“The Boy and the Corn Stalk” by Eunice Tiptree

[Eunice Tiptree @ Writers for Dinner.]

[Eunice Tiptree @ Writers for Dinner.]

 The blogsite Writers for Dinner offers Eunice Tiptree’s artful micro essay “The Boy and the Corn Stalk”—only 653 words—which is a boyhood story that flashes forward to an adulthood realization. I adore it. This essay, employing an unusual third-person point of view, possesses the strangeness of art.

Here’s the Gertrude Stein-ish sing-song once-upon-a-time opening:

Once there was a little boy, just one little boy even though this was the late 1950s and there were lots of little boys and little girls too.  There were lots, but this little boy lived far away from them in a place he though the center of the world, a place of fields filled with rows of shrubs, a nursery filled with plants with Latin names.  This was the 1950s and the little boy loved to sit on his daddy’s lap in the big chair as his father napped on Sunday afternoons, the only time the work paused.

A mythic tone suffuses “The Boy and the Cornstalk,” which is haunting—yet it’s a commonplace story of childhood. It concentrates childhood. Which makes the simple story, one about an apparently trivial early loss, poignant. Tiptree accomplishes so much with implication. Then she makes a huge leap forward in time to the character’s adult insight—also commonplace on the surface yet rare in portraying a resonant inner moment. I think this realization packs a punch because yet again she captures something deeply personal that’s at the same time a universal experience.

You might wonder how this can be an essay since it’s about a boy yet the writer’s name is Eunice. Her bio, at the end, explains.

“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison2

[Leslie Jamison.]

 I find it difficult to believe that The Believer still offers online to anyone Leslie Jamison’s sophisticated essay “The Empathy Exams,” which is the title essay of her hot new book, a compilation of her essayistic and journalistic inquiries into her own and others’ pain. The New York Times Book Review called the collection “extraordinary”:

This is an approach fraught with dangers, which necessitates walking an ethical tightrope between voyeurism and narcissism, between an unnatural interest in the woes of others and an unattractive obsession with the wounds of the self.

Jamison’s focus on empathy is interesting in itself, and she makes an impressive number of rhetorical moves in the title essay. Strong exposition? Check. Vivid, dramatic scenes? Check. Braids or multiple story lines? Check. “Hermit Crab” or stolen structure? Check. Inquiry via imagination into others’ subjective worlds? Check. An essay of virtuoso technique, powerful content, and stunning length (my single-spaced download is 24 pages), “The Empathy Exams” even incorporates scientific research and quotes Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Jamison launches her foreground story gracefully. Working as a “medical actor,” someone employed to help medical students hone their diagnostic and empathetic skills, she becomes curious about empathy—and its de facto student. Often she portrays a woman named Stephanie Phillips, who sometimes suffers from a seizure disorder caused by sorrow over the death of her brother. Jamison and her fellow actors are a motley crew, and they play a motley crew of ailing, grieving, and delusional patients:

We gather in clusters: old men in crinkling blue robes, MFA graduates in boots too cool for our paper gowns, local teenagers in ponchos and sweatpants. We help each other strap pillows around our waists. We hand off infant dolls. Little pneumatic Baby Doug, swaddled in a cheap cotton blanket, is passed from girl to girl like a relay baton. Our ranks are full of community-theater actors and undergrad drama majors seeking stages, high-school kids earning booze money, retired folks with spare time. . . .

Between encounters, we are given water, fruit, granola bars, and an endless supply of mints. We aren’t supposed to exhaust the students with our bad breath and growling stomachs, the side effects of our actual bodies.

Empathy Exams

And then, having hooked you into this compelling underworld, Jamison adopts the format of her work’s medical-actor scripts to reveal her accidental pregnancy and her desire to terminate it. Backstory follows, along with Jamison’s struggle with the emotional distance between her boyfriend and herself. And then the trifecta: she needs heart surgery to repair a defect. This new personal medical thread—dramatic, distressing, and ironic all at once—also offers mordant humor because her female cardiologist has the bedside manner of Godzilla.

Deeply and appealingly personal, “The Empathy Exams” achieves as well a reflective distance as Jamison explicitly looks back in time at herself and implicitly through her structuring, especially her Hermit Crab passages. Those medical-actor scripts she adopts for parts of her pregnancy and heart crisis narratives deepen the pleasure of seeing someone shape her experiences into art.

While “The Empathy Exams” is itself a master class in essay technique for those who care to study it, Publishers Weekly offers Jamison’s “How to Write a Personal Essay.” Condensed and philosophical, it’s rich fodder for students and writers struggling with the form. I can’t imagine that many others will have a clue what she’s talking about:

When I talk about writing essays that resonate beyond the personal, I don’t mean that personal material isn’t sufficient. Of course it is. Or, it can be. If you honor the complexity of your own life—if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves.

“Brazil’s Secret History of Southern Hospitality” by Stephen Bloom

Stephen Bloom

[Stephen G. Bloom @ Cedar Rapids Gazette.]

A pleasing amalgam of journalism and personal essay with memoiristic touches, Stephen G. Bloom’s “Brazil’s Secret History of Southern Hospitality” at Narratively tells a wonderfully weird story. It seems that some 7,000 alienated southerners moved to Brazil after the Civil War, and Bloom traveled to Americana, a city near Sao Paulo, back in 1979 to meet a few elderly remnants.

Bloom was just out of college, the fledgling editor of an English-language newspaper. He recalls:

On the front porch that afternoon thirty-five years ago, facing this grinning man, what I remember most wasn’t just the words that floated from his mouth, but how they sounded. As they hung in the moist air between us, nothing quite computed. The man spoke an American English that, while wholly fluent, sounded nothing like I had ever heard before. There was the cadence, a slow molasses drawl, but there was more. The words sounded like they came from deep within the bowels of Georgia, maybe just north of Macon, where the gnat line begins. . . .

My eyes must have betrayed me, because when I told Jim that I hadn’t read much about this Southern Shangri-La, he looked at me kind of pitifully, then put his hands out, palms up. The reason for my ig-nor-ance, as Jim put it, was plain and simple. “It’s becuse ya his-to-ry buks don’t whant ya Yan-keys ta know what hour brave Con-fed-a-rit ancestahs dahd. Dat’s dah reason. Doze ah Yan-keys who wroht doze buks—dint ya know dhat, Stephen?

This story captivated Bloom, who says he returned to the colony three times—presumably hoping there was a book there. His funny and skillfully dramatized essay may have to suffice.

Bloom is the author of several books, including Inside the Writer’s Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism and Tears of the Mermaid: The Secret Story of Pearls. His writing has sometimes been controversial, especially “Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life,” which was published in December 2011 in the Atlantic, just before the Iowa Caucuses. A professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, Blooms calls his adopted state “schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged.” He mentions Barack Obama’s unguarded comments in San Francisco about people clinging to guns and religion in the depressed Midwest. He continues:

It’s no surprise then, really, that the most popular place for suicide in America isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle, where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign. Suicides in Iowa’s rural counties are 13.55 per 100,000 residents; New York’s suicide rate is 5.4 residents per 100,000. Hunting accidents are common, perhaps spurred by the elixir of alcohol, which seems to be the drink of choice whenever a man suits up in camo or orange overalls

H.L. Mencken

[H.L. Mencken, provocateur.]

In response howls of outrage by Iowans and some of his university colleagues, Bloom called his essay a satire. It does read as if he’s having good mean fun rubbing noses in the “heartbreaking real version” of America’s mythologized and sentimentalized rural heartland. Though his essay might have used a tweak in its snark-to-affection-to generalization ratio—this seems the polar opposite of empathetic—I was impressed by his knowledge. And you wonder if America could stand Mark Twain’s fierce wit today. Actually the literary precursor and probable influence here is journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken, who relished heaping scorn on intellectual bozos, Southerners, and places he considered ridiculous, such as Oklahoma. Consider Mencken as you read Bloom’s punchy (though less orotund) sentences here, just before he accuses Iowans of being inbred:

Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, even though the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It’s known to one and all here as “the smell of money.”

Bloom’s comments about Obama apply to his own piece:

Obama might have been wrong for telling the truth, which seldom happens in politics, but the future president was 100-percent accurate when he let slip his comments on the absolute and utter desperation in America’s hollowed-out middle, in particular in the state where I live.


  • shirleyhs says:

    I read all three of these fine essays as a little present to myself today. Thanks, Richard, for selecting them and guiding the reader to their strengths. You always make me think! I shared two of these essays with friends who might not have seen them otherwise. I’m confident they will enjoy.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Shirley. If you get a chance, I am interested in your perceptions about or reactions to Jamison’s essay in particular.

      • shirleyhs says:

        I was very impressed by Jamison and saw all the elements you mentioned. The hermit crab metaphor was new to me. But I saw all the others easily.

        What struck me about this essay?

        1. How Jamison complicates what seems to be a “simple” word like empathy.
        2. Her use of scientific studies of the subject interested me since the Fetzer Institute, where I served for six years. is a major funder of research on love, forgiveness, and related topics in the “positive psychology” movement. I actually think this essay might stimulate researchers to look for some of the shadow elements that may not yet have emerged in studies.
        3. Many people have recently pointed to empathy as the primary reason to read literature. In the wonderful documentary Life Itself, Roger Ebert makes this point explicitly. He uses the term without nuance, but the documentary shows some of the nuances as caretakers, Roger, and we the viewers all form opinions about what should be done as the body of the subject, Roger, deteriorates and dies.

        There’s more, but this gives you an idea of some of my thoughts.

        • Richard says:

          What great insights. You might enjoy seeing Jamison with her aunt, Kay Redfield Jamison, the psychologist and memoirist, in a joint bookstore appearance uploaded to YouTube:

  • Hi, Richard. Thanks for your selection of these three essays. I’ve only read the first one so far, but the elegiac, almost magical tone is quite beautiful, and if the others are anything like the first, I’m sure I will like them too. Thanks also for supplying Jamison’s reading; you do such a lot of work for us in order for us to be able to enjoy the things you write about.

    • Richard says:

      I appreciate that, Victoria. I believe “elegiac” is the only superlative I didn’t use for the first essay—because I did use it but trimmed the section back! Indeed there is that very quality. I am quite impressed with that little essay.

  • Just finished The Empathy Exams and loved it. Opened it on my Kindle last night in hopes I had skipped an essay in the first round. I had not. It’s a book I will read again and again. I mean, I just finished reading it, and I’ve already been drawn back to its pages.

    Off to explore the others. Thanks, Richard.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for the comment and report, Darrelyn. I am definitely going to read the book. My only concern relates to the one caveat in the rave NYT review: that the essays are a collection and not melded, at least content-wise. That can bother me in a collection as a reader, though as a teacher it doesn’t seem to matter as much, and I am not sure students care.

  • So many good writers; so little time….

    I’m having to bookmark this. I’ll definitely be coming back to read all. Thank you once again for adding on to my reading list. :)

    (Now there’s an idea for any essay — how reading lists get added onto like old, enormous New England houses, by a multitude of builders).

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