third section and the focus changes to exploring the development of the essay in England. Why England? Well, apparently the English embraced the form like no other, especially in comparison to Montaigne’s own countrymen who, it seems, chose to more or less ignore it. In this section we are presented with some literary delights from many of England’s leading essayists, including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and wait for it, Virginia Woolf. Wohoo! Oh yeah, and there’s some geezer called George Orwell in there too 🙂

Section four gets all cosmopolitan (and so it should), as the anthology branches out to look at the development of the personal essay in different countries and around different cultures. Here the focus turns to essayists from Russia, Romania, Argentina, Italy and Mexico, to name but a few, and it all looks rather delicious in a globetrotting sort of way.

Finally section five, which is all about the American scene. The section begins with essays from pioneers such as Henry David Thoreau, before moving on to writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and E. B. White, before settling on the more modern essayists such as Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders and Philip Lopate himself (this may seem a bit vain but he has only included one essay of his own).

So there’s a quick rundown on how The Art of the Personal Essay is presented, and I’m sure you’ll agree it offers something of an exciting reading prospect. It’s difficult to say for sure of course without first working through the anthology, but if you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading anything that Philip Lopate has been involved in, then you will know that he knows his stuff ESPECIALLY when it comes to the personal essay.

I guess that’s all I have to say for now with regards to The Art of the Personal Essay, and all that’s left to do is to set myself off on the reading journey. As always I’ll be using the same system that I usually do when it comes to anthologies/collections i.e. working my way through, reading each entry in order and posting a mini review for it, before returning at the end to present my final ‘afterthoughts’ on the collection as a whole. I’ve presented a list of the contents below (sorry it’s a bit sprawling :)) and I’ll link to each review from this list as I complete it. So if you’re ever interested in finding out what progress I’m making through this collection, then this post would be a good one to come back to.


:: Contents of the The Art of the Personal Essay ::
(links lead to individual reviews of each essay, when posted)

  • On Noise by Seneca
  • Asthma by Seneca
  • Scipio’s Villa by Seneca
  • Slaves by Seneca
  • Consolation to His Wife by Plutarch
  • Hateful Things by Sei Shonagon
  • Essays in Idleness [Selections] by Kenko
  • Pleasure Boat Studio by Ou-Yang Hsiu
  • Of Books by Michel de Montaigne
  • Of a Monstrous Child by Michel de Montaigne
  • On Some Verses of Virgil by Michel de Montaigne
  • Of Greatness by Abraham Cowley
  • Nicolini and the Lions by Joseph Addison
  • An Hour or Two Sacred to Sorrow by Richard Steele
  • Twenty-four Hours in London by Richard Steele
  • Love-Letters by Richard Steele
  • The Boarding House by Samuel Johnson
  • The Solitude of the Country by Samuel Johnson
  • An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification by Maria Edgeworth
  • New Year’s Eve by Charles Lamb
  • A Chapter on Ears by Charles Lamb
  • Dream Children: A Reverie by Charles Lamb
  • The Supernatural Man by Charles Lamb
  • On Going a Journey by William Hazlitt
  • On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt
  • The Fight by William Hazlitt
  • The Lantern-Bearers by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • On Marriage by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Going Out for a Walk by Max Beerbohm
  • Laughter by Max Beerbohm
  • A Piece of Chalk by G. K. Chesterton
  • On Running After One’s Hat by G. K. Chesterton
  • Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf
  • The Death of a Moth by Virginia Woolf
  • Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell
  • The Execution of Tropmann by Ivan Turgenev
  • This Too Is Life by Lu Hsun
  • Death by Lu Hsun
  • In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Unpacking My Library by Walter Benjamin
  • Hashish in Marseilles by Walter Benjamin
  • Blindness by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Beside the Nore by Hubert Butler
  • Aunt Harriet by Hubert Butler
  • Some Blind Alleys: A Letter by E. M. Cioran
  • Leaving the Movie Theater by Roland Barthes
  • He and I by Natalia Ginzburg
  • How I Started to Write by Carlos Fuentes
  • Why Do I Fast? by Wole Soyinka
  • Meatless Days by Sara Suleri
  • Walking by Henry David Thoreau
  • On Being an American by H. L. Mencken
  • My Face by Robert Benchley
  • The Secret Life of James Thurber by James Thurber
  • The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Once More to the Lake by E. B. White
  • The Ring of Time by E. B. White
  • Once a Tramp, Always by M. F. K. Fisher
  • My Confession by Mary McCarthy
  • For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business by Seymour Krim
  • Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  • Alas, Poor Richard by James Baldwin
  • Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self by Gore Vidal
  • Split at the Root by Adrienne Rich
  • The Courage of Turtles by Edward Hoagland
  • The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain by Edward Hoagland
  • An Entrance to the Woods by Wendell Berry
  • Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
  • In Bed by Joan Didion
  • Seeing by Annie Dillard
  • The Knife by Richard Selzer
  • Against Joie de Vivre by Philip Lopate
  • Under the Influence by Scott Russell Sanders
  • Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey? by Gayle Pemberton
  • Late Victorians by Richard Rodriguez

Anchor Books | June 1995 | $21.00 | PAPERBACK | 770 PP | ISBN: 9780385423397

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn’t bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).