THE PERSONAL ESSAY-A FORM OF DISCOVERY
JOSEPH EPSTEIN'S INTRODUCTION
THE NORTON BOOK OF PERSONAL ESSAYS
The personal essay is a happy accident of literature. I call it an accident because it seems to have come into the world without anything like a clear line of descent. Michel de Montaigne (1530-1590) was its first great practitioner, the first man to make plain that he did not intend to be either exhaustive or definitive in his writing and to use the first-person singular in a fairly regular way. Montaigne once referred to himself, in fact, as "an accidental philosopher."
Writing that comes very close to the personal essay appears in the letters of the Roman philosopher
Seneca; and of course the first person was used in great autobiographies such as Saint Augustine's.
But neither Seneca's letters nor Augustine's autobiography is quite the same as the personal essay.
Both were written under the constraints of very different forms. I have called the personal essay
"a happy accident," and invoked the word happy because it is free, the freest form in all of
literature. A form that is itself intrinsically formless, the personal essay 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.
Adding to its accidental quality, no one, I think, sets out in life to become an essayist. One might,
at an early age, wish to be a poet or a dramatist or a novelist, or even possibly a critic. One
somehow wanders or stumbles into becoming an essayist. But, given the modest reputation of the
essay and the way it has tended to be taught in schools, it is quite amazing that anyone should ever
again wish to read essays, let alone write them. My own introduction to the personal essay-one,
I suspect, shared by many in my generation-was by way of the bloated, vatic, never less than
pompous Ralph Waldo Emerson and the rather precious Charles Lamb. Few things are more
efficient at killing the taste for a certain kind of literature than being force-fed it in school at an
early age. (Willa Cather, one of the contrib-utors to this volume, would not allow her books to be
reproduced in inexpensive student editions because she felt that, forced to read her when young,
students would never again read her of their own volition when they had grown up.) Although I
have come to have a higher opinion of Lamb and an even lower one of Emerson, having to read
them at an early age all but effectively killed the essay for me.
When I think about my own reintroduction to the personal essay, it is connected with my
having begun to read, in my junior year at the University of Chicago, the so-called little
magazines. This was in the late 1950s, when these magazines-among them Partisan Review,
Kenyon Review, Encounter (in England), and Commentary-were going through a rich period.
These magazines contributed more to my education than anything that went on in the
classroom, and classrooms at the University of Chicago weren't all that bad. (Like Mark Twain,
another of the contributors to this book, I was one of those students who tried never to allow
school to get in the way of his education and generally seemed to find more interesting things
to read outside the classroom than those offered within it.) The little magazines ran political
articles, short stories, much literary criticism, but also occasional memoirs and personal essays.
The last, with their strong personal note, especially excited me.
I came too late to read George Orwell when he was still alive and regularly wrote a personal essay of a sort under the rubric of "London Letter" for Partisan Review. But through that magazine's pages I learned about Orwell the essayist, who was much greater, if less famous, as a writer of essays than as a novelist or, more precisely, as the political novelist who wrote Animal Farm and 1984. But even as a critic, Orwell invariably struck the personal note: every word he wrote outside his fiction bore his beliefs, his point of view, his strong personal trademark.
Orwell is not alone in being a writer who-though famous for work in other forms-was really
superior as an essayist. To consider only contributors to this volume: With the single, towering
exception of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a strong case can be made for Mark Twain's
having been a greater essayist than novelist. About Edmund Wilson, who also wrote fiction, no
such argument need even be made. James Baldwin is stronger in the essay than as either a novelist
or a playwright. I tend to think the same is true of Joan Didion. It may well be true, too, of
I'm not at all sure how any of these writers would take the judgment that they are better essayists
than novelists. Literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall, not in value of course but in prestige.
Until very recently, the prestige of the essay was much lower than that of the novel. The novel was
the art of the imagination; it was, in the loaded term taken up by university writing programs,
"creative" writing. The essay, in contradistinction, was thought mundane, earth-bound, pedestrian-cut it any way you like, nowhere near so elevated. This, one begins to sense, is changing.
Of course, poetry once held first place in the form, or genre, sweepstakes, rivaled only by drama. The prestige of any single kind of writing is in good part dependent upon who its practitioners are at any given moment in history. The appearance of another Shakespeare would doubtless catapult drama back to the top position it held in Elizabethan England. Yet a Shakespeare of our day might not choose to write drama at all. He might just possibly discover a new form not yet known but perfectly suited to our times. Why certain forms rise and fall as they do is itself a question of immense complication.
V.S. Naipaul, also represented by an essay in this volume, has
s said that lucky is the writer who has found his or her true
form. What makes this remark especially interesting is that V. S. Naipaul, who in such books as
A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River has written some of the best novels of the last
half of the twentieth century, has recently announced that he no longer considers the novel a
useful form for conveying the complex truths of our day. I myself tend to doubt that this is so.
What I think may be the case is that people do not seem to have the patience for so lengthy a
form as the novel, which is a shame. Naipaul, meanwhile, has said that he plans to write no
more fiction. Now in his sixties, what new form of nonfiction, or perhaps amalgam of fiction
and nonfiction, Naipaul will turn to is itself a question of genuine interest.
Near the beginning of this century now ending, Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian critic, prophesied that
the essay was likely to be the reigning form of the modern age. He had in mind less the personal
than the cultural-philosophical essay, but behind his prophecy was the notion that the essay, with
its tentativeness and its skeptical spirit, was really the ideal form for those times when people were
less certain about matters that were once thought fundamental and fixed: family, love, religion,
loyalty, happiness among them. Theodor Adorno, another central European thinker, felt that the
essay was well suited to the modern spirit because it shied away from what he called "the violence
of dogma." The essay, in short, was-and perhaps remains-the ideal form for ages of transition and
uncertain values. Such an age, for better and for worse, is the one in which we now live.
The personal essay has this single quality of difference from fiction: it is bounded-some might say
grounded-by reality. There are no unreliable narrators in personal essays; in a personal essay an
unreliable narrator is just another name for a bad writer. We believe-we have to believe-what the
writer tells us, though we are of course at liberty not to be persuaded by the way he tells it. We
believe, too, in the facts in his essay as facts that have an existence in reality, unlike the "details"
("caress the details" Vladimir Nabokov instructs all writers of fiction) in stories and novels, whose
ultimate existence resides in their authors' minds, whatever their origin in reality. The subject
matter of the personal essay, then, is actual, palpable, real, and this, from a reader's standpoint, can
be an immense advantage.
The first personal essay I ever wrote was written when I was thirty-one and was, in fact, closer to
a memoir than to a personal essay. But I found myself greatly elated in writing about that sweetest
of subjects-my own experience. Thirty-one, it occurs to me now, may be young to write personal
essays. The personal essay is perhaps intrinsically a middle-aged or older writer's form in that it
calls for a certain experience of life and the disposition to reflect upon that experience. Since that
time, I have written perhaps a hundred personal essays, and I wonder if I mightn't convey
something of what, from the writer's point of view, has gone into the making of these essays.
I agree with Phyllis Rose, another contributor to this book, who, writing about Montaigne, called him "the father of jazz." By this she meant that he was "the inventor of the verbal riff, the man who elevated organic form over inherited structures and first made art by letting one thing lead to another." That is, in my own experience, precisely how writing the personal essay works. I sometimes make notes recalling anecdotes, facts, oddities of one kind or another that I wish to include in an essay, but where precisely in the essay they will be used I cannot say in advance. As for a previous design or ultimate goal for my essays, before I write them I have neither. I would no more use an outline in writing a personal essay than I would take a thesaurus to a pro
The personal essay is, in my experience, a form of discovery. What one discovers in writing such
essays is where one stands on complex issues, problems, questions, subjects. In writing the essay,
one tests one's feelings, instincts, thoughts in the crucible of composition.
For example, I plan before long to write an essay on the subject of talent. just now I know very
little about the subject apart from the fact that it fascinates me. "We need a word between talent
and genius," Valery once said. He may well be correct, but just now I am myself not even clear
on the precise definition of the word "talent." I know only that talent tends to be something magical, or at least confers magic on its possessors, no matter in what realm: art, athletics, crime. In
this essay, I intend to speak of my own admiration for the talented, question the extent to which
I may myself have any spark of talent, try to figure out the meaning of talent in the larger scheme
of existence. Through this essay I hope to learn what I really think about this complex subject and,
while doing so, to learn perhaps something new about myself and the world. Talent, in any case,
seems to me a fine subject for a personal essay-a fine subject, that is to say, for personal
In recent years, I have taken to writing short stories, which has caused me to wonder why certain
kinds of material seem better suited to essays than to stories. As with my writing of essays, when
I begin a story I generally do not have anything like a clear notion of its direction. I suspect the
same may be true of poetry. I have always been impressed by a remark of Robert Frost's to the
effect that whenever he knew the ending of a poem in advance of writing it, the poem turned out
to be a damn poor one.
When I set out to write a story, I am usually motivated by a strong yet somewhat vague curiosity;
often behind this curiosity lies complex emotion of a kind that I have felt but not yet sorted out,
at least not in any way I find satisfactory. Sometimes in a story a character will be at the center
of my attention, sometimes a question still in the flux of controversy.
Consider a live and ravening issue of our day- that of abortion. It is not a subject upon which I
brood, and my "political" position on it, if I were pressed to give it, is that I am "pro-choice"; I
believe a woman ought to be allowed to decide if she wishes to go through with a pregnancy; I also
believe that there are too many instances in which to deny the possibility of abortion is to bring
about unhappiness of a kind that is avoidable-unhappiness for the unborn child as well as for its
parents. I do not believe that the decision to have an abortion ought to be entered into frivolously,
though I rather doubt that many women who choose to have abortions do so without giving it
serious thought. I guess my true position on abortion is that I am not against it, yet I also think it
a private matter that people do well to keep to themselves.
Having said this, I have to go on to say that, if I had a young daughter, I would hate to learn that she had had an abortion. It would more than bother me; it would tear me up. Why? I have no religious objections to abortion. I do not believe that an early fetus is quite truly human. I do not even believe that all people must accept the responsibility for their actions, especially when this acceptance entails possible hardship for an entirely innocent third party, the poor child. Medically meticulous abortion, thoughtfully entered into, therefore seems to be intelligent, sensible, even enlightened. All very well, except, as I say, I would be torn apart if I learned a still young daughter of mine had put herself through an abortion.
I suppose I could write an essay-even a personal essay about abortion, but I am certain it would
be a flop. My opinions and point of view on the subject are not all that interesting; my personal
experience of the subject is nil. Still, how to resolve my inchoate feelings on the subject? The
way I chose to do it was through a short story. What I did was draw a character, a serious
businessman, to whom I gave a daughter whom he much loved and also supplied him with my own
general views on abortion and sat back and watched how he would react when he learned that his
nineteen-year-old child, so dear to him, had had an abortion. Whether I succeeded in this story is
not for me to say, but I do think I was correct in deciding that this was material appropriate for
On the other hand, when, five or so years ago, my mother died, it did not for an instant occur to
me to put her into a short story. Instead I wrote an essay about the remarkable woman who was
my mother. Nothing would be gained-a good deal might have been lost-had I chosen to disguise
my mother through the transformative powers of fiction. Behind my decision was my belief that
writing about my mother, about whom I felt uncomplicated love, was best done directly-that is,
in the form of the personal essay; while writing about things about which I had somewhat
confused, unresolved, less than fully formed thoughts was best done indirectly-that is, in the form
of fiction. All this may be a roundabout way of saying that stories are about what happens to
characters, while essays are about what happens to one character: the essayist him- or herself.
None of this is meant to circumscribe the territory of the personal essay. "My idea of a writer,"
Susan Sontag has written, is "someone who is interested in everything," and it is true that the field
of subjects available to the essayist is as wide as life itself.
The Norton Book of Personal Essays, I hope, bears this out. Some of its essays are about large
subjects; some are about small; and in some what seems a small subject-see, for example, E. B.
White's "Once More to the Lake"-turns out to be very large indeed. Some subjects are exotic
(Truman Capote's "Tangier," Cyril Connolly's "Revisiting Greece"), others absolutely homebound
(Eudora Welty's "The Little Store," Scott Russell Sanders's "The Inheritance of Tools"). Family
relations is a great subject for the personal essayist: in this volume, Virginia Woolf and Doris
Lessing write about their fathers, Graham Greene about his childhood, and John Gregory Dunne
and Nancy Mairs about their children.
Whatever the ostensible subject of a personal essay, at bottom the true subject is the author of the
essay. In all serious writing, no matter how strenuous the attempt to attain objectivity, the author
leaves his or her fingerprints. But in the personal essay, all claims to objectivity are dropped at
the outset, all masks removed, and the essayist proceeds with shameless subjectivity. This direct
presentation of the self, when it comes off, gives the personal essay both its charm and its
Perhaps it is this intimacy that makes the personal essay an almost irresistible form. The novelist
Rosellen Brown, who edited a collection of personal essays for the magazine Ploughshares, makes
this same point when, in the preface to the issue of the magazine, she wrote: "Mediocre essays, I
can swear after months of reading, are never as boring as mediocre fiction because, even in the
hands of the inept, the lives we actually live or witness are more interesting than the ones most of
us can (or dare to) invent from scratch." Brown adds that "essays can be badly written and banal,
too, but (to mix metaphors wantonly) the wildly unpredictable movements of real event and
outcome tend to poke through and make a lively choreography."
The essays in this volume share some of "the wildly unpredictable movements" about which Rosellen Brown speaks, but, pleasing to report, none is badly written. Which brings us to the matter of how a personal essay ought to be written. The obvious answer, to mimic those old jokes about how do you feed a seven hundred-pound gorilla, is as carefully and as well as possible. But
to take things a step further, there is a general style for personal essays, and it is that which
William Hazlitt, one of the great practitioners of the personal essay, termed, nearly two centuries
ago, "familiar style." In his essay "On Familiar Style," Hazlitt notes that, to write in a truly familiar
style "is to write as any one would speak in common conversation, who had a thorough command
and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all
pedantic and oratorical flourishes." A familiar style, in other words, is a natural style natural to
conversation, very superior conversation to be sure, and without artifice, pomposity, any bull
whatsoever. To be natural in prose, it turns out, much practice is required. The first thing one
must learn-and here the exercise of the personal essay is a help-before one can be oneself is who
oneself really is.
Not, let me hasten to add, that there is only one familiar style. Although all the essays in this
volume were written within the past century, the styles employed by their authors range widely,
from the plain to the ornate, to the sensitive, to the anti-nonsensical, to the aggressive, to the
penetrating, to the bemused. There are as many styles as there are different temperaments.
(Maurice Ravel, when accused of composing music that sounded artificial, replied that what his
accuser didn't seem to understand was that he, Ravel, was "naturally artificial.") What unites all
the styles of the best personal essayists, though, is that they have found the best way, for them, to
recount their experience with the greatest honesty.
What the personal essayist must do straightaway is establish his honesty. Honesty for a writer is
rather different from honesty for others. Honesty, outside literature, means not lying, establishing
trust through honorable conduct, absolute reliability in personal and professional dealings. In
writing, honesty implies something rather different: it implies the accurate, altogether truthful,
reporting of feelings, for in literature only the truth is finally persuasive and persuasiveness is at
the same time the measure of truth. One might think this would be easy enough to do, but it isn't,
especially when one is under the added pressure of making both the feelings and the reporting of
them keenly interesting.
Two of the chief ways an essayist can prove interesting are, first, by telling readers things they already know in their hearts but have never been able to formulate for themselves; and, second, by telling them things they do not know and perhaps have never even imagined. Sometimes the personal essayist is announcing, in effect: "Please to notice that I am not so different from you in my feelings toward my father [music, food, sleep, aging, etc.]."When this happens, an amiable community is built up between essayist and audience. Sometimes the personal essayist is announcing, also in effect: "Something truly extraordinary has happened to me that I think you will find no less extraordinary than did I." When this happens, the reader, through the mediation of the essayist, finds his or her own experience enlarged. Sometimes, too, the essayist will admit to ignorance, which is a way of asserting sincerity, and this also makes for an atmosphere of congeniality between essayist and reader. On the matter of a writer's audience, Gertrude Stein once said that she wrote for herself and strangers. The personal essayist writes, I think, for himself and people-even though he has never met them-he assumes are potentially his friends.
Often the personal essayist will begin with a small subject, which grows into something much
larger. A perfect example of this phenomenon in this volume is Max Beerbohm's essay
"Something Indefeasible," which begins with the essayist observing a child building castles in the
sand and leads gently but firmly into a profound observation about the need for destruction in
human nature. This magical trick of the personal essay of turning the small into the large has been
well described by the essayist Philip Lopate in a nice reversal of an old metaphor: "The personal
essay is the reverse of that set of Chinese boxes that you keep opening, only to find a smaller one
within. Here you start with the small ... and suddenly find a slightly larger container, insinuated
by the essay's successful articulation and the writer's self-knowledge." Yet from where, the
question is, does this self knowledge derive?
Many years ago I read, in a biography of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, that every afternoon, in her apartment in Manhattan, Arendt would lie down on a couch for an hour and do
nothing but think. What a sensible arrangement this seemed! I thought to test it myself But when
I set myself down on my own couch, I discovered that I could come nowhere near an hour's
concentrated thought on a specific subject. Five or six minutes seemed my outer limit. Soon my
mind would drift off to stray subjects, irrelevant preoccupations, food, fantasies, sheer dreaminess.
I suspect that I am not entirely alone in this deficiency.
I have often felt, in fact, that the only coherent, consecutive thought I am capable of comes about
through my own writing and through reading other writers. Here I return to my earlier point about
the personal essay as a mode or method of discovery-of discovering such truth as is available to
the essayist and to his readers. Some writers do not begin a composition-be it a magazine article
or a full-blown book-until all the fact-finding that goes by the pretentious name of research is
completed. The personal essayist-if my own experience is in any way exemplary-stumbles into
facts as he goes along. He writes out of his experience, seen through the lens of his character,
projected onto the page through the filter of his style. Experience, character, style-these things,
if the personal essayist is lucky, will come together to supply a point of view.
A point of view, which is very different from a collection of opinions, is a distinct way of viewing
the world. It is the sine qua non of the personal essayist. It can be the making or the breaking of
him. All the strong personal essayists-from Montaigne through Hazlitt through Beerbohm through
George Orwell have had a clear and strong and often subtle point of view.
If one has a defect in one's personality, the personal essay is likely to show it up. (Self-congratulation, or the imputation of virtue to oneself, is one of the great traps of the personal essay.) Just possibly all personal essayists suffer from the defect of wishing to talk-or, what is much the same thing, write-about themselves. Apart from those whose egotism is entirely out of control, every personal essayist has had to have thought about this. "I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist," wrote E. B. White, "a much too self-conscious and selfserving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint."
When the complaint is most just, of course, is when the experience described by the personal
essayist has no generalizing quality. By this I mean when the essay isn't really about anything more
than the essayist's experience, merely, solely, wholly, and only. The trick of the personal essay-
I call it a trick, but I really think true magic is entailed-is to make the particular experience of the
essayist part of universal experience. The subject of the personal essay-one's self-may be one in
which the personal essayist is the world's leading expert, but if that is his only subject of expertise,
the essayist won't remain in business long.
For more than twenty years, I have written a personal essay every three months for The American Scholar magazine. Each time I do so, I wonder if the readers of the magazine don't pick it up and, with a half-exasperated sigh, mutter to themselves, "Him again ' " to be followed, if they decide to read the essay anyway, by such unhappy (for me) exclamations as "Give him the hook!" "Enough already!" and (most terrifying of all) "Who cares!" Where, the question is, does the personal essayist acquire the effrontery to believe-and, more astonishing still, to act on the belief- that his or her interests, concerns, quirks, passions matter to anyone else in the world? If you happen to write personal essays, it's rather an embarrassing question. The answer, at least for me, comes in part out of two utterly contradictory beliefs. The first is my complete confidence that I am, in the larger scheme of things, an altogether insignificant and fairly ordinary being; the second is my belief that, even in my insignificance and ordinariness-possibly even because of it-what I think is worthy of interest. Another contradiction: I am a man committed to understanding the world and how it operates, all the while knowing that I haven't much chance in succeeding in this endeavor. What I do know is that the world is too rich, too various, too multifaceted and many-layered for a fellow incapable of an hour's sustained thought to hope to comprehend it. Still, through the personal essay, I can take up one or another of its oddities, unresolved questions, or occasional larger subjects, hoping against hope to chip away at true knowledge by obtaining some modicum of self-knowledge.
"The world exists," said Mallarme, "in order to become a book." For the personal essayist, the first
use for experience is for it to be translated into essays. In struggling to make sense of personal
experience, the essayist must also fight off adopting the notion of being in any way a star, at center
stage. By its very nature, the essay is modest in its assaults upon the world. It is modest, to begin
with, in being an attempt (essayer, in French, of course, means just that: to attempt) and, to end
with, in being content not to answer anywhere near all the questions the essayist's own work, let
alone the world, raises. Like the painter Vermeer, the personal essayist is most profound, at least
for me, when his intentions are most modest.
An element of confession resides in the personal essay, but, in my view, it ought not to dominate.
Confession leads to excessive self-dramatization, and behind most literary work in which selfdramatization plays a key role is the plea, not always entirely out in the open but always hovering
in the background, for the sensitivity, soulfulness, and sweet virtue of the essayist. The etiquette
for confession in the essay, again in my view, ought to be the same as that for confession in
religion: be brief, be blunt, be gone.
What the essayist confronting a subject usually has to confess is that he or she is not quite like other men or women -but then, it turns out, neither are most men and women like other men and women. That seems to me perhaps the chief value of personal essayists: by displaying their individuality, they remind readers of their own individuality.
My hope, of course, is that this is precisely what The Norton Book of Personal Essays will do for
its readers -remind them that their own lives exist in a world never dreamed of by social science,.
journalism, or any sort of academic thought. Not that the essays in this book were chosen
primarily to illustrate this crucial point. They were chosen because I liked them, found them interesting, touching, pleasing, amusing, delightful-above all, entertaining.