from Follies & Grottoes
by Barbara Jones
“So shells… reproducing…the undulating surfaces of the sea itself.”—Barbara Jones
I love English travel books on esoteric subjects written by authors who illustrate their work with line drawings of their own. Drawing was part of the curriculum in English schools so it seemed natural for authors to include line-drawings in their texts. I sense that the patience with description that marks these books is a product of the hours spent gazing as the writers sketched their subjects. One of our finest essays, “A Piece of Chalk” by G. K. Chesterton, uses this practice as its subject. Our feature this week, taken from the book Follies & Grottoes written by Barbara Jones in 1953, is a fine example of the genre. The book is a wonderful ramble through the world of these odd, sometimes beautiful, and generally useless architectural structures that dot the English countryside. In the section I chose she describes shells used to line Eighteenth century grottoes. I’ll let the shells, lovingly drawn by her, stand in for the Paragraph of the Week and one of her lovely paragraphs about shells be the commentary.
So shells. Eighteenth-century Europe really saw them. Scallops and conches and Spanish purples, giant clams from the tropics and ear shells from the Channel Islands were collected and loved, their subtlety much admired by an age with an eye for line. They were found to be bold and almost simple, like mussels, strong dark blue on the thin ridges outside and shining but chalky white inside, stained sometimes with the blue. Or like the Dolphin shell, infinitely twisted and frilled, although still built up on an almost simple substructure. Or reproducing, like certain clams, the undulating surfaces of the sea itself. Nothing about a shell is quite as it appears to be at first glance; tiger shells look sharply black and white, but the stripes and spots are never truly regular, ultimately unresolvable, and never quite black or quite clear, but swimming slightly as in the tides of some solid sea. There is no edge to, and no possibility of matching, the soft or rosy pinks that flush within so many shells; the colour retreats to the heart of the spiral as we look or sinks below the indefinite surface, soft and warm to the eye, hard and cool beneath the finger, matt and gleaming, at once chalk and china.
—Art and Commentary by Barbara Jones
in The Best American Essays 2017
by Leslie Jamison
“In short, the essay is one answer to the question of how a divided America can speak to itself.”—THE
Leslie Jamison in her “Introduction” to The Best American Essays 2017, takes on one of the most pressing problems for writers in our time: how to write the political personal essay. The short answer: write a good essay. She tells her students that they should not look for political material to put in their essays but instead discover “the politics that are already there.” This month I would like to explore this issue first with a Paragraph of the Week taken from her introduction and then with Paragraphs of the Week taken from three of the essays she chose for this edition. In general, I agree with Jamison, but I’ll end the series with a caveat of my own.
The Paragraph of the Week
The essay is political—and politically useful, by which I mean humanizing and provocative—because of its commitment to nuance, its explorations of contingency, its spirit of unrest, its glee at overturned assumptions, because of the double helix of awe and distrust—faith and doubt—that structures its DNA. Essays are political not just when they take up the kinds of content we call political with a capital P—social injustice, civic life, the rule of law and government—but because they are committed to instability. They are full of self-interrogation, suspicious of received narratives, and hospitable to contradiction. They thrill toward complexity. Essays bear witness, and they confess the subjectivity of their witnessing. They need some motivating urgency. Like? Wonder. Trauma Mystery. Injustice The essay insists that every consciousness yields infinite complexity upon close scrutiny. This is something close to the precise ethical opposite of xenophobia or scapegoating. Essays take abstractions and make them particular.
While riding on a subway Leslie Jamison found her view of the Statue of Liberty blocked by the hands, arms, and swaying bodies of passengers, and saw in them a metaphor for the political essay. “America isn’t the Statue of Liberty but the subway dancer who blocks your view of The Statue of Liberty,” she writes. “The essay knows that.” For her, the political essay requires a “kind of humility and curiosity” that is open to a wide variety of experiences and runs counter to didacticism. The very form, which is “committed to instability,” is a check on ideological thinking because it is “hospitable to complexity” and speaks “the language of specificity and precision.” It exhibits “negative capability” which the poet John Keats defined as the capability “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” Above all, the “I” of the essay is multiple, constantly questioning and moving forward hesitantly. It “resists the easy binaries we might draw between interior and exterior, self-indulgence and curiosity, beauty and ethics” and, of course, “aesthetics and politics.” It is this resistance to abstraction that renders the essay “something close to the precise ethical opposite of xenophobia or scapegoating.” In short, the essay is one answer to the question of how a divided America can speak to itself.
from “Sparrow Needy”
in The Best American Essays 2017
by Kenneth A. McClane
“To say that ‘Sparrow Needy’ is about urban violence or police accountability or being black in America wouldn't be incorrect, it would just be a refusal to speak the language the essay itself makes gloriously available—which is the language of specificity and precision.”
In our on-going clinic on writing the political personal essay—adapted from Leslie Jamison’s “Introduction” to The Best American Essays 2017—we turn to ‘Sparrow Needy” by poet Kenneth A. McClane, the author of Walls: Essays 1985-1990, whose essays have appeared in The Best African American Essays, The Art of the Essay, Literature for Life and other publications. Just before her paragraph commenting on McClane’s essay, Jamison wrote that essays “take abstractions and make them particular,” and in her commentary below she does just that herself, making her abstraction particular by drawing on the details in McClane’s piece.
You can read the first installment of this series on the political personal essay by going to the archives for spring 2018.
The Paragraph of the Week
Paul, in truth, was oddly grafted to my family, as if the providential birth stork had somehow made a mistake and flew to the wrong house. When Paul was three, I recall him packing his bag and heading out of our Harlem residence with that grim determination that is the hallmark of children. Although the young often anticipate running away from home after some tiff, nothing palpable had occurred to occasion this departure. Paul was simply giving bodily testimony to something ineluctable, although it hurts me now to admit it. Characteristically, Paul did not belong to us: He was a night person; my parents and I were morning people. Paul was usually quiet; we were story-rich. Paul loved the streets; they terrified us. My parents, of course, did not permit Paul to leave, although they did let him walk a hundred yards from our house, watching him from the window just before he engaged the corner and would become invisible, like Annie, a girl we had all heard about who had, on a bright Sunday morning, simply "disappeared," a notion as unusual and frightening in 1954 Harlem as seeing the giant sinkhole in the Seventy-Seventh Street Riverside Park field—a place where all of us would go to play softball on weekends—a miraculous hole so enterprising that one could witness the water running under the field, like sluicing fingers of quicksilver, as if the world above needed a busy subterranean terrarium. In the three years I watched the hole, it would grow larger and more menacing, brimming with bottles, potato chips bags, broken dolls, condoms, all rising like a demented volcano; and you could hear the water gurgling, the city seemingly alive, the first time that I understood that the city was truly geologic, wondrous, nature-rich. Young Filbert—who had six fingers on one hand, five on the other, and had recently arrived from South Carolina, part of the Great Migration—said that even Annie might be in that hole: young Filbert who would later, on a simmering August day, slip into the Hudson River, head out toward the George Washington Bridge, swim farther than any of us could imagine, angle close to the mythic Little Red Lighthouse, and then head back to us, not damaged or deracinated, his body luminescent.
—Kenneth A. McClane
How do I make that abstraction [that essays "take abstractions and make them particular"] particular? I could tell you about Kenneth A. McClane's "Sparrow Needy." It's an essay about McClane's brother, Paul, who died young from drinking hard; who was never fully at home in his own family, or in the world; who moved with his "bones sidling against themselves." It's also an essay about visiting a neighborhood bully at Sing Sing, among tables blistered by ancient gum, and finding this bully so thin it was difficult to summon the memory of how fearsome he had been. To say that "Sparrow Needy” is about urban violence or police accountability or being black in America wouldn't be incorrect, it would just be a refusal to speak the language the essay itself makes gloriously available—which is the language of specificity and precision. If I'm going to tell you about "Sparrow Needy, it's better to toss topical keywords into the trash bin and say that it’s an essay about a sinkhole at Riverside Park, at Seventy-Seventh Street, "brimming with bottles, potato chips bags, broken dolls," with the Hudson River running underneath like blood pulsing through a vein under the skin. It's about the possibility of a lost girl swirling in those waters. It’s better to say it’s an essay about a particular brother, who collapsed on a particular day when he was four years old, at the unmarked heap of stones marking the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, and died in a particular hospital decades later, creating a particular rift in the world.
from “The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin”
in The Best American Essays 2017
by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
“Baldwin…taught us all that the greatest black art demands that there be no ‘rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty’ or our power.”—Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
We continue our month-long clinic in writing the political personal essay with “The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin” by Pulitzer prize winning author Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. The paragraph appeared in The Best American Essays 2017, and our commentary is from Leslie Jamison’s “Introduction” to the anthology. For Jamison, details carry the political message in personal essays, and Ghansah’s piece about the impending destruction of Baldwin’s house is rich in them. The “pink teacups and brown typewriter” that she sees as she walks through Baldwin’s home in southern France—a building doomed to be torn down—do characterize the man with a precision of feeling that abstractions miss, but Ghansah is not content to leave it there. She and Baldwin’s niece, Kali-Ma, struggle to find the ideas that best characterize Baldwin and his legacy as well, abstractions about bravery that the author asserts boldly as part of her political theme. Couching these characterizations in the condition of their discovery this way, gives them substance and validity.
Paragraph of the Week
She [Kali-Ma] looks for a word to describe what he was. I try to help. We are both writers, but we could not find a single word to describe this man who told his adopted sisters that they had to write down their stories and later pragmatically assisted them in their endeavors, who had best friends in many countries in all professions, and who taught his older brother and young nephews a rare, lasting lesson in bravery—that we must be brilliant and big enough to be ourselves. To have pink teacups and brown typewriters. Baldwin defined what made him a great writer on his own terms. He also ensured that his success was not dependent on his silences. He taught us all that the greatest black art demands that there be no "rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty" or our power. Some people will consider this vain, but isn't this what all good warriors have always done: venerating, salvaging, and celebrating ourselves in between battles? Is this not our real inheritance?
—Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
An essay lives in its details, and argues through them: a little girl dressing up in the stiletto heels sent as charity relief in the aftermath of a disastrous flood, or a woman tasting bitter oranges in the backyard of James Baldwin's home in France, taking stock of what remains from his life there: "a dozen pink teacups and turquoise saucers.” This is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah who takes a trip to Baldwin’s home as part of a larger inquiry into “how his memory abides," and finds it abiding “on the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a new generation that once again feels compelled to march in the streets of Harlem, Ferguson, and Baltimore.”
by Sarah Resnick
in The Best American Essays 2017
“But the essay believes something else. It believes his story holds more.”—Leslie Jamison
Our month-long series of Paragraphs of the Week from The Best American Essays 2017 concludes with one by Sarah Resnick from the essay “H.” addressed to her uncle who struggles with addiction. Resnick is a senior editor at the magazine Triple Canopy and serves on the steering committee of the self-organizing, educational program The Public School New York.
In the series we have been exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of the political personal essay. Leslie Jamison, in her commentary, uses Resnick’s piece to reinforce her theme that the political essay should, above all, live up to the “essay’s fidelity to nuance, and its belief in the infinitude of every life.” Next week I would like to return to Jamison’s introduction to offer a final comment of my own on the political personal essay before we leave the subject behind.
The Paragraph of the Week
Here are some things you might do on a given day. Walk to the methadone clinic to pick up your dose (you are required to go three times a week). Wait in line. Take one bus to the Medicaid office (when your pension kicked in your monthly benefits went up, pushing you just slightly over the minimum-income requirement). Wait in line. Take one bus to see your psychiatrist (you live in Bushwick your psychiatrist is in Crown Heights). Wait. Take one bus to the Supplemental Assistance Program office (you lost your EBT card and need to request a new one). Wait in line. Take two trains to see your hepatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. Wait. Walk to the post office (to pick up the check my father has sent you). Wait in line. Walk to the nearest Western Union (where you would cash checks before you had a bank account) Wait in line. Take the bus and two trains to Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park (you need a colonoscopy). Wait.
— Sarah Resnick
An essay lives in those high heels, those teacups, that lavender. A Coke and a sticky bun, straight from the oven, on a long day in Harare. A boy dreaming of busloads of Africans on a highway to America, straddling an entire ocean. All kinds of longing. All kinds of violence. A girl playing with a white plastic horse. A woman dreaming of being saved by a man who rides one. A boy weeping at a pile of rocks. A pair of lungs in a glass jar. An addict with vomit as viscous as cake batter. You'll find that addict and his vomit in Sarah Resnick's essay, "H.," in a hospital waiting room, along with a nurse who says the man doesn't deserve help because he brought this on himself. But the essay believes something else. It believes his story holds more. When I talk about the politics of the essay, I am talking about that—an essay’s fidelity to nuance, and its belief in the infinitude of every life.
in The Best American Essays 2017
by Leslie Jamison
“To write a personal essay that is ‘political with a capital P’ creates a tension with the tradition of the essay and adds a new challenge for the writer—a challenge which many of our best American essayists have taken up.”—THE
For a month we at The Humble Essayist have been exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of the personal political essay with Leslie Jamison’s introduction to The Best American Essays 2017 and three of the essays she chose for that collection as our guides. For Jamison any good essay is political because the form is “humanizing and provocative” by nature. It argues through its details. In general, I agree that personal essays are a nuanced witnessing that resists political certainty, but I would also like to make room for the riskier possibility of an explicitly political personal essay—in the tradition of "Civil Disobedience,” "Notes of a Native Son," and "The Clan of One-Breasted Women”—that goes beyond a literature of witness to a literature of commitment. So let’s revisit the paragraph by Jamison that started the series, but this time with a commentary that adds a new twist to her idea.
If you are interested in seeing the entire series, go to our archives here, click on Leslie Jamison, and start reading.
The Paragraph of the Week
The essay is political—and politically useful, by which I mean humanizing and provocative—because of its commitment to nuance, its explorations of contingency, its spirit of unrest, its glee at overturned assumptions, because of the double helix of awe and distrust—faith and doubt—that structures its DNA. Essays are political not just when they take up the kinds of content we call political with a capital P—social injustice, civic life, the rule of law and government—but because they are committed to instability. They are full of self-interrogation, suspicious of received narratives, and hospitable to contradiction. They thrill toward complexity. Essays bear witness, and they confess the subjectivity of their witnessing. They need some motivating urgency. Like? Wonder. Trauma. Mystery. Injustice. The essay insists that every consciousness yields infinite complexity upon close scrutiny. This is something close to the precise ethical opposite of xenophobia or scapegoating. Essays take abstractions and make them particular.
The personal essay, by is very nature, resists abstractions, particularly assertions of belief or commitment. “What do I know?” the grandfather of the form famously asked, noting that the answer seemed to change hourly. It is a form for nuance, contingency, and questioning which makes it hard to raise a fist calling for action. To write a personal essay that is “political with a capital P” creates a tension with the tradition of the essay and adds a new challenge for the writer—a challenge which many of our best American essayists have taken up. Consider the essays from The Best American Essays 2017 chosen by Leslie Jamison that we featured this month. In his essay “Sparrow Needy” about the troubled life of his dead brother, Kenneth McClane writes that the “prison, sadly, had become America’s growth industry” comparing it to a fast-food chain. In “The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah learns from Baldwin and her grandfather that “to be Black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem.” And Sarah Resnick in her nuanced essay “H.” about her addicted uncle’s struggle with abstinence comes to this conclusion: “my own point of view is now best represented in the more radical strands of the harm-reduction movement and by legalization.” In every case, the political abstraction is couched in the details of its personal discovery which is the great gift of the personal essay, and in this way the essay of witness becomes the essay of commitment and yet remains an essay as well.
from A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf
Entry September 19, 1867
by John Muir
“And how fine a song it sings!”—John Muir
In 1867 the conservationist John Muir hiked from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast and on September 21 he passed through my hometown of Blairsville, Georgia. He was not impressed calling it a “shapeless and insignificant village” though it was “grandly encircled with banded hills.” What did impress him was a sight he wrote about two days before when he walked beside the Hiwassee river in Tennessee. My wife and I joined several of our friends to recapitulate his hike along the river, and it became our feature this week.
Muir kept a small, leather-bound journal of his hike which became A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, now a classic work of environmental nonfiction. He inscribed the flyleaf of his edition with “John Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.”
The Paragraph of the Week
My path all to-day led me along the leafy banks of the Hiwassee, a most impressive mountain river. Its channel is very rough, as it crosses the edges of upturned rock strata, some of them standing at right angles, or glancing off obliquely to right and left. Thus a multitude of short, resounding cataracts are produced, and the river is restrained from the headlong speed due to its volume and the inclination of its bed. All the larger streams of uncultivated countries are mysteriously charming and beautiful, whether flowing in mountains or through swamps and plains. Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!
My friends and I walked the John Muir trail along the Hiwassee river not far from where we live. In 1867, Muir watched the river, “its surface broken to a thousand gems” by a spectacular stony bed, and listened to the “songs it sings” and so did we, occasionally stopping to take in the roar. At one point I even mistook the sound of the churning for a waterfall. We heard other music as well. “Pileated!” Don called out, walking ahead with an eye out for snakes in our Eden, hearing the tell-tale piping “yuk, yuk” of the woodpecker hidden in the canopy of leaves. “Hear it?” Brenda said further up the trail, “a blue-gray gnatcatcher,” identifying another bird by its song. Later, after we passed below a kettle of vultures, we heard a series of slurred notes ending like a question, and she stopped. “That’s a red-eyed vireo.” Most of the time we spent identifying wildflowers along “forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden” led by Jennifer and Nancy, knowledgeable amateurs with their well-worn wildflower books handy. They named the violet phacelia that spread through the meadow at the trailhead and cropped up all along the hike. They spotted hearts-a-bustin wearing its hearts on its leaves. We talked and laughed, but the flowers themselves were mute. Hairy beard-tongue drooped without saying a word, and the dainty, white flower bells of Solomon’s seal dangled silent beneath broad, waxy leaves. Wildflowers like to keep their secrets. “Is it oxalis?” Jennifer asked—or maybe it was Nancy—but Barbara, sharp-eyed, offered a caveat: “It doesn’t have those sorrel leaves we saw before, does it?” A flower that looked like meadow parsnip turned out, after much debate, to be golden Alexander which we all agreed would make a great name for a cocktail, Ruth inventing the ingredients on the spot. Still, when we came upon a pink azalea in full bloom we gave a cheer, creating our own music. We laughed at the dactylic rhythm of “pipsissewa” which means “broken into small pieces,” the herb thought to shatter kidney stones. The names of the flowers all had a kind of poetry in them: fire pink, mayapple, lyre leaf, and dewberry. Yellowroot, bloodroot, chickweed, and phlox. As I strung them out they made sentences, with nouns forced into service as verbs. The dog hobble spurge as the wild yam galax. River cane cohosh crossvine and blue-eyed grasses rue rattlesnake weed, the flowers making a hash of our syntax, but in that verbal garland we heard the primordial logos of the planet speaking to us again, word made petal. Wood anemone stonecrop the foam flower and the little brown jugs of wild ginger columbine beside squaw root and spiderwort, the woods’ floor transforming the upturned rocks of our words into song. And how fine the songs it sings!
from “The Wind Did It”
by Bernard Cooper
in Maps to Anywhere
When his father’s conversation trails off, Bernard Cooper prompts him to complete the thought, but the old man has nothing to add: “That’s it, boychik. I was just thinking. I was just looking back.”—THE
Bernard Cooper is the recipient of the 1991 PEN/USA Ernest Hemingway Award, a 1995 O. Henry Prize, a 1999 Guggenheim grant, and a 2004 National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in literature. His work has appeared in several anthologies, including The Best American Essays of 1988, 1995, 1997, 2002, and 2008. His work has also appeared in magazines and literary reviews including, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, Story, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. He has contributed to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” and for six years wrote monthly features as the art critic for Los Angeles Magazine. The Paragraph of the Week comes from “The Wind Did It” in his collection Maps to Anywhere.
The Paragraph of the Week
I had a dream about my father. I dreamed it after his divorce from Esther, after his loneliness became clear to me, after he'd begun to tell meandering stories, after we'd shared a few dinners together, after I'd begun to recognize the ways in which we're alike. I came to him in his bedroom. He was sleeping in the center of a double bed. The room was suffused with blue light. It was dusk or dawn, I didn't know. On the dresser, statuettes of Moses and Jesus oversaw our assignation. I stroked his shoulder. My father awoke. "Dad," I whispered, "are we getting older?" "Here," he said, lifting the blanket. "Here," he said, patting the bed.
Esther was the second wife of Bernard Cooper’s father, and she is why a statuette of Jesus as well as Moses is in the bedroom. A devout Catholic she “brought the full force of her past” to the marriage including “bouts of depression…undiminished by regimens of exercise or psychotropic drugs”—or the entreaties of her new husband. The “troubled life he tried to escape” by marrying her “could not be pawned or painted away,” and after three years they divorced and the loneliness began. The dinners Cooper shared with his father during this time included the “meandering stories.” At one his father heaps praise on Mayans in the hopes Bernard will take a trip with him to Machu Picchu. “‘First of all,” the father says, ‘they worshipped everything there was to worship, like, um, corn…’ he drums his fingers, stumped. ‘You know—things…buildings.’” He claims they invented the x-ray: “they carved stone pictures of peoples insides. Pregnant women and where their babies would be, or just your average Maya with lungs and livers. Now I’m not saying that these were actual x-rays as we know them, but you have to start somewhere, right? I mean how’d they think of these things?” He ends his appeal by adding that “the world is full of unanswered questions.” He and his father are alike in looks, gestures, and in the “Semitic inflection” of their voices that turns every sentence into a question, but there’s something deeper: “a dreamy world view” that they share “engaged in thoughts that vacillate between the present and the past, ending finally in a pleasant limbo between the two.” When his father’s conversation trails off, Cooper prompts him to complete the thought, but the old man has nothing to add: “That’s it, boychik. I was just thinking. I was just looking back.” It is a world view in which thinking is remembering and remembering is dreaming, and dad answers unanswerable questions by lifting the covers, patting the bed, and saying “Here.”