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Books

Show and Tell

Two new collections show Lopate’s mastery of the essay

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Phillip Lopate is America’s Montaigne, bringing the same sense of moderation, warmth, and curiosity to the personal essay. Two new volumes, Portrait Inside My Head: Essays and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, are evidence—if any more was needed—of Lopate’s mastery of the form.

Randomly opening the former, I came across the first sentence of “Duration, or, Going Long”: “Fornicating is like parenting: no matter how you do it, you have the guilty sense that somewhere other people are doing it more correctly. Myself, I wonder if I last long enough.”

As it turns out, this is the perfect opening to show what a superb vehicle the essay can be. Lopate manages a wise, self-deprecating, and curious voice, the kind we might appreciate in a friend. And yet, if a friend were to tell us he feared he didn’t last long enough, we would certainly not like to follow the train of his all-too-fleshy thoughts. In print, however, Lopate’s five-page essay never seems like TMI, even though we learn that “if my wife and I start going at it by 10:30, even with the reverential postcoital snuggle and love-you exchange, one of us still has time to say ‘You wanna watch the news?’” or that Henry Miller “kept a bowl of ice by his bedside so that he could withdraw when he felt close to ejaculation and plunge his balls into it.” Throughout Portrait, Lopate feels more human than most of the people we know, but not uncomfortably so—like Montaigne, he has a very particular voice but also stands in for humanity.

In To Show and to Tell the master shares some reflections on the trade, and while the book is not quite Henry James’ The Future of the Novel, it should be read by anyone interested in the essay, because, unlike a book about writing novels, these essays on essays both show and tell what an exemplary essay might look like. When you reach the end of “How Do You End an Essay?” you see a shining example of the topic at hand.

The first section treats the “craft of personal narrative” and deals not only with endings but “Modesty and Assertion,” “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” and even “The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook.” The second section consists of studies of the essayists who have influenced Lopate, and it reads like an intellectual biography as he leads the reader through his discovery of Lamb, Emerson, Hazlitt, and Baldwin.

These books both clearly demonstrate that Lopate will certainly have a formidable place in the intellectual journey of any future practitioner.

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