The Art of the Essay

In a new volume, Professor Phillip Lopate gathers three centuries of American essays.

Eve Glasberg
February 16, 2021

From Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin to David Foster Wallace and Jamaica Kincaid, Professor Phillip Lopate’s new anthology, The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times to the Present, covers three centuries of U.S writing.

Lopate, who teaches in the writing program at the School of the Arts, gathered pieces that address—sometimes critically—American values or have a subtext about being American. Early American writers struggled to establish a recognizable national culture. Mid-19th century writers no longer lacked confidence, but faced new reckonings with the oppression of Blacks and women, while the strong tradition of nature writing runs from John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir to Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard.

Marginalized groups in all periods use the essay to assert or to complicate notions of identity. The volume includes critical, personal, political, philosophical, humorous, literary, polemical, and autobiographical essays, along with sermons, letters, speeches, and columns dealing with a wide variety of subjects. Americans by birth as well as immigrants appear, famous essayists alongside writers more celebrated for fiction or poetry.

Columbia News caught up with Lopate recently for a discussion about his new book, as well as his immersion in Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, and why he thinks Susan Sontag would be an ideal dinner guest.

A red, white, and blue cover for the book: The Glorious American Essay.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book? 

A. I had a contract to edit a big anthology of American essays, and I was finding so many beautiful and stimulating pieces that they overflowed the first volume, The Glorious American Essay, even though that was 900 pages long! So the publisher, Penguin Random House, took pity on me and gave me two more volumes to edit. The second volume, The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970, coming out in April, particularly intrigued me because the postwar period and the Fifties were such a pivotal time, starting with the "liberal consensus" (to quote Lionel Trilling), and then taking a right turn with McCarthyism.  Also, there were so many venues and opportunities for intelligent essay writing. The third in the series, The Contemporary American Essay, will be published in August.

Q. What draws you to essays in particular as opposed to other forms of writing?

A. I started off as a fiction writer, switched to poetry, and then found, with essays, that I could combine the storytelling impulse of fiction with the associational, lyrical aspects of poetry. I am by nature analytical, and the essay allowed me to tell as well as show.  Finally, I discovered the knack of writing personal essays myself (the confessional, the mischievous), and developed a reverence for my forebears in the genre: It seemed we were all part of the same family.

Q. After editing three collections of American essays, what is it about this form that is essentially American and democratic?

A. America is an experiment; so is the essay. The Founding Fathers were taxed with defining the democratic principles of the new country, which they did in political essays and pamphlets. Our 19th-century writers—like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau—felt compelled to define the national character, to assert something different about the place than Great Britain or Europe. In the 20th century and into the 21st, the essay has been particularly hospitable to minorities, feminists, and other groups that need to assert or qualify an identity. Ultimately, the essay is an inherently democratic form because it invites all comers to say their piece, however imperfectly. 

Q. What's the last great book you read?

A. Proust's multivolume In Search of Lost Time. I'm still in the middle of reading them, having gotten through the first two volumes. They were pretty great.

Q. What's on your reading list?

A. Proust—the rest of it. And Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers.

Q.  Any other books you would suggest for the pandemic winter?

A. Any book will do. I just read a terrific book about cancer, the Nazis, and an eccentric genius scientist, Ravenous by Sam Apple (a graduate of the Columbia writing program).  I love Machado de Assis: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Dom Casmurro, and Philosopher or Dog. Finally, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is a good book to read in this unquiet time.

Q. What are you teaching this term?  How are you helping your students cope with online instruction?

A. I'm teaching a graduate nonfiction workshop and (for the first time) an undergraduate nonfiction workshop. As it happens, writing and literature are probably the two subjects that suffer the least from doing them online. I don't know how much I am helping my students, but I think it's important for the professor to be as available as possible, to counteract the sense of isolation and non-connection in this COVID time.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party.  Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

A. Lionel Trilling, because he was my professor when I was a student at Columbia, and I never felt I was coming close to the essence of him, so I hope this time I could get a little further; James Shapiro, because he's brilliant and a friend of mine; and Susan Sontag, who would certainly liven up things.

Check out Books to learn more about publications by Columbia professors.