Reading Notes

Week 10: Reading Notes

David Foster Wallace, Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise (Harper’s Magazine 1996).

Essays, like any other art form, need the self and world in dynamic relation to realize the possibility that our work might transcend the limits of both.

-Nicole B. Wallack, Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

Idea: What conceptual work is the essay doing?

Presence: what can we say about the presence of the writer that is created by the conceptual work. (presence is more than tonal, linguistic, or voiced. Voice is a component and not a synonym for presence.)

Evidence: not only what but how the writer shaped the evidence for a particular purpose in light of a particular idea the writer wants to explore (“a methodology for reading essays driven by evidence must also account for the complex relationship with the kind of thinking it combines, interrogates, and, finally, interprets,” 57)

Idea-Presence-Evidence: what choices has the writer made to explore the idea? Words senteneces? paragraphs? sections?

Paragraphs 1-4: First 3 (and into 4th) paragraphs are built with a pattern of sentences

I have seen
I have smelled
I have heard
I now know
I now understand
(I have acquired)

Segmented Essay

The Four-Color Brochure, Part I
Pampered to Death, Part I
Under Sail
The Four-Color Brochure, Part II
Pampered to Death, Part II
My Cabin
My Bathroom
The Ocean
Table 64’s Waiter
Port Call
Some Organized Fun
The Headline Entertainment

Week 7 Reading Notes 2.22.18 (Dylan, Julia, Fletcher)

Chapter 5 “Crafting a Self Made in Images” and Chapter 6 “Learning the Essay”


Creating a Self Made Image:

  • Claims that “essays are not personal”, even when they include a strong authorial presence.

    • All writing, the author claims, contains the author’s voice and needn’t be overtly referenced.

    • A personal essay is not a private journal.

      • Somewhat familiar with last weeks readings, which bring up oversharing as a phenomenon.

    • When an essay starts with the intent to be personal, the result is often like that of a private journal, blog, etc. There isn’t much of an idea present.

    • Just  because an essay uses the first person, doesn’t necessarily mean it reveals anything of the author’s character values.

    • The author uses Atwan’s tracking of the etymology of the word “personal”

      • Has roots in latin word which means mask

        • Suggests that writers need distance from the “I” on the page, and their actual self

    • “Essays must be true to life and offer more than mimesis…”

      • This is where the idea comes into play, something driving the essay forward with purpose and determination.

    • Overly intimate essays can be uncomfortable for readers, so using formal essay techniques can create distance from the paper to make it more palatable.

    • Ultimately a personal essay is not written in a vacuum, and writers will naturally incorporate the outside world into their musings.


  • Private writing is any kind of writing that a person does without any intention of sharing it. 168
  • Oddly enough, the term that we automatically use to convey intimacy and sincerity has hidden overtones of disguise and performance. 169
  • Essays rely on their power to “defamiliarize” subject matter to their writers and readers, even our own lived experiences. 170
  • We write essays enlivened by experience as a way, in part, of remembering our mortality, rather than to attempt to escape it or transform it into something more transcendent or lasting. 170
  • When we give ourselves away in writing, we come out of hiding literally or figuratively. 171
  • To give the self away as a gift requires the artist—essayist, in this case—to labor so as to sustain the self’s life or force, but as a “reproduction,” not as a mere transcription of the artist’s experience of interior monologue. 171
  • Seeking intimacy that goes beyond the sharing of details of our physical or emotional states. 171
  • Essays must be true to life and offer more than mimesis; they must contain some characteristics or dimensions that make them qualitatively different from even the most careful reporting of events, phenomena, or states of being. 171
  • An idea is something believed in with conviction or seen with precision. 172
  • In essays we readers are invited to witness “the enactment of a process by which the soul realizes itself even as it is passing from day to day and from moment to moment. 172
  • Essays allow a soul to become tangible or visible and also create space for the soul to be aware of itself. 172
  • The intimacy possible in essays evidences itself not because the writer invokes personal experience but despite it. 173
  • Awakening essays mark a moment or series of moments when something in the writer that was dormant becomes active…the awakening essay requires that the writer engage what we could think of as his or her ontological consciousness. 174
  • The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things… he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even only bits of it, even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts. 176
  • Charles Simic understands, at the end of the essay, more than he did when he started the process of “thought becoming image. Image becoming thought.” 178
  • Essays come to life to the reader and writer alike when the form and the language animate the writer’s idea. 179
  • Simic teaches us that an awakening essay is not so much a story or set of stories with a single moment of understanding articulated but something more complex. 185
  • No sensation in an essay is simple, otherwise why bother to write about it? 187
  • Gordon shows us how much we can gain in letting ourselves get a little lost in our sensations, in navigating our experiences by emotion, pleasure, and imagination. 189
  • Reflection creates a small, sometimes unnoticeably small interruptions of the experiential narratives of an essay… the writing persona pauses to muse or question or challenge something the experiencing presence cannot. 191
  • If readers o not believe that a writer’s stories are true t life, then the whole enterprise of the essay is compromised. Success in essay, according to Atwan, “is ultimately a matter of craft and credibility, a delicate balance of literary persona and the literal person. 191
  • Essayists understand that a true story doesn’t usually come packaged in a compelling dramatic shape but rather tends to disperse itself into observation or anticlimax. 194
  • Pauses offer moments where writer and reader may come into closest contact—at rest. 194
  • The paradox of what we have come to call the “personal essay” is that we never just speak for ourselves when we write essays, but we can only speak for ourselves in order to get them written. 195
  • The awakening essay relies on the practice of looking and looking again, of reflection and recursion. 196
  • Our awakenings often require struggle, failure, and guilt—and we need not experience any of these emotions on a grand or “universal” scale. 196
  • When personal essays go wrong they do so, in part, because they are not sufficiently able to make the world outside care for the experiences they recount and the ideas they proffer. 196
  • Essays, like any other art form, need the self and world in dynamic relation to realize the possibility that our work might transcend the limits of both. 196


  • Personal Essays can be misleading on first thought
    • Often result in long narratives with no real reflection
  • (168) the personal experience of a writer in an essay is the “I” voice does not dictate the essay because readers are bringing with them varying expereices.
  • “Personal” leaves room for relations but also distances essayist and persona (mask imagery)
  • “Defamiliarize” – the moving process of personal experience into the broader scheme (opens up more room for reader relations)
  • The term TRANSCENDING sticks out to me as it seems to put the essay on a pedestal and make the genre feel intangible and I like this imagery because individual readers may have varying experiences with one personal essay that can be difficult to explain
  • (171) Woolf’s imagery of the idea of stepping out of a personal experience and reevaluating the experience
  • (174) Essays somewhat answer both simple and difficult questions by using personal experiences to directly answer simple questions, but by branching out from the experience essayists move into the realm of answering harder questions by giving the reader a new look at an issue.
  • The essay is not a retelling or reconstruction but a reflection
  • Essays manipulate a larger image by zooming in on only small fractions of the image and distorting the reader’s perception of the image, only at the very end of the essay does the reader return to the initial larger image and are able to look at it through a new lens.
  • Blurring reflections can muck up the essay in some aspects but the result requires the reader to partake in deeper thinking
  • (189) Personal essays leave room for the reader to experience their own personal emotion, pleasure, and imagination.
  • Essays thrive by not unfolding upon a personal experience but by allowing enough vagueness for the reader to draw their own conclusions from their own experiences.


  • 168 Differences between Personal and Private writing: “Private Writing, as we have learned…is any kind of writing that a person does without any intention of sharing it.”
    • “When teachers invite our students to write a personal essay, we can expect them to forget the essayist’s obligation to have an idea and to craft experiences in such a way as to make them shareable with readers.”

– Pg. 169 ‘Persona’: “The possibility of a persona creates a space in which the essayist can both recognizably himself or herself, akin to the version who eats breakfast accompanied by a cat sleeping on the table, who reads philosophy all night, who worries over failing vision, or failing love, and who is also an Other–mysterious, separate, and watchful–a writer.

-Pg. 173 ‘Confession writing’: “Confessions, epitomized in Saint Augustine’s book, are based in the desire not to stabilize or honor the self but to transcend it.

– Pg. 174 “Awakening essay’: “Awakening essays mark, in time and space, a moment or series of moments when something in the writer that was dormant becomes active; something inaudible to him or her speaks; something that was invisible comes into view; and/or something that was insentient becomes animate and active.”

-Pg. Simis vs. Gordon: “In contrast to Charles Simic’s essay, which achieves coherence by virtue of his image and word work, Gordon’s essay features a distinct chronological thread from her past to the moment of writing.”

-Pg. 179 Simic: “He shows us that he is not just writing from image to image, or from thought to thought in a tangle of associations, but carefully crafting returns to key concepts, figures, and sounds to do more work with them in service of an idea.”

-Pg. 189 “To write with oneself as the object is one of the most difficult experiments one can make, and the achievement of Simic’s essay is to offer a fine example of the experimenting mind at work.”

-Pg. 187 Gordon: “This essay is an example of what an awakening entails in its most expected form: it begins in childhood identifying a significant emotional and intellectual dilemma for the writer, and moves forward chronologically to the moment of writing through interweaving, but distinct, episodes from her life?”

-Pg. 189: “Mary Gordon seems to have no set place where the energy of sensation and living fully in the body will take her.”

-Pg. 195: “The paradox of what we have come to call the ‘personal essay’ is that we never just speak for ourselves when we write essays, but we can only speak for ourselves in order to get them written. What I have called in this chapter the awakening essay gives us a space in which to negotiate this tension.”

-Pg. 197 Each genre and subgenre offers different kinds of invitations, so which genres we choose had better be intrinsically meaningful to read and to write.”

-Pg. 198: ‘Mutt Genres’ “mutt genres–genres that do not respond to rhetorical situations requiring communication in order to accomplish a purpose that is meaningful to the author.”

-Pg. 200: “My decision to move among theory, student performance, and my own history reflects my strongest belief about writing programs: namely, that we must do more than teach students to become proficient technicians of academic discourse. Writing programs must be sites of rigorous inquiry into teaching and learning, writing and reading, drawing on the many literate traditions from which the majority of us come: literature, composition and rhetoric, and creative writing.”

-Pg. 203: Presence: “Why read for the writer’s presence? Primarily because it is important for us to know how to detect a thinking mind, and hopefully a unique one, at work while we read.”

-Pg. 207 “…I am emphasizing that students need to read essays by a number of different writers rather than just one.”

-Pg. 208: “An essay, as I understood it, was a long answer to a question usually posed by someone else: a teacher, an exam, or an institution.”

Week 7 Reading Notes 2.20.18

Katherine Reed

“The Essay is the Genre of Presence”: An Interview with Nicole B. Wallack

  • ‘“Literary” essays are meant to provide rich readerly experiences in content and form.”
  • “We might not think of an essay as sufficiently literary if we encounter in it rhetorical and generic elements typically associated with academic discourse: explicit claims, warrants, and citations.” Interesting observation that I definitely find true
  • We write essays to communicate an idea and “create the conditions in which readers learn to care about that idea” — we write to make readers feel what we are feeling — meaning all essays are literary
  • All essays are literary but not all literary short non-fiction works are essays
  • Presence is a major factor to how effective essays areCrafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies : Introduction (3-19)
  • “When students write primarily in order to exercise skills they may not understand why those skills are valuable” (3). I feel like this is very true because high school English classes have students write essays almost reflexively rather than breaking them down and teaching why the students are writing essays in the first place.
  • (4) Essay writing teaches students to:
    • Modulate self-expression and social commentary
    • Situate themselves historically, intellectually and culturally
    • Engage rigorously and ethically with ideas, data, and text by others
    • Reflect on and revise their ideas, values, and sense of self
    • Develop discursive, aesthetic, and rhetorical awareness
    • Document shifts in their thinking, commitments, and modes of expression
  • Essays are not helpful when trying to teach students all the different ways of writing they will need to know in the future, but “when we need to write about our work in order to reach multiple audiences, we write essays” (5).
  • Essays force writers to write something comprehensible AND compelling
  • 3 qualities to distinguish essay: presence, evidence, and idea (5)
  • (7) If teachers understood how important essay writing can be to a student’s developmental process and to their success in the “real” world, teachers would teach the essay more effectively and with greater purpose; CCSS have made this very difficult for teachers (basically my first essay)
  • “Without understanding the fundamental value of the essay as a genre, writing in high school will increasingly become a protracted entrance examination without other intellectual, ethical, or civic merits” (9).
  • “Educators and students should want an essay-based curriculum if we truly want students to contribute their ideas rather than merely their opinions” (15).
  • (28) 4 ways writers create their presence:
    • Include personal experience as evidence
    • Create “distinctive and identifiable voice”
    • Select POV toward subject
    • Create “artistic presence” through repeated formal patterns such as images, metaphors, and/or significant words/phrases
  • “In essays, we do not house our ideas in our formal choices, we enact them” (29)
  • (31) 6 places to find writer’s presence — where and how the writer:
    • Articulates motive for essay
    • Develops idea through proposing counter-arguments or re-defining key term
    • Chooses, incorporates, and “controls … quotation and detail”
    • Moves conceptually beyond obvious/cliche
    • Considers implications of exploration and conclusions in larger terms

○ Articulates complex judgements and reasons for claims about subject

  • “The goal is not always to be the same but to see voice as one of the choices we can make as writers” (32).
  • Out of all creative and literary nonfiction, only the essay needs to have an idea(37)
  • “We do not believe only because the ideas are particularly forceful; the form creates the force” (48).
  • (58) 4 strategies to study evidence:
    • Diagramming evidence to indicate which sections are devoted to evidence
    • Counting paragraphs devoted to evidence
    • Distinguishing among the different kind of evidence within an essay
    • Identifying how writer incorporates evidence
  • (58) 4 strategies to study presence:
    • Diagramming essay to follow rhetorical purpose of each “I”
    • Noting frequency of “I”s in essay/ other pronoun shifts
    • Identifying reflection at sentence and paragraph levels
    • identifying linguistic patterns that mark the writer’s presence

Week Six Reading Notes: Ben and Joey 2.15.18

Jia Tolentino, The Personal Essay Boom is Over and Laura Bennett, The First-Person Industrial Complex.

See Sam’s insightful strong of comments in The Essay Hypothesis Group. Why Did the Harrowing Personal Essay Take Over the Internet?

The first-person boom, Tolentino says, has helped create “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”

This is both terrifying and depressing, that many feel that they have nothing to offer in terms of life experiences than their lowest and most despised moments.

Ryan O’Connell, who wrote about his personal life for Thought Catalog from 2010 to 2014, said that the volume expectations and traffic pressures kept escalating until he found himself emotionally exhausted. He moved to Los Angeles last year, partly to, in his words, “escape the first-person Internet.” “It’s disturbia out there,” he says.

Hazardous profession to mental health because of public desire and corporate demand for traffic.

The mandate at xoJane, according to Carroll, was: the more “shameless” an essay, the better.

How should we feel about this as writers, and do we feel that we must overexpose ourselves for the cause of recognition?

They don’t merely assert the universality of their experience; they arrive at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning. In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.

One factor that separates the amateurs from the skilled: the process of guiding us to the state that they desire from us, rather than just writing the scene and allowing us to respond as we wish. Mukherjee and Gay have both shown us this in their essays.

The first-person boom has had one significant benefit: There’s more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever. And in some ways, we’re in a golden age for first-person writing online.

Online writing as a medium is successful is both reaching a broad audience and representing a broad spectrum of viewpoints. This is important. ***

But Gould and Tkacik were building relationships with readers via self-exposure, cultivating boundary-pushing personas that encouraged a kind of voyeuristic investment in their shifting personal dramas and thoughts.

Personal writing is voyeurism when the writer passes beyond a boundary of what is expected to be shared in a society; that too has changed.

“I was just writing about myself because it was the thing I knew how to do. I was not thinking about traffic.”

Personal writing has grown as a market to bring the writer into the field, with more exposure of ones’ inner soul equating to more renown.

And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher.

Desensitized to tragedy and loss of empathy?

As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy.

Experience translating to content, almost a requirement for publishing.

It would feed the Internet’s bottomless appetite for harrowing personal essays.

Is this problematic, the desire for the harrowing essays? It’s almost like the most interesting essays are written surrounding a tragedy or a personal problem, one that may not necessarily be easy to share or to write about.

Michael Depp, On Essays: Literature’s Most Misunderstood Form


I love the first line, starting it off with “this is not an essay” made it sound like very self aware writing. The entire first paragraph is the writer questioning what kind of writing he is doing.

“It’s this very problem, the want of a strict, unarguable definition of the essay”

I thought every student in class could understand. It’s very difficult to write when we aren’t told what kind of writing we are supposed to be doing.

I really like the line “The art of a writer intensely in dialogue with him or herself”. I have never thought of essays this way but that is a perfect summary of what an essay is. It’s just a speech being delivered in the writers own head.

Depp provides a lot of examples of famous essayists and talks about how they write essays.

The essay is not about the essayist, but rather how the essayist takes on something larger than themselves.

Leaves the reader wondering if there is a definitive form of the essay, or if all essays are just attempts at trying to find definitive forms.

Talk of the Nation, Writers’ Views: The Art of the Essay, a discussion led by Neal Conan with Hilary Masters, Robert Atwan, and Meaghan Daum, and bring your notes on the conversation to class.

“The only thing I know anything about is myself” is probably an issue many writers struggle with when writing.

The guest’s student describing essays as “mental aerobics” which I also think is a great description of essays.

The thought of “30 second essays” sounds like a very interesting way to practice the art of essay writing.

Week Five Reading Notes: Patrick 2.8.18


  • “The function of the essayist – … – would seem to be to reconcile poetry and philosophy to offer a strange bridge between the world of images and that of concepts, warning the reader of the dark turns of the labyrinth and hoping to help him seek an opening through which to pass” (pg. 75)
  • “The formula of the essay – how simple this seems to affirm – is that of all literature: have something to say, say it in a manner that excites the conscience and awakens the emotions of other persons, in a language so personal and appropriate that it is recognized  as one’s own.” (pg. 77)
  • Pican-Salas speaks of the essay as a tool for honesty and realization. By having something to say about our lives and the world around us, in an originally honest way, we are able to navigate “the labyrinth”.


  • “The essay does not obey the rules of the game of organized science and theory that, following Spinoza’s principle, the order of things is identical with that of ideas.” (pg.83)
  • “The essay does not strive for closed, deductive or inductive, construction. It revolts above all against the doctrine – Deeply rooted since Plato – that the changing and ephemeral is unworthy of philosophy…” (pg. 83)
  • “The essay shys away from the violence of dogma, from the notion that the result of abstraction, the temporally invariable concept indifferent to the individual phenomenon grasped by it, deserves ontological dignity.” (pg.83)
  • “The essay simultaneously suspends the traditional concept of method. Thought acquires its depth from penetrating deeply into a matter, not from referring it back to something else.” (pg.84)
  • The essay is a form without a shape. Dogma and doctrine constrict while the essay is meant to break away from those pre-determined constrictions.


  • “Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal.” (pg.88)
  • “The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist. Freely, effortlessly, thought and feeling move in these consummate works of art, hither and thither between the essay’s three poles – from the personal to the universal, from the abstract back to the concrete, from the objective datum to the inner experience.” (pg.90)
  • Huxley contends that an essay should not simply exist in one plain, but rather it should transmute itself into different perspectives and ideas, which intertwine together to form one.


  • “Even that isn’t quite right: An essay really ought not to be on anything, to deal with anything, to define anything. An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.” (pg.91)
  • “The essay is just as outmoded as the art of letter-writing, the art of conversation, the art of walking for pleasure.”(pg.92)
  • “A jesting Pilate who asks questions but doesn’t wait for answers is the archetypal personification of the essay, of essay-writing and essayists.” (pg.92)
  • “The essay is not a form, but a style above all. Its individualism distinguishes it from pure, absolute or autonomous art. The point of an essay, like its justification and its style, always lies in the author’s personality and always leads back to it.” (pg.92)


  • “Early describes the particular situation of the African American essayist as being ‘anthropological’ in the paradoxical sense that she or he is always both participant and observer.”
  • Early delves into the the unfortunate truth of monolithic identity placed upon black people within the U.S. as a result of slavery. The development of linguistics and arts is in itself a reflection of the once lack there of, thusly the participant is he observer.


  • “In the following reflections on the essay, Mairs offers a sustained contrast of Montaigne and Bacon, exploring in particular the contemporary implications of their different essayistic modes.” (pg.142)
  • “Montaigne invented, or perhaps renewed, a mode open and flexible enough to enable the feminine inscription of human experience as no other does.” (pg.143)
  • “Not command of the mind and the world, but communication with the mind and the world forms Montaigne’s purpose.” (pg.144)
  • “By embracing contradiction, Montaigne never permits himself a stance sturdy enough for gaining sovereignty over himself, his fellow creatures, or any of the other natural phenomena objectified by scientific discourse.” (pg.144)
  • “…Bacon had no qualms about his footing. All a man need do was dislodge the idols of his mind – rooted in human nature, idiosyncrasy, social intercourse, and philosophical dogma – and he would see plain the objective world, the world “out there”, the world of principles uncontaminated by human flux and context.” (pg.145)


  • “When a situated practice of knowing made up by the untransparent situated subject explores its material in unabashed textual untransparency, conglomerated genre, ambidextrous, switch-hitting style  – as if figuring out on the ground, virtually in the time of writing – that’s it: f-words. The essay.” (pg.149)
  • Duplessis writes her essay on the complexities of the convoluted notions around what it is to write an essay…they are complicated and somewhat oversaturated in terms of universal understanding.


  • “An essay is a thing of the imagination. If there is information in an essay, it is by-the-by, and if there is an opinion in it, you need not trust it for the long run.  A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play.” (pg.151)
  • “The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.” (pg.155)
  • “An essay can be the product of intellect or memory, lightheartedness or gloom, well-being or disgruntlement. But always there is a certain quietude,  on occasion a kind of detachment.” (pg.156)


  • But to the essay you come – you should come, I’m telling you – with the hope of confronting a particular person. In places the freshly painted person still shows cracks. An underdeveloped paragraph here, a broken sentence there. Still, you surrender to the dream of personhood, you quicken the clusters of sounds. You leave the essay feeling as if you have met somebody…The Worst thing an essayist can do is fail to make an impression.” (pg.159)
  • “…Phillip Lopate explains, the direction we want him to move is downwards: ‘So often the plot of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.’” (pg.161)
  • Uuu
  • As writers we must be honest with our thoughts and not shape them to meet the expectations of others, otherwise we are not who we claim to be.

Week 4 Reading Notes: Devon and Nick 2.6.18

William Dean Howells, from “Editor’s Easy Chair” (1902), P. 36-37


  • “Just how or why the essay should have departed from this elder idea, and begun to have a conscience about having a beginning, a middle, and an ending, like a drama, or a firstly, secondly, and thirdly, like a homily, it would not be easy to say, though we feel pretty sure that it was not from any occasion of Charles Lamb’s, or Leigh Hunt’s, or William Hazlitt’s, or their compeers, in bearing down to our day the grateful tradition which seems now to have been lost” (Howells 37).


  • Howells himself was known for being concerned with issues “of justice and the role of the writer int he new world of mass culture.”
  • “Often there was apparently no central motive in the essay; it seemed to begin, where it would, and end where it liked.” (Page 36).
  • Lack of structure when it came to the development of an Essay.
  • Essay began to be confused with the article.
  • (Essays are written to persuade; articles are written to inform.)

Jose Ortega Y Gasset, from “To the Reader” (1914), 38-39


  • “They are simply are simply essays. The essay is science, minus the explicit proof” (Gasset 38).
  • “I only offer modires considerandi, possible new ways of looking at things” (Gasset 39).


  • Philosopher
  • The Revolt of the Masses
  • Theory that “…democracy can easily lead to the tyranny of an amoral majority, “mass man”; and for his rejection of an ego-centered philosophy (“I think therefore I am”) which he countered with his notable belief that “I am myself and my circumstance,” and that life therefore embodies an inescapable tension between freedom and fate.
  • “Essay is a science, minus explicit proof.”
  • Ideas are not to be adopted and followed, rather reflected upon.

William Carlos Williams, “An Essay on Virginia” (1925), 48-50

“But the rigidity of the essay is in itself human” (Williams 49).


  • Physician as well as a writer
  • Attempted to encompass that which he called “the local.”
  • Inspired by early-American culture.
  • Essay is unaffected by outside forces; it comes to an end when it is destined to.
  • “The essay must stand while passion and interest pass through.” (Page 49).
  • Every piece of writing is unique.


  • “Not only is it necessary to prove the crystal but the crystal but the crystal must prove permanent by fracture. This is an essay: the true grace of fashion. The essay must stand while passion and interest pass through” (Williams 49).
  • “Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity” (Williams 49).

Katherine Fullerton Gerould, from “An Essay on Essays” (1935), 61-4

  • Known for her provocative essays on everything from “Dempsey-Tunney fight to the ‘plight of the genteel.’
  • “The essay is essential meditative” not “polemical”.
  • Readers of hers were asked to choose between “articles” or “essays” and “news” or “the truth”. Needless to say they had difficulty choosing.
  • Essays think out loud, not like a “stream of consciousness” but only once the writer has “made up their mind” on what it is they are going to write.
  • Essay should show how and why s/he came to their conclusion.
  • Allows you to “see the mind at work.”
  • Subjectivity
  • Essayist is honest, Propagandist is dishonest.
  • I have found it interesting to look at the personal life of the individual writers to see if their own life experiences may have impacted the matters they write about as well as the way in which they see “The Essay.”
  • Going off this point, it is also interesting to see if the writers are influenced by any movements of their time. For example, the Transcendentalist movement began in the 1820’s/ 1830’s and Gassett was born in the 1880’s. Although he was born fifty years later, it is not improbable that he was influenced by the literature born from the movement.
  • “The basis of the essay is meditation, and it must in a measure admit te reader to the meditatie process” (Gerould 61).
  • “An essay, to some extent, thinks aloud; though not in the loose and pointless way to which the “stream of consciousness” addicts have accustomed us.”
  • “The author must have made up his mind – otherwise, where is his proposition?”
  • “But the essay, I think, should show how and why he made up his mind as he did; should engagingly rehearse the steps by which he came to his conclusions”
  • “This the most intimate of forms, because it permits you to see a mind at work” “It is the most intimate because it is the most subjective” (62)
  • “It is this subjectivity- Montaigne’s first of all, perhaps- that has confused many minds.” (63)
  • “The essay, then, having persuasion for its object, states a proposition; its method is meditation;”
  • “Meditating on facts may bring one to truth; facts alone will not. Nor can there be an essay without a point of view and a personality”

German Arciniegas, “The Essay in Our America” (1956), 78-81

  • “ In truth, the essay on the New World began to be written in the first decade of the sixthteenth century by the explorers themselves” (Aciniegas 79).
  • “Because of these circumstances, the essay in the United States becomes an optimistic synthesis of its own process; it is a philosophy in which one sees the complacency of a healthy organism that develops industries, cities, farms and ranches across the width of a republic unburdened by the green infernos of our furious and deadly geography” (81).

Hilaire Belloc, “An Essay upon Essays upon Essays” (1955), 51-54

“Wells said debating with him was like arguing with a hailstorm” (Belloc 51).
  • “-a quarrel between those who write essays and those who have written an essay or two to show that the writing of essays is futile” (51).
  • “Of old, the essay appeared here and there in some stately weekly paper” (51). “And now it is everywhere” (51).
  • “I think that, upon the whole, the modern practice is to be supported” (52).

Week 3 Reading Notes: Meghan and Courtney 1.25.18

Jean Starobinski: from “Can One Define the Essay?”

  • Essay origin: French since the twelfth Century, stems from the Latin base exagium, the scale (110).
    • Also extends to Examen or the needle on the scale.
    • Etymology is the verb Exigo which means to push out, to chase, then to demand (111).
  • “The essay might as well be the demanding weighing, the thoughtful examination, but also the verbal swarm from which one liberates development” (111).
  • Controversial
  • English, Seventeenth Century, the word the essayist.
  • Isn’t there always more? “He who wants to succeed, doesn’t he have to do more?” (112)
  • Objective and Subjective sides of the essay
  • “the essayer” must have to go at himself (114).
  • “I am myself the matter of my book” (115)
  • “The word ‘essay’ does not announce the spontaneous prose of Montaigne, it signals a book where new ideas are proposed, an original interpretation of a controversial problem” (page 111). I found this quote to be extremely interesting while exploring the essay. In the past I have found myself trying to make essays more interesting, gripping, and eloquent, however this quote points out that it is not the essay’s job to entertain. If the essay at hand is proposing new ideas and original interpretations of a controversial problem, as stated above, then it will be interesting in itself. An essay is not for entertainment, it can be exploring new ideas or explaining new approaches, however, it is not fiction that should keep the reader entertained. I know I have in the past gotten lost in trying to make my essay sound good, with syntax, sentence structure, and impressive vocabulary that I compromised the argument I was trying to make by not spending enough time fully articulating my ideas.
  • “To fully satisfy the law of the essay, ‘the essayer’ must have a go at himself” (page 114). I found this quote thought provoking because to me Starobinski is saying not particularly specificing what kind of essay a writer must throw himself into – this is alluding to the fact that there needs to be a bit of oneself in every essay they write; whether it be in opinion, personal anecdote, or personal connection / interest.

Phillip Lopate: “What Happened to the Personal Essay?”

  • personal essay has the ability to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy.
  • Essays are “harnessed to rhetoric and composition” (133)
  • “The mastery of expository prose, the rhythm of sentences, the pacing, the sudden flash of unexpected vocabulary, redeem polemic…. The essay… is a great meadow of style and personal manner, freed from the need for defense except that provided by an individual intelligence and sparkle” (Elizabeth Hardwick 133).
  • “The formal essay derived from Francis Bacon; it is said to be “dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository” (134).
  • “Quick access to their blood reactions so that the merest flash of prejudice or opinion might be dragged into the open and defended” (135).
  • Modernism/Modern reader/writer
  • Universal literary culture no longer exists; we have only popular culture to fall back on (136).
  • B. White
  • Last paragraph pg. 141
  • Something I kept wondering throughout this essay is what is difference between a personal essay and a memoir/autobiography is?
    • Length? Subjects discussed? Style?
  • I would have never considered a lifestyle page in a magazine to be considered a type of essay. It was intriguing to read Lopate’s words when advising the reader not to fall into the pattern that these (distant cousins of the) essay follow (page 132)

Robert Atwan, “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay” (2012), 194-201

  • I love that Montaigne choose the word essai to describe his works. Atwan explains that “the etymology of essai can be traced to the late Latin exagium, which meant ‘to weigh’ or a ‘weight’” (195) To me the image that comes to mind is to “weigh in with your opinion” but also calls upon the idea that the words you’re writing have weight, significance, and importance. I think that keeping these two points in mind will be helpful when writing essays in the future.
  • Why was the essay a chief reason for the rapid development of the daily newspaper but news reporting was not? This is discussed on page 196.
  • Atwan concludes with is own definition of the essay, saying, “the essay whether long or short, narrative, expository or polemical, is a literary genre that enacts the processes and possibilities of thought and self-disclosure in a distinctive prose style” (201). Do you agree or disagree with this definition?

 Carl H. Klaus: “Toward a Collective Poetics of the Essay”

  • The consensus of the essay (last paragraph, xv)
  • Paragraph in the middle of page xvii
    • The different aspects of the writer who is writing the essay is all different and it is interesting to read the different ways/forms of the essays.
  • “20th essayist often echoed and expanded upon that dichotomy by distinguishing between the personal orientation of the essay and that factual mode of the article” (xix).
  • “The most fully developed…” (xx)
  •  I really like Claus’ way of describing the essay when he says, “so it might be said that above all else essayists conceive of the essay as a place of intellectual reufe, a domain sacred to the freedom of the mind itself (xxi). I believe this may help writers, especially younger ones, to be more confident with their writing. A person’s essay is a place for them to propose thoughts that may have gone unsaid, or a space to elaborate on original ideas, or a multitude of other options; however, without the confidence that there is a safe space to write within it may be impossible for one to ever share these ideas.

Week 2 Reading Notes: Chelsea and Luke           1.23.18

Montaigne (Chelsea)

Notes from Essays of Michel de Montaigne

  • Upon Some Verses of Virgil> The first paragraph of this essay reads like a journal entry crossed with philosophy..
  • Of Experience> Very hard to follow. His ideas are all over the place. (compare Emerson’s essay Experience)?
  • Of Judging of the Death of Another> It’s interesting how he incorporates quotations into the essay. You can tell he is thinking with these quotes and is using them to add purpose to his writing.

Michel Eyquem Montaigne Notes from Essayists on The Essay

  • A skeptic (1)
  • “I am myself the subject of my work” (1).
  • “If the world complains that I speak too much of myself, I complain that it does not even think of itself” (3).
  • “They will conclude that my meaning is profound from its obscurity, which, to speak in all earnest, I hate very strongly, and I would avoid it if I could avoid myself” (5).

Montaigne (Luke)

“What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me.”

Montaigne sees the essay as a way to live. Consequently, he sees one’s personal life in general as a necessity to essay writing. He then goes to say that he is “using only what is his.” What else is someone to do but take their experiences, their thoughts about those experiences, and whatever one is to learn from them and run with them?

Montaigne is extremely straightforward, hence many see him as full of himself. The normative way to write an essay before Montaigne adhered to a strict set of guidelines previously established by great minds. Montaigne suggests that the great writings of Socrates and Plato are not wrong in their stringent structure, but he is instead deciding to do things his own way, how he thinks they should be done. He insists that what he says is stone fact, because the basis for all his essays is his own life.

What else is a writer to do besides write what he knows? Montaigne is so convincing and affable in his manner because he does not stretch, does not reach and does not grope blindly for some dogmatic definition. Instead, he suggests that anything that we take from an experience or a study should be directly applied to one’s own life.

Any learning should come from inside. Although it may be galvanized by one’s own experiences, any significant knowledge is received by the lens of our mind and transformed into something that is substantive—graspable.

The Drunken Essayist The best way to study life is by living. Not by simply existing, but chewing every bite of life till it is reduced down to its stock and made easier to swallow. Montaigne does not overthink things, but he does not simplify: he says things as they are—his conversation conveyed to his reader through paper and ink. In a way, we are all drunk, stumbling through life with very little understanding of which way is up. In this way, knowledge and understanding is not at all static or resolute, but fluid and ever-changing. Montaigne insists that things are changing “from day to day, minute to minute.”

So what is Montaigne griping about?

-The structure and style of the essay has been far too “structured”

-People have demonized the idea of writing about oneself

-Montaigne says that “If the world complains that I speak too much of myself, I complain that it does not even think of itself.”

“Is it not making a wall without stone…to construct books without knowledge and art?” Montaigne- “I speak the truth, not my fill of it.” Writing an essay is a learning experience, therefore it is necessary to be discordant and confused. Such is life that the way we learn inevitably starts with ignorance “thinking in halves,” as Montaigne would call it. I found it interesting that Montaigne frequently contradicts himself, and does so knowingly. He suggests that many themes in life are themselves contradictory, so it is only right that the element is presence in essaying.

Why Do We Write Anyway? Montaigne would suggest that it really is the only thing TO do. The only things we are certain about are what we have in our lives: our occupations, our homes, our relationships. These are all things that we are not simply observing and studying, but playing an active role in.

Montaigne-“Why Should I vapor and play the philosopher, instead of ballasting, the best I can, this dancing balloon?”

Fate and nature are the only things that are inconsequential, yet they are random and sporadic. (Contradiction?)

Samuel Johnson (Chelsea)

  • “‘[…] a loose sally of the mind; an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular, orderly performance” (13).
  • “The writer of essays escapes many embarrassments to which a large work would have exposed him […]” (13).

Charles Lamb (Chelsea)

  • Opinion v.s argument (19)
  • Importance of an “ideal character” (20)

Charles Lamb on Hazlitt (Luke)

“He colors nothing with his own hues.”

“He talks to you in broad day-light.”

He attempts to shield nothing from view and instead spreads his bank of knowledge across the table like cards in a game of Texas Holdem. “They resemble the talk of a very clever person.”

Hazlitt, similarly to Montaigne, serves to be a friend and a colleague, instead of playing the role of the bragging philosopher. Although these essayists seem egotistical, it is simply by their own vocabularies and choice of speech that convey this feeling. As Montaigne boldly states, if the reader finds his essays forceful or uppity, it is by their own accord. He refuses to assume fault if someone does not understand his writing, and instead suggests that he has played his part and it is up to the reader to find meaning.

William Hazlitt (Chelsea)

  • “[…] Hazlitt’s work as embodying ‘the style of a discontented man… which gives force and life to his writing’” (15).
  • Hazlitt on Montaigne:”[…] he may be said to have been the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man” (17). A man of “original mind”>His essays were not someone else’s repeated thoughts, rather it was all about what his own thoughts and observations.

William Hazlitt on Montaigne (Luke)

We are “Tolerably reasonable agents.” The act and practice of life is, in essence, the act and practice of writing an essay.

Montaigne was the “first to have the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man” He was a “man of original mind, that is, he had the power of looking at things for himself, or as they really were, instead of blindly trusting to, and fondly repeating what others told him they were.”

What does originality have to with writing a good essay? Maybe originality is hard to accurately depict. For Montaigne, being original is as simple as saying whatever comes to mind, without changing it, without mulling or rumination. By simply taking a thought and putting it on paper, you can push past that label of being “unoriginal” and write for the sake of writing.

As writers we must seek to “satisfy our minds of the truth of things.” This is a concept that the average writer can rejoice in knowing. You don’t need to be a bookworm to live well and write well.

“Throw off the shackles of custom and prejudice.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Montaigne (Luke)

“The Essays, therefore, are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that comes into his head; treating every thing without ceremony yet with masculine sense.”

Emerson too believes that one’s own life should be the basis from which one learns and writes.

“it is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed, they are vascular and alive.”

Montaigne speaks directly to the matter, not in a roundabout expression or some complex prose. Montaigne “tastes every moment of the day.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Chelsea)

  • “Aphoristic style” (23)
    • Aphorism>A concise statement of a principle.
  • “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive” (24).<Written about Montaigne because Emerson sees his work as a powerful representation of reality through unfiltered thought.

Emerson “Quotation and Originality” (Luke)

“The essayist is an amateur.” It is evident in and of the fact that we write to understand. Before hoping to find any sliver of significant understanding, we must first admit our own ignorance. A book can only be filled if its pages are blank.

We must “enjoy ideas like a fine wine.” Just as we should revel in every beautiful moment that life affords us, we should take every idea that comes into our head and swish it around and really feel its sensation and flavor. One who eats with no palate will find themselves full of junk food.

William H. Gass (Chelsea)

  • On quotations: “The essay convokes a community of writers then. It uses any and each and all of them like instruments in an orchestra. It both composes and conducts” (109).