Portrait Inside My Head

Phillip Lopate reflects on baseball, Brooklyn, and a mixed bag of other topics in his new collection of essays.

Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate Free Press 304 pp.

“A series of miscellaneous essays, however well-executed in the parts, if it have not some pervading character to give a unity to it, is ordinarily as tormenting to get through as a set of aphorisms, or a jest-book.” – Charles Lamb

In the introduction to his latest book of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, Phillip Lopate quotes the English essayist Charles Lamb on the difficulty of writing an essay collection without some thematic focus.  Lamb felt that only a few could make essays on even the most disparate subjects cohere into a compelling whole. His list of these rare talents was short: Montaigne, Plutarch, Hazlitt, and Samuel Johnson. Even if it’s tempting to add David Foster Wallace, Wendell Berry, or Christopher Hitchens to Lamb’s list, the basic principle seems sound: Avoid writing a book of heterogeneous essays unless you are very talented indeed.

Lopate is something of a connoisseur of the personal essay. He directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia, and his book “To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction” will also hit stores this month. A previous anthology of his work, "The Art of the Personal Essay" was published in 1997. Though he has written fiction and poetry in the past, Lopate sees the personal essay as an ideal blend of possibilities, a form that combines “the storytelling aspects of fiction with the lyrical, associative qualities of poetry.”

The best essays in this collection nearly realize his vision of the form’s potential. In one, he conjures the Brooklyn of the 1950s by peeling away the posh exterior of the present neighborhoods to recall the slums of his childhood. Floating between the cluttered confines of musty apartments and the brawls and games of the streets, the piece evokes the textures and yearnings of childhood in a vanished world. The style and milieu are reminiscent of novels by Henry Roth and early Saul Bellow. His technique is a sort of archaeological inquiry into his own psyche; he moves slowly from surface impressions to deeper strata of memory, sifting his finds at each level.

Lopate’s essays range over many topics. He muses on the pleasures of watching baseball, recounts the history of the City Hall building in lower Manhattan, and remembers encounters with poets like John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s. He writes in polished conversational prose that manages to seem both chatty and cultivated. Reading the pieces on neighborhoods and architecture feels like taking a leisurely stroll with a genial, informed companion.

Despite the strengths of some essays, it’s tempting to wonder whether certain pieces would have found their ideal form in conversations. You can easily picture Lopate charming his guests at a dinner party in his Brooklyn brownstone with a smooth blend of erudition and anecdote. Many people have interesting thoughts about baseball, sex, books, and the American South, yet few people attempt to turn them into personal essays with high-literary aspirations. When a writer does try, it’s reasonable to expect that he will either write about a familiar topic in a revelatory way, or choose a topic that is strange and unfamiliar. Lopate’s thoughts on watching movies, going to couples’ therapy, and rearranging the books in his library could make for excellent conversation at a cozy Brooklyn bar, but presented in print they don’t always reach the level of illumination that would justify their status as essays.

He does seek to draw larger meanings from the material he relates, but the results are sometimes strained. After his six-year-old daughter loses a balloon, he writes: “I felt myself bonding with my daughter in our now-shared discovery that life was composed, at bottom, of loss, futility, and ineluctable sorrow.” One senses the discovery was somewhat less shared than Lopate imagines.

There are many pleasures and insights in these essays, but by the end of the book a sense of randomness steals over the collection. Lamb was right to note that few writers can make a captivating book from miscellaneous parts. For all others, the advice of your first writing teacher applies: it helps to have a focused topic.       

Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Portrait Inside My Head
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today