(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)
Montaigne and David Lazar. Montaigne and Lia Purpura. Montaigne and Robin Hemley, Montaigne and Desirae Matherly, Eliot Weinberger, Sonja Livingston, Patrick Madden, Hilaire Belloc, Alice Walker, Sue William Silverman, Robert Atwan.
January 8, 2016
from “To the Reader”
by Michel de Montaigne
“To the Reader, Sincerely” by David Lazar
“For David Lazar, the ‘I’ may not be the matter of an essay, rather the ‘created I’ is, but the two versions of the self bleed into each other and are inextricably bound together.”--THE
The Humble Essayist will begin the new year with a month-long tribute to the grandfather of us all: Michel de Montaigne. Each week in the month of January, we will select a paragraph from the master himself, but instead of having THE write the commentaries we will take individual paragraphs by writers in the lively and engaging anthology After Montaigne instead.
In After Montaigne, edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden, various essayists chose a favorite Montaigne essay and wrote an essay of their own in response creating fertile ground for THE to snatch up paragraphs of the week with built in commentaries. As a bonus, we will choose a variety of translators for Montaigne’s paragraphs. Some of the commentaries analyze the original Montaigne text, others bounce off of it, and one is a translation of a translation of the original—but it will all be great double fun, four times over, for the fan of our humble form. Learn more about Montaigne, his writing, and the After Montaigne project at the anthology's website here.
Our first choice for THE Paragraph of the Week is from Montaigne’s “To the Reader” followed by a paragraph of commentary by one of the editors of After Montaigne, David Lazar, who responded to “To the Reader” with his own “To the Reader, Sincerely.” Montaigne’s “To the Reader” contains the celebrated line “je suis, moi même, la matière de mon livre” which means “I am myself the matter of my book,” an idea that Lazar accepts with qualifications at the end of his piece. For him, the “I” may not be the matter of an essay, rather the “created I” is, but the two versions of the self bleed into each other and are inextricably bound together.
David Lazar’s most recent collection of essays is Occasional Desire: Essays. He is the founding editor of Hotel Amerika and professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
If I had written to seek the world's favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.—Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame)
And no voices are alike—my own jumpy, interruptive style, which might not be to everyone's taste, will be seen as a flaw or a defect by some, and by others as the only dress in my closet. But let me tell you that I think that I, like most essayists, want to be known. That this "created" voice you're hearing (created voice, creative writing, creature of the night!), this persona, this act of self-image and self-revelation, occasionally revulsion, frequently inquisition or even interdiction, actually is tied very closely to the author. Since I'm frequently my subject, to say the “I” who is writing isn't quite me is slightly fatuous; which “I” is the more sincere, the more honest self? That one? The ontology of essay writing involves a conversation with oneself, and one, after a while, exchanges parts back and forth so that writer and subject become bound, bidden, not interchangeable but certainly changeable. I become what I've created, and want to be known as that.—David Lazar
from “Of Prayers”
by Michel de Montaigne
and from “Of Prayers”
by Lia Purpura
“Lia Purpura, suggests that a spontaneous prayer, being less formulaic than a memorized one, may be less weighty but has merit, too.”—THE
Our second choice for a Paragraph of the Week by Montaigne is “Of Prayers,” in which Montaigne gives a full-throated endorsement of a church-sanctioned prayer like The Lord’s Prayer as the best for any occasion. The contemporary essayist Lia Purpura, in a wrenching and heartfelt essay about the gruesome murder of a student at her college, suggests that a spontaneous prayer, being less formulaic than a memorized one, may be less weighty but has merit, too, as she creates one on the spot for her class, a prayer that “weighs very little” but still “is better than nothing” and has a ring of sincerity to it.
Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently Rough Likeness (essays) and King Baby (poems). She is writer-in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Paragraph of the Week
I know not if or no I am wrong, but since, by a particular favour of the divine bounty, a certain form of prayer has been prescribed and dictated to us, word by word, from the mouth of God Himself, I have ever been of opinion that we ought to have it in more frequent use than we yet have; and if I were worthy to advise, at the sitting down to and rising from our tables, at our rising from and going to bed, and in every particular action wherein prayer is used, I would that Christians always make use of the Lord's Prayer, if not alone, yet at least always. The Church may lengthen and diversify prayers, according to the necessity of our instruction, for I know very well that it is always the same in substance and the same thing: but yet such a privilege ought to be given to that prayer, that the people should have it continually in their mouths; for it is most certain that all necessary petitions are comprehended in it, and that it is infinitely proper for all occasions. 'Tis the only prayer I use in all places and conditions, and which I still repeat instead of changing; whence it also happens that I have no other so entirely by heart as that.—Michel de Montaigne (translated by Charles Cotton)
The day after the tragedy, when the story broke, we heard the breaking. Hearing it made the sun incongruous. Made me try to say something into the beauty, warmth, light it kept giving (poor sun, always shining on everyone, brightening all events in its path). In one of my very best classes—where soon, at the end of the semester, one student was heading to China, one into the army, one to teach at an inner-city school—what I said about the tragedy wasn't nothing, it was just the best I could do. Given my limited. Since I hadn't known. Which is better than nothing, but still weighs very little. I said something like: Though you might not have known her, she was part of your day. A presence you passed as you crossed the quad, an ambient laugh you heard and took in, and in that way she colored your stubborn loneliness. She brushed crumbs off the table before you sat down. She exhaled as she passed, and air held the breath you drew into your body. You caught her cold. You swallowed her sigh. You picked up the penny she dropped, thinking, "Hey, lucky penny." And just as she gave proof to your day, you gave hers shape, made her afternoon buoyant with color, sound, presence. —Lia Purpura
“Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children”
by Michel de Montaigne
and “Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children”
by Robin Hemley
“Montaigne argues that for writers books are as much the progeny of authors as their flesh-and-blood children, a conflict that Robin Hemley ponders.”—THE
The third choice in our month-long celebration of Montaigne is a Paragraph of the Week from his essay “Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children.” In the essay, Montaigne argues that for writers books are as much the progeny of authors as their flesh-and-blood children, a conflict that Robin Hemley ponders in his essay by the same name. Biological children “wanted nothing but our affection, and affection was always split between them and our other children,” the books that we feel compelled to write. In the end he writes this italicized cri de cœur to the children of writers torn this way: “We love you dearly. We are so thankful you have walked with us upon this earth. But we cannot always be with you. We cannot even always be with ourselves.”
Robin Hemley directs the writing program at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and is the author of eleven books of nonfiction and fiction including his memoir NOLA: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness which was reissued by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. He is also the founder of NonfictioNow, a biennial conference dedicated to nonfiction.
Paragraph of the Week
Now, to consider this simple reason for loving our children, that we have begot them, therefore calling them our second selves, it appears, methinks, that there is another kind of production proceeding from us, that is of no less recommendation: for that which we engender by the soul, the issue of our understanding, courage, and abilities, springs from nobler parts than those of the body, and that are much more our own: we are both father and mother in this generation. These cost us a great deal more and bring us more honour, if they have anything of good in them. For the value of our other children is much more theirs than ours; the share we have in them is very little; but of these all the beauty, all the grace and value, are ours; and also they more vividly represent us than the others […] The good Lucan, being condemned by that rascal Nero, at the last gasp of his life, when the greater part of his blood was already spent through the veins of his arms, which he had caused his physician to open to make him die, and when the cold had seized upon all his extremities, and began to approach his vital parts, the last thing he had in his memory was some of the verses of his Battle of Phaysalia, which he recited, dying with them in his mouth. What was this, but taking a tender and paternal leave of his children, in imitation of the valedictions and embraces, wherewith we part from ours, when we come to die, and an effect of that natural inclination, that suggests to our remembrance in this extremity those things which were dearest to us during the time of our life?
—Michel de Montaigne (translated by Charles Cotton)
These [biological] children wanted nothing but our affection, and our affection was always split between them and our other children, the incorporeal ones, the ones who made us cruel, who made William Faulkner tell his daughter, Jill, "No one remembers Shakespeare's children." It's a commonplace to say that no man on his deathbed ever wished he'd spent more time at work. But men on their deathbeds have regretted what was still locked away inside them, what they suspected still lurked in the wings. The poet Lucan died reciting his own verses, as Montaigne has it: "a tender and paternal leave of his children, in imitation of the valedictions and embraces, wherewith we part from ours, when we come to die." If his corporeal children were with him at the time, Lucan might well have preferred to embrace them. But these other children he could summon to his side in his need, and they would fly to him. Our embodied children we cannot be so sure of, as King Lear learned too late.—Robin Hemley
“On the Power of the Imagination”
by Michel de Montaigne (translated by M. A. Screech)
and “Of the Power of the Imagination”
by Desirae Matherly
“The Humble Essayist is much taken with Desirae Matherly’s Montaigne project which celebrates the past master's paragraphs through musical emulation.”—THE
Our final January tribute to Montaigne will be a Paragraph of the Week from “On the Power of the Imagination” with a paragraph of interpretation by Desirae Matherly taken from her version of the same essay entitled “Of the Power of the Imagination.” Matherly has been at work on a project which she describes this way: “I’ve spend the last three years working to build a manuscript based on Bach’s Art of Fugue, converting his measures into prose.” So when she had the opportunity to write an essay bouncing off of Montaigne’s work for After Montaigne, “it seemed natural that a ‘cover’ essay in some way match the original in terms of measures and scoring.” She took to doing a close interpretation—a kind of paragraph by paragraph translation of Montaigne’s piece in her own terms. “For each of Montaigne’s paragraphs translated by M. A. Screech,” she explains, “I wrote an equivalent paragraph of my own, trying to work with the cadence of the song as it was written, while imparting my own style.” The Humble Essayist is much taken with Desirae Matherly's Montaigne project which celebrates the past master's paragraphs through musical emulation. We have chosen the penultimate paragraph of both essays for our feature.
Desirae Matherly is a Harper Fellow at The University of Chicago where she teaches in the Humanities Collegiate Division. Her most recent essays appear in Pleiades, Southern Humanities Review, and Lake Effect. She finished her PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University in 2004, and is a contributing editor for Quotidiana.
Paragraph of the Week
I think it less risky to write about the past than the present, since the author has only to account for borrowed truth. Some have invited me to write about contemporary events, reckoning that I see them with eyes less vitiated by passion than others do and that I have a closer view than they, since Fortune has given me access to the various leaders of the contending parties. What they do not say is that I would not inflict such pain upon myself for all the fame of Sallust (being as I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance), nor that nothing is so foreign to my mode of writing than extended narration. I have to break off so often from shortness of wind that neither the structure of my works nor their development is worth anything at all; and I have a more-than-childish ignorance of the words and phrases used in the most ordinary affairs. That is why I have undertaken to talk about only what I know how to talk about, fitting the subject-matter to my capacities. Were I to choose a subject where I had to be led, my capacities might prove inadequate to it. They do not say either that, since my freedom is so very free, I could have published judgements which even I would reasonably and readily hold to be unlawful and deserving of punishment. Of his own achievement Plutarch would be the first to admit that if his exempla are wholly and entirely true that is the work of his sources: his own work consisted in making them useful to posterity, presenting them with a splendour which lightens our path towards virtue.—Michel de Montaigne (translated by M. A. Screech)
I have always found it safer to write about the truths of my own experience as opposed to someone else's. Some people have urged me to write fiction instead of essays, claiming that my imagination is enough to recommend me to that craft, given that it seems to exist in such greater proportion than reason in my consciousness. Fame, lucrative movie deals, and bulging book contracts belong to writers of popular novels, not essayists, and really, my practice is built on the rewards of reflective digression. I go overly long, I ramble, without coming to fit conclusions. I have an immature sense of knowing when to stop, when I've said too much. But I still choose to write only about what I know, and the greenest thoughts, the freshest wounds direct me. If I had to write in any other way, I doubt I'd put a word to paper. The same who say I'd do better to write fiction would not think it so if I took even greater license in my work, when what I do now at least pretends to be careful when involving others. I do not know if reading about one person's mistakes can make the burden lighter for someone else, though that's the hope.—Desirae Matherly
from “The Vortex” in An Elemental Thing
by Eliot Weinberger
“Certainly the essays of Eliot Weinberger accommodate a swirl of subjects.”—THE
Eliot Weinberger is an essayist, political commentator, translator, and editor. His collections of literary essays include Karmic Traces, An Elemental Thing (named by the Village Voice as one of the "20 Best Books of the Year") and, most recently, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale. Our Paragraph of the Week is from An Elemental Thing which poet and essayist Forest Gander calls the “best book by our best living literary essayist,” commenting in particular on the “astonishing range of subjects” that Weinberger draws on as well as the “brilliant net of details that Weinberger casts and recasts in his various inventive approaches to form.” You can learn more about Weinberger at the New Directions website here and read Gander's complete review here.
The Paragraph of the Week
Near the whirlpool, they unbound the tree Our Father and thrust it standing into the lake, known as Our Mother. There it was left to stand until it rotted, and as the ceremony had been performed year after year, that part of the lake was a forest of dead trees. The priests took the girl from the litter, slit her throat with a small knife used for killing ducks, let her blood flow into the water, and then threw her into the whirlpool, with gifts of jewels, stones, necklaces, and bracelets. In silence, canoes glided through the dead trees home.—Eliot Weinberger
“The image is not an idea,” Eliot Weinberger states, quoting the familiar phrase from Ezra Pound. It is instead a vortex “into which ideas are constantly rushing.” Art “focuses the attention,” Pound also wrote, and it does so in a way analogous to yoga. To help us to get an understanding of this process Weinberger in "The Vortex" turns to the Yoga Sutra by the second century Sanskrit author Pantanjali from Kashmir. Yoga “stops the vortices of the mind,” Pantanjali wrote. By mind here he means the whole mind, “its total, non-specified, non-individualized sense.” The task of the artist—the writer—is to arrest this swirl and hold it in a momentary suspension for the mind to absorb. Certainly the essays of Eliot Weinberger accommodate a swirl of subjects. He presents us with an array of topics including, in this essay alone, a swirl of blood from the throat of a girl slit during an Aztec sacrificial ritual, the whirlpool that Plotinus argues receives the souls of the dead, the gyres of William Butler Yeats, the centripetal vortex of Empedocles’ contemporary Anaxagoras, the swerve of Lucretius, the coiled serpent Shesha, the spiral staircase in a dream of William Carlos Williams, Aphra Behn’s translation of Descarte’s toubillons, William Dampier’s description of a waterspout in the Celebes Sea and Ahab from Moby Dick firing a pistol into a similar waterspout, Whirling Dervishes, Yahweh’s whirlwind, and at last, from Herman Melville, the concentric circles “all round and round in one vortex” that “carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.” In An Elemental Thing Weinberger uses an array of literary techniques to shape this multitude, including catalogues, juxtapositions, parallelism, onomatopoeia, white space, and striking imagery and does so with what Forest Gander calls a “merciless understatement.” Artistry, “The Vortex” reminds us, is not in the wild, cumbersome and limitless variety at a writer’s disposal, but rather in what the writer makes of it all. In the whirlpool, art is not the pool but the whirl.—THE
from “A Thousand Mary Doyles”
by Sonja Livington
in Ladies Night at the Dreamland
“She is the Mary Doyle looking at the coastline of the world she leaves and the Mary Doyle standing beside her, and the Mary Doyle ‘studying the sky in place of crying.’”—THE
Sonja Livingston's latest book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history, memory and imagination to interact with and illuminate the lives of fascinating American women from the past. The result is a series of poetic essays including “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” the source of our Paragraph of the Week. Her second book, Queen of the Fall, uses memory and personal experience to consider the lives of girls and women she’s known more personally and her first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction. I found “A Thousand Mary Doyles” in the nonfiction anthology Brief Encounters edited by Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney. It first appeared in Brevity magazine. You can learn more about Sonja Livingston at her website here and hear her read and talk about "A Thousand Mary Doyles" in a YouTube video here.
The Paragraph of the Week
There she is, Mary Doyle, and another right beside her. Heads turned for one last view of land before the Cork coastline slips out of sight. Dishwater strands pushed behind her ears, yellow curls pulled up under a hat, dark frizz flying in the wind. She is seventeen. She is twenty-two. She is just yesterday turned twenty-nine. Look at her now, studying the sky in place of crying, trying to remember what everyone has said, begging Mary-the-most-holy-mother-of-God they might make it across the ocean alive.—Sonja Livingston
To come to America, Mary Doyle leaves behind “her mother’s grave,” “her favorite cow,” and “the words to every song she knows.” She leaves behind “the big house on the hill and the splintered wheel leaning against Coughlan’s cottage.” She leaves behind “the marsh violet and the burnet rose, and the blackthorn too,” and she won’t be back “because when someone leaves the Ballyhaunis, sure enough, she’s gone for good.” Ballyhaunis or Moycullen or Collooney or Kilkelly or Drogheda. Gone for good. She is the Mary Doyle looking at the coastline of the world she leaves and the Mary Doyle standing beside her, and the Mary Doyle “studying the sky in place of crying.” She is the Mary Doyle “stepping from the gangway, swaying a bit as her feet reach solid land” and she is the Mary Doyle “scanning the crowd for the sight of a familiar face.” In the lilting prose of Sonja Livingston’s tribute to Irish immigrant girls, she is the Mary Doyle with red hair and blonde hair and “[d]ishwater strands pushed behind her ears.” She is “[e]very girl bound for Boston, New York, and the Upper St. Lawrence,” and for the course of this brief but bewitching essay we are asked to acknowledge her, to “stop now and look into her face,” because this wandering immigrant mother of us all, whether she comes from the Gold Coast or Shanghai or Aleppo or Cork, “belongs to each of us does our girl Mary Doyle.”—THE
from “Buying a Bass”
in Sublime Physick
by Patrick Madden
“The essay ‘Buying a Bass,’ which is really the story of not buying a bass, is about the disappointments, lucky turns, improbable meetings and small rebellions that add up to who we are.”—THE
Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick from the University of Nebraska Press. “No one writing essays today,” says Robert Atwan, “does so with a greater awareness of the genre’s literary traditions.” Madden is also the author of Quotidiana and runs a website by that name which allows readers to explore the genre’s literary traditions. It is one of the great on-line gifts to writers of the essay found on the internet and you can access it here. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “Buying a Bass” in Sublime Physick.
The Paragraph of the Week
So I guess I'm not just thinking about the ways we absorb the speaking styles and inflections of others or about whether such flexibility in our accents indicates some lack in our constitutions. I'm thinking about the small rebellions in life, the book and flashlight under the covers, the raucous racket playing on the stereo, the cigarette out in the woods, the initials carved in the beech bark. I'm thinking that my father was probably right—I'm glad now to be able to strum up a tune to sing along to—and that I'm also right to finally own my own bass. I'm thinking about the Christmas Eve just after my purchase, when my father turned sixty-four and we gathered the whole Madden clan with piano, guitar, bass, and clarinets to sing for him "When I'm Sixty-Four," with slight lyrical changes to accommodate the grandchildren on his knee. I'm thinking how, more than any salesman or community of peers, my father has molded me, in ways I can sound through deep reflection and ways I cannot fathom. And I'm thinking about how the world became a better place when Stu Sutcliffe and Astrid Kircher decided to shack up, leaving Paul McCartney to string up an upside-down Rosetti Solid 7 with piano wire to create a makeshift bass. How Chris Squire split his bass signal into both a bass and a guitar amp, to achieve that heavy treble and heady growl to underlie the orchestral arrangements of Yes. How sometimes all you need is a steady da-da-dee-da-da-dah-dum da-da-dee-da-da-dah dum to conjure images of a quiet New Year's Day, a world in white where nothing changes. And how can Geddy Lee split his brain like he does, play with his hands those intricate bass lines and sing on different rhythms, different notes? This is a mystery I am content to witness without understanding, like my toaster, my computer, my wife's love, my children's wonder, my father's long wisdom, and the ways we resist and rely on each other, we grow and empathize, meet another soul along the way, and resonate.—Patrick Madden
I can explain some of the more obscure references by Patrick Madden here, though the point is that their full significance is unfathomable. Chris Squire, a member of the band Yes, played his bass through multiple amplifiers and Geddy Lee who performed with Rush played syncopated rhythms on his bass while singing, both artists filling young Patrick Madden with a longing to buy an electric bass when he was in junior high, but his father forbad it. He feared Patrick would join a rock group—what else could a boy do with an electric bass?—and allowed him to buy a guitar instead which was more versatile. Also, Paul McCartney took over the position at bass with the Beatles after Stu Sutcliff left the band to pursue his own art—and the photographer Astrid Kircher. Most of the other references are self evident on the surface, though I should add that Madden tells us earlier in the essay that despite growing up in New Jersey, he doesn’t “speak it,” and probably “learned to talk by imitating” his “father’s soft Wisconsin inflection.” The essay “Buying a Bass,” which is really the story of not buying a bass, is about the disappointments, lucky turns, improbable meetings and small rebellions that add up to who we are. These serendipidous events inhabit us, lying dormant and unnoticed most of the time like some “New Year’s Day” of the soul from “a world in white where nothing changes” that remains lost to consciousness until tricked out by a song, an spoken accent, or a long wait on hold while buying a bass years later online and listening to the “da-da-dee-da-da-dah-dum” rhythm of “song snippets” on the phone. How they live in us and create us is beyond our ken, “a mystery I am content to witness,” Madden writes, “without understanding, like my toaster, my computer, my wife's love, my children's wonder, my father's long wisdom.” It is enough to know that these enigmas of our soul-making are born out of the “ways we resist and rely on each other,” chance interactions that allow us to “grow and empathize, meet another soul along the way” and, like piano wire strung over Rosetti Solid 7 pickups, “resonate.”—THE
from “The Mowing of a Field”
in Hills and the Sea
by Hillaire Belloc
“In matters eternal, what we do—whether it is art or work—is less important than the way we do it.”—THE
Writing in the early half of the twentieth century, the Anglo-French author Hilaire Belloc was recognized for his light verse and his essays. His books of essays include Short Talks with the Dead, A Conversation with a Cat, and Hills and the Sea where the essay “The Mowing of a Field” was first collected. The essay celebrates the simple joy of doing something well. As Lydia Fakundiny writes in her marvelous anthology, The Art of the Essay, its “business is with how to do things and how to do them pleasurably and well, the aesthetics of work. It unfolds to the imaginative eye scenes and processes of such clarity one becomes absorbed not only in what is being described or explained but in the fine arts of describing and explaining themselves.” It does do all of that beautifully, but, as I argue in the commentary below, it has an eye on eternity as well. You can read the entire essay on-line at Quotidiana.
The Paragraph of the Week
So great an art can only be learnt by continual practice; but this much is worth writing down, that, as in all good work, to know the thing with which you work is the core of the affair. Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a white-washed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognize its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one's prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.—Hilaire Belloc
Immortality is here and now, and if we are lucky, we notice. Soul making does not require art in the highbrow sense, though doing a thing for all time means doing it right. Hilaire Belloc, in “The Mowing of a Field,” says that he returns to his old family farm in southern England because the swing of the scythe, when done properly, allows him to find, and fall into, the larger rhythms of life itself. Even sharpening the scythe with a whet stone puts him—quite literally—in tune with glory in the universe, and gives him this handsome sentence: “First the stone clangs and grinds against the iron harshly; then it rings musically to one note; then, at last, it purrs as though the iron and stone were exactly suited.” Clang. Ring. Purr. A humble chore in this world gives way, for one man in some isolated coomb, to the music of the spheres. In matters eternal, what we do—whether it is art or work—is less important than the way we do it. “Mowing well and mowing badly,” Belloc writes, “are separated by very little; as is also true of writing verse, of playing the fiddle, and of dozens of other things.” Done right—done well—the simplest of activities can cause the worst in us to fall away as the best is absorbed into forever. Mowing “should be like one’s prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.” Does not bother, that is, with the ways of the world. The task at hand is, to put this idea Platonically, a midwife for the soul, giving birth to our better selves.—THE
from “Looking for Zora”
in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
by Alice Walker
“What Alice Walker has stumbled into here is most likely the grave of the legendary black novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.”—THE
Alice walker is an internationally celebrated writer, poet and activist whose books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of poetry. She is also an essayist and The Paragraph of the Week is taken from her essay “Looking for Zora” from her collection In Search of our Mothers' Gardens.
The Paragraph of the Week
"Zora!" Then I start fussing with her. "I hope you don't think I'm going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I'm going to call you just one or two more times." On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. It is on its back, and is as large as three of my fingers. I walk toward it, and yell "Zo-ra!" and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide. I look up to see where the two gates are.—Alice Walker
What Alice Walker has stumbled into here is most likely the grave of the legendary black novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. One of the reasons she is legendary is this essay, “Looking for Zora,” which helped revive interest in Hurston whose novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is now considered an American masterpiece. Hurston died penniless in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, the setting of her most famous books. One sign of the neglect she experienced at the end of her career was that she had lost her connection with New York editors as her handwritten letter in the final year of her life to “the editorial department” at Harper & Brothers suggests. The other sign is that few in her home town even knew about her and her work. And then there is this unmarked grave in an overgrown section of the town’s all-black cemetery. Walker admits that later the sadness of Hurston’s lack of recognition upset her. “Such moments,” she explains, “rob us of both youth and vanity” and “are also times when greater disciplines are born.” But she realizes as well that “there is a point at which grief seems absurd” and “laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity” as the sassiness of the paragraph about her calling the name “Zora” in a weedy field demonstrates, and the Zora who answers her there would agree. “I am not tragically colored,” Hurston wrote. “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Walker celebrates her discovery by famously purchasing a grave marker with an inscription borrowed from the poetry of Jean Toomer. “Zora Neale Hurston,” it reads in part, “‘A Genius of the South.’”
from The Pat Boone Fan Club:
My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew
by Sue William Silverman
“Pat Boone may have all the answers wrapped up in his God, but Sue has ‘no answers, none.’”
Sue William Silverman is the author of three memoirs. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in Creative Nonfiction. Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman's Journey Through Sexual Addiction, was made into a Lifetime TV Original Movie. Her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon and her book on writing nonfiction is Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir. Her most recent memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew which is the source of The Paragraph of the Week. Learn more about Sue Silverman and her work at suewilliamsilverman.com.
The Paragraph of the Week
Pat Boone is innocent, all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park, Bermuda shorts and girls in shirtwaist dresses, corner drugstores, pearly nail polish, prom corsages, rain-scented lilacs, chenille bedspreads and chiffon scarves, jukebox rock and roll spilling across humid evenings, back when linoleum was better, more real, than wood. He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore, bathing suits hung to dry, the smell of must and mildew tempered by sun and salt. He is a boardwalk Ferris wheel, its spinning lights filling dark spaces between stars. He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July.—Sue William Silverman
Except in memory, “its own accurate reality,” summer days were never like the “all American weekends” at Palisades Park for Sue William Silverman. She identifies herself as a “white, Anglo-Saxon Jew” with an enduring teenage crush on the singer Pat Boone, famous for his smooth voice, white bucks, and—these days—his Christian family values. Studying the photographs of the happy, Boone family on “their bicycle built for six” and marveling at the “four generations of Boones, a family all together,” she feels an old longing, “a pale throb of memory.” Her life turned out differently. “You, yourself, have no children,” she admits, “two divorced husbands, two dead cats,” and “estranged relatives.” Above all, Sue, abused as a child by her father, has “never been anyone’s daughter,” a wound that her perfect heartthrob cannot mend. Pat Boone may have all the answers wrapped up in his God, but Sue has “no answers, none.” She doesn’t even have her old white bucks, “lost—like so much along the way.” She did finally meet her idol. They had a conversation and he “noticed the embroidered flower” on her jacket, but the moment, like a question mark on the word “huh,” never completely shed its irony. So you met Pat Boone, she says, “ironic, huh?” When Pat Boone descended “ex machina” into her adult life, a “nostalgia more real, more intense than the past itself” returned. “If only Pat Boone could make the past like he used to.” But he never really could. All she can come up with “backstage in the green room” with the father “she always wanted” is this: “It is a crazy world, huh?”--THE
March 25, 2016
from “Forward: Of Essays and Essayists”
by Robert Atwan
in The Best American Essays 2015
“The personal essay is not about the self. It devours the self. It uses the self up.”—THE
The writer Robert Atwan has for the last thirty years been the series editor of The Best American Essays, widely read anthologies published annually that have done much to introduce new readers to the essay. Each year, Atwan writes an elegant introductory piece to the series which discusses the nature of the essay and notes trends and innovations in the form. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from this year’s forward which discusses the “creative egotism” of the essayist. It is particularly thought-provoking and seemed to cry out for a response from The Humble Essayist.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
So the essayist appears to pursue a paradoxical career. The quintessential essayist parades an enormous ego and yet does so in a modest setting, that is, within a genre widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama. E. B. White was very aware of this and felt the public somewhat justified in regarding the essay as "the last resort of the egoist," and said of himself, "I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others." A few decades earlier, the Saturday Review of Literature critic Elizabeth Drew argued more positively for the essayist's ego, regarding the "pure" or "perfect" essayist—writers such as Montaigne, Lamb, and Hazlitt—as someone who possesses the "secret of the essayist," which she termed “creative egotism” as distinguished from a “trivial” egotism, which produces not great essays but recognizably mannered ones. Although she doesn't consider what I find paradoxical, Drew does recognize the peculiarity of major egos choosing to express themselves in a minor form. But it may be that the essay is the only form suitable for such expression.
In this paragraph, Robert Atwan, a great champion and friend of the essay, appears to disagree with the very premise of The Humble Essayist. In our inaugural issue we took as our creed the thoughts of Vivian Gornick who argues that essayists are “truth speakers” and “their delight is not self-aggrandizement but the illumination of an idea.” In our view, the essay is the literary vehicle for the humble exploration of a glorious universe. Atwan enlists E. B. White, the subject of the second issue of THE, to offer a contrary view of the essay as “the last resort of the egoist” as well as Elizabeth Drew who considers “creative egotism” to be the secret ingredient in the form. We here in the black and white pages of The Humble Essayist concede the obvious—personal essayists write about their lives—but when we read their work essayist rarely seem boastful or arrogant, and we think that there is a more subtle point to be made, one that is hinted at in the language of Atwan’s paragraph. Why is the form the “last resort of the egoist?” What sets a great essay above “trivial egotism?” How could egotism be a secret? Robert Atwan believes that the essay may be “the only suitable form” for such self expression because the essayist hides his ego in a genre that the “literary world” does “not take very seriously,” but we think the real reason can be found in the very nature of the essayist’s thematic ambitions. The personal essay puts the self in the service of a theme that is larger than the self. The events themselves are often minor: a trip to the lake, a path that leads to a weasel, or a beer mug shattering a mirror. What matters is language and artistry and the ideas they provoke. The personal essay is not about the self. It devours the self. It uses the self up.—THE