essay-classical

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

Writers on our political rhubarb

May 11, 2016 | 6 Comments

Donald Trump’s political success has provoked in recent months some fine commentary, much of it from moderates and progressives. I’ve especially enjoyed the New York Times’s crew. Even Thomas Friedman, whom I’ve boycotted since his disgusting promotion of the Iraq war, rose, once, to an unexpectedly eloquent height. Republicans have seemed mostly inarticulate with rage over their primary’s winner, given that Trump’s record is of a pragmatic moderate. At last, however, the likable Andrew Sullivan has expressed the intellectually conservative view.

Published in the May 2 issue of New York Magazine, his searching essay “America has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” has gone viral. In this classical essay he’s fighting for—with every persuasive tool he’s got—what he calls “America’s near­unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility.”

Though Sullivan draws on a lifetime of experience, he notably cites Plato’s Republic, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, and Eric Hoffer’s 1951 tract The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Sullivan has come to critique our increasingly democratic (but perhaps less stable) political system that frightens him. He calls the Republicans’ fight to hold open a Supreme Court vacancy “another massive hyperdemocratic breach in our constitutional defenses.” And: “The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

As a man of good sense, Sullivan cannot help but cheer Barack Obama’s attainments. As a student of history who is by temperament a conservative, he cannot help but furrow his brow at the implications of such outsider politicians. Did Obama lead to Trump? Has our increasingly freewheeling democracy, inflamed by the internet and by growing economic inequality, led to both?

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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Publishing essays

April 21, 2015 | 8 Comments

I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.

Class,

I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.

Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.

Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.

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My top 10 essays of all time

September 14, 2013 | 11 Comments

Not that you asked. Yet who can resist such lists? Not me. Even if they are ridiculous. There are so many great essays, how can any reader limit himself to ten? Imagine doing that with short stories. But recently I got sucked into reading a list of others’ favorites, and so I made my own. Even as I wrote it, I began to disagree with it.

My top essays are listed in more or less chronological order—but also somewhat in rank order, only because an essay like “Never Thirteen,” a source for me of such delight and admiration, is so recent that no one else, to my knowledge, has ratified its greatness. So I am ahead of the curve—or just quirky. And seeing someone expose his peculiar taste is a good reason to read his list.

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Solnit’s ‘Faraway Nearby’

August 8, 2013 | 13 Comments

Rebecca Solnit tried to leave home at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. At last, at age seventeen, her jealous mother and her indifferent father sent her into the world like a girl in a fairy tale:

“For that odyssey my mother would not let me take any of the decent suitcases in her attic but gave me a huge broken one in which my few clothes and books rumbled like dice in a cup. My father gave me a broken travel clock that he said was worth repairing and I kept it for years before I found that it was not.”

The Faraway Nearby opens with 100 pounds of apricots, collected from her ailing mother’s tree, ripening and rotting on Solnit’s floor, a bequest and a burden as if from another fairy tale. The fruit was a story, she explains, and also “an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories.” So Solnit tells her own story, shows how she escaped it by entering the wider world of others’ stories, and how she changed her story as she better understood her unhappy mother.

What sent her mother’s indifference toward her into permanent rage was when she asked young Rebecca, age 13, for sympathy when she got a lump in her breast, and Rebecca, who hadn’t received much sympathy herself, failed to supply it. With effort, as an adult Solnit realizes that her mother had had a hard life, was trapped in her own story of victimhood, and must’ve cared for her before memory: “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”

Out of duty and from solidarity with two of her brothers, Solnit ends up tending her mother through her long decline from Alzheimer’s. The apricots arrive near the end of this sad period, which Solnit terms a serial emergency. Having hooked us with this, her story, Solnit tells us it doesn’t much interest her anymore.

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Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication: ‘Living is complicated.’

June 23, 2013 | 3 Comments

Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

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