A New Feature Every Friday*
from William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life
by Steve Almond
“So what are the threats to the interior life that make our moment so perilous?”—THE
Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Against Football and Candyfreak. His short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he hosts the New York Times “Dear Sugars” podcast with Cheryl Strayed. Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children.
The Paragraph of the Week, taken from William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, is about the need to nurture private contemplation which is under fresh threats in our time. To make his point Almond turns to Stoner, his favorite novel—and, as it turns out, mine as well. The book by John Williams is about an obscure and unfamous professor of medieval literature who accomplishes little that is remarkable by society’s standards, but nonetheless lives a rewarding life.
The hunch that Almond mentions in the opening sentence is his intuition when he quit his newspaper job that literature, not journalism, was his true calling.
Paragraph of the Week
Stoner confirmed that hunch, more forcefully than any book I’d ever read. It exerts a stubborn grip on readers like me because it offers something increasingly rare in modern life: a dogged devotion to the inner life. By “inner life,” I simply mean the private realm of thought and feeling through which we come to know ourselves. I stress the term because I believe our entire species is, at this perilous moment, engaged in a pitched battle for the inner life, one so pervasive it has become as invisible as air.
So what are the threats to the interior life that make our moment so perilous? The list begins with our “shallow” heroes Steve Almond writes in William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life. We “worship athletes and moguls and movie stars…who possess the glittering gifts we equate with worth and happiness.” Our politics are dominated by “a preening demagogue birthed in the oxymoronic swamp of reality television.” Our movies are “paeans to reckless ambition.” Even our literature is dominated by “agents and editors” who care more about celebrity authors and movie deals than the work itself. Most of all, our technology, including “omniscient devices the size of candy bars,” create irresistible distractions that accelerate “our cognitive and emotional metabolisms: our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward” privileging “action over contemplation.” What chance does contemplation have? Despite all of those threats to self, though, the word-of-mouth success of a novel like Stoner “within an empire whose industrial energies are dedicated to annihilating the inner life” offers hope, Almond suggests, and serves as a reminder that “a meaningful life arises from the willingness to pay attention, especially when it hurts to do so.”
You can read an excerpt of Almond's book here.
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“Autumn Hours” at Fourth Genre
Fourth Genre has published my essay “Autumn Hours” in the Fall 2019 edition. The essay explores the idea, taken from Horace, that “nothing can steal away that hour's happiness that came and went yet glows within the mind.” In it I explore memories that are happy—completely unadulterated by sorrow or regret—against the backdrop of the death of a friend. Is Horace right? It does matter. You can find the issue of Fourth Genre here.
I am pleased that Brevity magazine has chosen to feature my essay “The Wordless Woods” in its new September edition. Thanks to Dinty Moore and his staff for accepting it. It begins--
Foraging along the woods’ edge, the doe looks up from the hydrangea she is nibbling and twitches an ear—a salute, I think, stopping the car, though it isn’t a salute...
You can read the entire essay here. —THE
Video Essay: One Boy's Luminous Skin
I have created a video essay called "One Boy's Luminous Skin" about gun violence and children that is less than four minutes long. It contains no images of children, guns, or violence of any kind, but I think it speaks to our current, desperate situation. You can find it on YouTube here:
Please view it and share. The video is based on an essay that originally appeared in American Literary Review. You you can find the link to the written version below.
News from ALR!
It is an honor to have my brief essay, "One Boy's Luminous Skin" chosen for the new issue of the American Literary Review. It begins this way:
"It is butter. The sun’s pillow. The moon’s snow. His eyes with large brown irises are a woodsy invitation to a boy’s life. They glitter with a hint of mischief too, but I’m talking about skin.
One boy’s luminous skin..."
Yay, Readers' Books, Sonoma California
I have argued that bookstores should put books of poetry, philosophy, and essays at the front of the store because they do not have a specific audience and are written for everyone, and look what I discovered at the end of a glorious ride down the west coast after the AWP Conference in Portland. At Readers' Books, the indie bookstore in downtown Sonoma, Poetry and Philosophy & Essays are right up front where they belong! It was National Poetry Month so I bought a Jane Hirshfield volume, happy to support their work. Learn more about Readers' Books here.
I am excited that Coal Hill Review has published my essay "Pipsissewa." In it I respond to a passage by John Muir from A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf after a walk along the Muir trail with friends and come to understand what Muir meant when he wrote “in the multitude” of sounds along the Hiwassee River the “wilderness finds a voice.” The essay is very short and you can read it in full here.
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The Other Steve Harvey
My essay "The Other Steve Harvey," selected for The Best American Essays 2018, is out! It is about unconscious bias and is built around President Obama's speech about Trayvon Martin—one of the most moving moments in Obama's presidency, I think. I am honored to be selected by The New Yorker writer and film critic Hilton Als and to be in the company of writers I admire such as Leslie Jamison, Suki Kim, and Baron Wormser. Thanks to Michigan Quarterly Review for first publishing the essay. You can get The Best American Essays at most book stores and can order it online.
Other Recent Magazine Publications by Steven Harvey
(THE in disguise)
Photo: Ryan Patterson, Baltimore, August 14, 2017
"Madre Luz" in Another Chicago Magazine
My essay "Madre Luz" contrasts the Nazi rally in Charlottesville with the stunning statue of Madre Luz that replaced the Lee-Jackson statue in Baltimore and becomes a plea for courageous non-violence in the face of violence, hatred, and racism. Thanks to Another Chicago Magazine for publishing it. You can read it here.—THE
"Sputnik 2" at Assay
Here's a bit of serendipity! Sonja Livingston's student Valerie Dinavo chose my essay "Sputnik 2" to be read aloud in class, another student Madeline Barber doodled (expertly) while it was being read, Sonja posted her picture on Facebook or Twitter—I can't remember now—and wrote about it. She and I concocted a plan for me to write a response, and Renée D'Aoust at Assay agreed to publish it all! It does take a village! Check out the result here.—THE
“Another Way” in Water-Stone Review
The Tao is the way that cannot be named, becoming some other way the moment we begin to understand it in human terms. I'm excited that Water-Stone Review published “Another Way,” the last part of my trilogy, The Broken Cup, a tribute to Taoism. The Broken Cup is a lyric essay about the acceptance of life as it is, a letting go that opens new possibilities for discovery and love. Learn more here.
Who is “The Beloved Republic?”
You are, dear readers. E. M. Forster called it "an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky" that resists authoritarian leaders. Published in The Antioch Review. Learn more here.
Please support literary magazines by buying one!
*Well, almost every Friday. The Humble Essayist is a one-man operation, and occasionally something pressing comes up so I have to skip a week.--THE
The Kindle edition of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder by Steven Harvey is on sale now for $2.99. Check here.
Check Out the Author Page Featuring Photographs from
The Book of Knowledge and Wonder by Steven Harvey here
Order The Book of Knowledge and Wonder
by Steven Harvey
Learn about Ovenbird Books here
"Although The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is a memoir about the suicide of my mother it actually has a celebratory feel to it as she and I, through the many letters she left behind, collaborate in a long-overdue conversation, and I can have feelings for her again. The book's sadness is its triumph."–Steven Harvey
"By asking himself the original 'wonder questions' of his childhood, Harvey ignites a curiosity that takes him back into memory—but also allows him room for inference and imagination…. In the end he emerges with a kind of knowledge to which he adds the well earned word ‘wonder.’” –Judith Kitchen
The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is part of the Judith Kitchen Select Series with Ovenbird Books. You can learn more about the book by clicking here.
Lyric prose is an oxymoron for the quicksilver beauty of the finest passages of nonfiction. It happens when lyric poetry insinuates itself into prose. It happens when prose invites poetry in. It is the defining quality of the crucial moments in any great personal essay or memoir, and it will be the focus of The Humble Essayist for the next year.
In a way this mission is nothing new for us at THE. For nearly five years we have been selecting and commenting on prose that sees itself as art first and a source of information second, and we will continue with that mission, but we will make the focus on lyric prose explicit and pursue it in a more deliberate way.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years ago that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork that is the logo for the site.