Week 9 Oct 23–29

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1937)

Monday October 24

Wednesday October 26

  • Read Nicole Wallack, “‘Historical Thinking’ in Essays: Crafting Presence in the Company of Ghosts,” 69–114 (see “Notes for Reading” below)

  • Read Jamaica Kincaid In History. Take notes on the formal and conceptual work of the essay. Come to class prepared to share your observations
  • If you are interested in the two other examples Wallack discusses in this chapter, see Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians,” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1999): KSC/Main Collection PN6142 .F68 1999, and Kenneth A. McClane, “Walls: A Journey to Auburn,” Community Review (1987). Rpt. in The Best American Essays, 1988. Ed. Annie Dillard: available in the Internet Archive
  • Introduction to the Essay Sequence. See The Essay Collection page for a description of the project

Friday October 28

  • Essay #4 Due

Notes for Reading

In “‘Historical Thinking’ in Essays” Nicole Wallack describes “haunted essays” as “infused with the tantalizing possibility of a reappearance of a lost person or group, even when we know from everything that the essayist tells us that they are gone, usually dead. The haunted essay,” she goes on to say, “assembles a body of evidence that must reach beyond the borders of a single person’s life––so it is more communal, if not more public, than the purely elegiac essay” (73). In contrast to the use evidence to support a claim or a thesis, the essay “must solve the formal problem of how to manage and represent evidence and the writer’s response to it” (74).

Wallack takes as one of her examples Kincaid’s “In History.” She writes, “Kincaid’s insistent performance of presence demonstrates how essayists’ use of ‘I’ need not be a narcissistic choice, if that ‘I’ presence can pose questions and reflect on evidence in such a way as to implicate the reader, directly or indirectly, in them” (75). Conversely, one might focus attention on the use of elegy, or an elegiac mode of writing in the essay. Or perhaps the focus is on nostalgia, and you would focus all of your attention to describing how a writer uses nostalgia to structure an essay.

Or consider an example of “making mundane things interesting to read, even in their uneventfulness,” in this passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:  

Somewhere past the big gray doors behind the rest rooms’ roiling lines is a kind of umbilical passage leading to what I assume is the actual Nadir, which outside the hangar’s windows presents as a tall wall of total white metal. The Chicago lady and BIG DADDY are playing Uno with another couple, who turn out to be friends they’d made on a Princess Alaska cruise in ’93. By this time I’m down to slacks and T-shirt and tie, and the tie looks like it’s been washed and hand-wrung. Perspiring has lost its novelty. Celebrity Cruises seems to be reminding us that the real world we’re leaving behind includes crowded public waiting areas with no A.C. and indifferent ventilation. Now it’s 12:55 P.M. Although the brochure says the Nadir sails at 4:30 and that you can board anytime from 2:00 P.M. until then, it looks as if all 1,374 Nadir passengers are already here, plus a fair number of relatives and well-wishers.

Here is a former student giving a run at this kind of eventful uneventfulness:

Breakfast is a loose-term for I typically end up eating; usually around eleven or noon, which I suppose makes it technically brunch. Regardless, I took my seat with a companion in tow (it’s weird eating by oneself at the dining hall) beneath the watchful eyes of the 12-foot tall carrot. I had pancakes, potatoes, and scrambled eggs, although in hindsight these have no importance to this story. What is, however, is my lack of a working phone. As of this writing, I might be lucky if the thing doesn’t turn off at 90% battery. This was not one of those days. Not having ready access to the internet almost feels antiquated, being bored something that simply doesn’t happen. While my companion contemplated the contents of what should have been a simple email, I was left bored out of my mind, nothing to do but twiddle my thumbs and make mental notes and snarky (potentially mean) commentary of my surroundings.

The first thing that was immediately apparent was that my table was sandwiched between what could only be described as a table of “Bible-Bros” (patent pending) and then one of the bros of the more standard variety, the ones who still call people “fags” kind of bro, although it’s entirely possible the former group would too. If it wasn’t obvious I am using the term “bro” in a pejorative sense, as I found these two groups of gentlemen to be obscenely unpleasant in the short spatterings of conversations I would glean from their tables. The aforementioned bible-bros, the most outspoken of whom was coincidentally wearing a bandana (I’ll get to that later), were espousing to each other the apparent “liberal agenda” of Marvel’s latest in a long line of actually pretty good films. The portlier member of the table tried to argue that there were some “conservative ideas” in the film as well, and as someone who has seen every one of these movies at least once, I very much doubt this sentiment. I imagine this is mostly the rambling, hollow argument of someone who can’t quite bridge their shitty beliefs with the media they like to consume. Regardless, this conversation was the most I could make out from their table, the rest of it being random Church goings on (they were actually Bible-Bros, this wasn’t some moniker I pulled out of thin air) and frequent mention of “The Jews” in a collective sense. I can only hope they were discussing the historical context that Jews fit into, and not making some broad, antediluvian statements about Jewish people.