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These last two, one comic, the other near tragic, are as riveting as short stories, with arresting openings, sculptured scenes worthy of fiction, introspective passages fingering his own feelings, and haunting conclusions that resonate with everything that came before.
What holds it together is an engaging voice, the projection of a curious, appealingly modest, sometimes self-mocking character behind that voice, and “the fluent play of a single consciousness.” He’s gifted at staging his inner conflicts, radiating intimacy without descending into the confessional.
Again and again Lopate writes less about a stable subject than about his own constantly evolving views of it.
Suddenly everyone seemed to have a story to tell, and it could be told directly, not dressed up as fiction.
But this avalanche of essays and memoirs began falling into predictable patterns: politically shaded accounts of victimization, self-help homilies, therapeutic tales of abuse and recovery.
The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature, seemingly formless, hard to classify.
Lacking the tight construction of a short story or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect.
The immediacy of personal witness got bogged down in self-absorption or social protest. His gods are Montaigne, the father of the essay, whose field of research was his own mind, and William Hazlitt, who, besides being an incomparable literary critic, sketched vehement novelistic impressions of what no one else thought worth noticing, from boxing matches and Indian jugglers to “the pleasure of hating.” Lopate’s three earlier collections and his book-length essays match Hazlitt’s promiscuous host of interests with Montaigne’s piercing attention to his inner life, his quicksilver thoughts and fugitive impressions.
No other writer could have written books on both Susan Sontag (“Notes on Sontag,” 2009) and the Manhattan shoreline (“Waterfront,” 2004), each of them exhaustively well informed yet disarmingly subjective.
Beginning in the seventeenth century with Abraham Cowley’s “Of Greatness,” this section moves through the centuries with selections by such celebrated authors as William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Virginia Woolf, ending with George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys. The fifth and final section, “The American Scene,” which is by far the largest section in the collection, begins in the nineteenth century with Henry David Thoreau and features examples of such fine essayists as James Thurber, E. White, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and Lopate himself.
Although this section is overly large, part of it is devoted to essays by such relative newcomers as Scott Russell Sanders, Gayle Pemberton, and Richard Rodriguez.