Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers
-Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas” (1872)
The books for our course are available at the Keene State College Bookstore, although they may be ordered and purchased at a local bookstore, or bought new or used at an online book vendor.
The book Essayists on the Essay: From Montaigne to Our Time, edited by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, will be our primary sourcebook throughout the semester. A core objective of this course (the theory part) is for us to learn everything we can about the essay—as a literary form that has a cultural history in which you are a part. This anthology, along with essays and commentaries we will add along the way, will be indispensible in our collective effort to define a poetics of the essay. You will be writing with the ideas of these authors as well as staking out our own sense of what an essay is—or ought to be. At the same time, reading essayists on the essay will provide a rich and productive context for your own writing—a teeming estuary of ideas in which your mind may discover what it is looking for.
Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies, by Nicole B. Wallack, makes a case for teaching the essay as a literary and cultural form. It is a book that introduces its readers to the intellectual culture and practices of the college and university—an introduction for teachers to their own practices, and a resource for students seeking to become more present as writers and thinkers in the world. The book provides an overview of the debates over the form and functions of “the essay” that have shaped your experiences with writing in school; and it offers generous readings of dozens of essays published in the The Best American Essays that open up new ways for you to practice the art of essay writing. The book makes a case for the importance of the practice of the essay for you as a thoughtful, compassionate, and observant human beings. “The essay,” Wallack writes, “is a genre that continually asks its practitioners to observe their world and themselves, and to make their ideas, feelings, and questions public.”
Each student in the class will find different parts of these books useful for their practice as a writer. For instance, in her chapter on crafting reading presences, in the opening to a section on the essays of Susan Sontag, Wallack describes the formidable challenge facing the essay writer:
In order to articulate an idea, an essayist must be able to move in two conceptual directions: toward the evidence, in order to discern its particulars and make them available to readers; and away from it, in order to reflect on what the evidence tells him or her in relationship to the idea. The essayist, unlike the novelist or storyteller, needs to abstract, needs to generalize. . . . The challenge for an essayist is to abstract in such a way as to not lapse into cliche or truism. . . (127-28)
This particular description of the necessary movement in two directions will offer some readers a critical insight-an insight that might lead a reader to have a better way to describe a way of doing something-and doing it well.
Image credit: by Yngve Leyn