“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.