The personal essay is what most people mean when they consider the essay as a genre. It has the characteristics usually mentioned in defining the essay generally: an informal style, a casual, meandering structure, a conversational tone, the clear imprint of the author’s personality, and a tendency toward subjects Phillip Lopate (1994) has dubbed “the familiar and the domestic, the emotional middle of the road.” Most of the great essayists have been masters of the personal essay, from the genre’s founder Montaigne
It is useful to define the personal essay by comparing it to its close relations. The label is often used interchangeably with the familiar essay, but where the familiar essay is characterized by its everyday subject matter, the personal essay is defined more by the personality of its writer, which takes precedence over subject. On the other hand, the personal essayist does not place himself firmly center stage, as does the autobiographical essayist; the autobiographical element of the personal essay is far less calculated. The writer’s presence is not secondary, but his approach is usually humble, and often self-deprecating and wryly humorous. The personal essay is an exploration of self only insofar as it translates into universal experience. In the best personal essays, the reader senses what Lopate calls a “shiver of self-recognition.”
The personal essay began with Montaigne, though he referred to the letters of Seneca—informal, intimate dialogues with the self—as influential precursors. It is Montaigne the man we look for and marvel at in his essays: his unabashed presentation of self, warts and all, and his deftness at drawing us into his experience and making it our own. His writing possesses three qualities essential to the personal essay: honesty, intimacy, and a definitive point of view. In a personal essay the reader must trust the writer to tell his story as truthfully as possible; the narrator cannot be unreliable. In addition, the writer sets up a kind of dialogue with the reader, creating an intimate bond of understanding. As Seneca addressed his letters to a friend, so Montaigne wrote with his late friend La Boétie in mind. Finally, Montaigne’s strong, clear point of view permeates his essays without being didactic or self-righteous.
As with the history of the essay in general, the personal essay leapt from France to England, with some continental variations, before finding a strong place in American letters, particularly in the 20th century. It can be found in elements of the periodical essays of Addison and Steele, before reaching what many believe was its most glorious representation in the writings of William Hazlitt and, to a lesser degree, Charles Lamb.
It was picked up by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in mid-19thcentury America, and shared in the 20th century between England and America in writers such as Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf, H.L.Mencken, George Orwell, E.B.White, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion, among many others.
Many of today’s essays, particularly in the United States, are suffused with the personal; indeed, Carl Klaus (1995) has pointed out that the former courtesies and conventions of restraint in the personal essay have been all but abandoned for the practice “to speak out, to let it all hang out, to come out, to bear witness, to testify, to talk back, to be heard.” Intimate self-revelation has taken the place of the kind of genteel entertainment that was all personal essayists aspired to in the past. However, Klaus believes that while discretion may have been abandoned, so has the class-consciousness of earlier generations, the linking of personality with social demeanor. The personal essay is no longer a bourgeois, middle-class phenomenon, but a truly universal expression.
The subject matter of personal essays traditionally concerns common things, tending, as Lopate puts it, toward “a taste for littleness.” Human relations with family and friends is a frequent topic, as are childhood reminiscences, and the consideration of pastimes such as travel, walking, and sheer idleness. While the personal essayist often has a serious point to make, it is rare that the essay’s subject will be overtly political, with the exception perhaps of Orwell, one of the few writers consistently to maintain a balance between the personal and the political.
The tone of the personal essay is usually light, often nostalgic without being sentimental, gently humorous, rarely didactic. Its finest practitioners are often middleaged, perhaps, as Lopate suggests, “because it is the fruit of ripened experience, which naturally brings with it some worldly disenchantment, or at least realism.” Its structure is rambling, intuitive and organic rather than logical and rigid. It reflects the inner, often contradictory workings of the mind; it is, as Theodor W. Adorno described the essay in
general, a reflection of “man thinking.”
One of the finest examples of the personal essay is E.B. White’s classic “Once More to the Lake” (1941), also one of the most anthologized of all essays. Ostensibly a comparison of White’s childhood experience at a lake in summer with a return trip to the lake he made as an adult with his young son, it is really a meditation on growing up, the passing of time, the nature of memory, and the recognition of mortality. Gentle and selfdeprecating (“I guess I remembered,” he undercuts himself), White is nonetheless ruthless in his recognition of his desire to be young again, to the point where he feels he cannot tell where his son’s experience at the lake begins and his own ends. While the tone is light and lovingly descriptive, the essay is almost unbearably sad, without being self-pitying. Detailed in its depiction of White’s boyhood memories, it is yet not exclusive but speaks to the reader of the common human experience.
Joseph Epstein (1997) describes the personal essay as the “freest form in all of literature.” It “is able to take off on any tack it wishes, building its own structure as it moves along, rebuilding and remaking itself—and its author—each time out.” Its continuing popularity today may stem from its being “the ideal form for ages of transition and uncertain values.”
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate, New York: Doubleday, 1994
Intimate Exile: Personal Essays, edited by Rosellen Brown, Ploughshares 20, nos. 2–3 (Fall 1994)
The Norton Book of Personal Essays, edited by Joseph Epstein, New York: Norton, 1997
Epstein, Joseph, Introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, edited by Epstein, New York: Norton, 1997
Klaus, Carl H., “Embodying the Self: Malady and the Personal Essay,” Iowa Review 25, no. 2 (1995):177–92
Lopate, Phillip, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Lopate, New York: Doubleday, 1994
Repplier, Agnes, “The American Essay in Wartime,” Yale Review 7, no. 2 (January 1918): 249–59
Zeiger, William, “The Personal Essay and Egalitarian Rhetoric,” in Literary Nonfiction:
Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989: 301–14
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