PHILLIP LOPATE is one of those rare individuals who roam through the cultural world as freely as through their own backyards.
He is most widely known as the author of numerous books, ranging from novels and nonfiction to volumes of poetry and essays. He is also a screenwriter and a veteran film programmer, with several years on the New York Film Festival selection committee among his credits. He is a respected architecture critic and a busy university professor, too, and his journalism has appeared in periodicals as different as Esquire and the New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Lopate's latest achievement ranks with his most impressive: ``The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,'' a hefty new volume (Anchor Books, 777 pp., $30) comprising his selection of favorite works from his favorite category of world literature.
The offerings by its diverse writers, beginning with Seneca and Plutarch and continuing through James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich, are grouped under thematic headings ranging from ``Ambition'' and ``Education'' to ``Leisure and Idleness'' and ``Race and Ethnicity,'' among others. The volume is clearly a labor of deeply felt love and keenly honed scholarship by an essay authority who knows this territory down to his bones.
Discussing the anthology over lunch near his Greenwich Village home recently, Lopate pointed out that his interest in assembling it was not essays in general but personal essays in particular - the kind he himself has ably written for many years, as his collections ``Bachelorhood'' and ``Against Joie de Vivre'' attest. This is the essay form he enjoys most, and in the new book he wanted to restore some of the luster that has dropped away from it in recent decades.
``The high-status areas in literature are novels and poetry'' he says. ``The essay is seen as kind of a mutt. On the other hand, it's a much-beloved form that people secretly like to read.... Readers like to hear a personal voice and the sense of a human being just talking to them.... A lot of my novelist friends look yearningly at the essay, because there you can deliver yourself of all the wisdom and understanding that you have - whereas in the novel you have to construct situations and parcel your insights to the characters, and narrator, and show and not tell. The essay form allows you to tell all you want!''
Early in this century, Lopate notes, such essayists as H.L. Mencken and Heywood Hale Broun became highly influential in American culture through their work in newspapers and magazines, which were riding a surge in popularity. ``But then the essay began to lose its bite,'' he adds, ``and acquired the reputation of being genial but bland. If you look at Andy Rooney on `60 Minutes,' he's practicing a kind of essay that I happen to think is pretty bland.... It's a kind of jovial filler. It's the essay stuck in a box, in a dead end.''
The truly valuable essay, Lopate insists, is one that goes beyond a single observation or insight. ``It has to branch out, to turn against itself, to explore the full area of its subject matter,'' he says. ``It's risky. It has the appeal of a confessional voice.... The essayist is a nonspecialist, a generalist, with a nonexpert voice - the voice of human groping and ignorance.''
Although today's mass-audience writing has drifted largely away from the best traditions of personal prose, leaning more toward self-involvement than self-exploration, Lopate says the true essay has a way of getting in through the back door.
``In novels and memoirs,'' he points out, ``there are often passages where the narrative will break off and there'll be a kind of mini-essay.... One of the glories of the essay is a clear narrative voice, even if it's a weird character who's talking to us - sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes idiosyncratic, tender one moment and mean-spirited the next. These are like first-person voices in short stories. They have a vaguely unreliable quality, and yet we trust them. Fiction has always fed off of that voice that can go anywhere and think aloud.... There is a trust in the movement of the mind, which is what the essay charts.''
With a smile, Lopate admits there's something a bit cocky about sending one's thoughts and musings into the world for others to encounter. ``It's an arrogant assumption that you're going to write what's happened to you or what you think, and people are going to care about this,'' he acknowledges. ``Especially if you haven't established a fabulous track record in some other area. It's one thing to read a memoir by Barbra Streisand or Pele; it's another to read one by Phillip Lopate!''
Yet sharing ideas and experiences with strangers is a key attraction in writing essays, he adds. ``The writer has to assume that his or her experience has a resonance, that there is a core of universality in experience, and that this will communicate,'' he says. ``In fact, the more specific you are about what you've gone through, the more other people will identify with you. But you have to train yourself as a writer to identify just those incidents or contradictions that will carry to other people. Not everything will.''
Can genuinely profound subjects be examined in essays, or does the brevity of the form limit its philosophical scope? ``The essay can be seen as a philosophical form,'' Lopate answers without hesitation. ``It's like basic research into philosophical questions.''
Citing the observation by philosopher Theodor Adorno that our century has grown skeptical of large philosophical systems like those of Hegel or Kant or Marx, he adds that ``philosophical thinking has become more modest and fragmented'' in ways that are conducive to essayistic treatment. ``You don't try to pretend you know everything and understand all the connections.... You can think about religious and philosophical questions, but you usually start from the base of your own experience and move out from there. The very modesty of this represents a subversive challenge to large authoritarian systems.''
This affection for the mercurial ``riffs'' of the essay form doesn't mean Lopate gravitates toward the fractured philosophizing of academic postmodernism, however. ``I still believe in the centrality of the synthesizing human voice,'' he states with conviction. ``I think the personal essay is a deeply humanistic form.... The thoughts may be fragmented - they may not add up to a grand system - but the thinker is still one person, and the voice is unifying and unified. I still believe that people aren't just programmed machines filled with mental static. I think people have selves and can reflect on their experience....
``I've written essays, poems, novels,'' he continues, ``and I know you can tap into experiences that will move other people. This is not a fantasy of mine. There are issues of pain, conflict, quandary that everybody goes through more or less. Not everybody goes through everything ... but if people say you can't understand all the ramifications of a James Baldwin essay if you aren't black, all I can say is, I'm getting plenty from it!''