Stalking the Essay Conference

April 6th, 2013, 10 AM to 6 PM
Organized by Phillip Lopate
This event is currently full.
The graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts is pleased to announce the inaugural Stalking the Essay Conference, to be held Saturday, April 6th, from 10 AM to 6 PM. The conference, organized by Nonfiction Concentration Director Phillip Lopate, is free and open to the public. With this symposium, the Writing Program aims to encircle the practices, theories and possibilities of the essay form by bringing together those who love it.

The essay has a long and glorious history as a literary form, and is the intellectual bell-weather of any modern society. The genre is at a particularly interesting transitional moment, what with the emergence of the lyrical essay and other hybrid forms, the debate about the line between nonfiction and fiction, and the resurgence of the essay film, the digital essay and the radio essay. While considerable experimentation is going on at the moment, it should be noted that the essay has always been a daringly open, experimental form—from the French word “essai,” meaning, “attempt.” Unlike fiction and poetry, which have spawned systematized approaches to narratology and poetics, the essay continues to be an elusive eel in the literary waters, neglected by scholars. As one of the genre’s foremost experts, Carl H. Klaus, has written, “a methodology for understanding the essay is long overdue.” The one-day conference will attempt to contribute toward developing this methodology, as well as celebrating the varieties of this ubiquitous form.      

This conference is intended to be the first of an annual event, as part of a larger effort to establish Columbia University as a magnet for studying the essay’s history and current practice, and nurturing and propagating its future. What makes this location so apt is Columbia's especially rich essayistic tradition that includes Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, F. W. Dupee, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Randolph Bourne, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Meyer Schapiro, Eric Bentley and Edward Said.

The goal of the conference is to help build a legacy for the essay as an enduring, various, mutating, endearing, essential literary expression. For this must be said in its favor: the Essay is the classic, reliable tool for human consciousness to track itself, and at the same time to overcome isolation—making it possible for writers to establish with readers a bond of friendship.It is a response to the present historical moment, and a fertile meeting-ground for truth and imagination, the personal and the impersonal.


Branka Arsić
Ian Buruma
Vivian Gornick
Michael Greenberg
Patricia Hampl
Margo Jefferson
Richard Locke
Daniel Mendelsohn
Geoffrey O’Brien
Katha Pollitt
David Shields
Ned Stuckey-French
Colm Tóibín
Nicole Wallack
Patricia J. Williams

Phillip Lopate, organizer


10 AM: Welcome and Overview
Phillip Lopate, organizer 

10:15 - 11:30 AM: The 19th and 20th Century Essay
Branka Arsić (On Leaving: A Reading of Emerson, Professor, English, Columbia), Ned Stuckey-French (The American Essay in the American Century, Professor of English, Florida State University), Moderator: Nicole Wallack (English Department, Columbia).

11:45 AM - 1:00 PM: The Column, Political Persuasion and the Essay
Patricia J. Williams (“Diary of a Mad Law Professor” columnist for The Nation), Katha Pollitt (Learning to Drive, columnist for The Nation), Michael Greenberg (Beg, Borrow, Steal, columnist for the TLS). Moderator: Jaime Green.

1:00 - 2:00 PM: Lunch
2:00 - 3:15 PM: Criticism and the Essay
Vivian Gornick (Approaching Eye Level), Daniel Mendelsohn (Waiting for the Barbarians, Professor, Bard College), Margo Jefferson (Michael Jackson, Professor, Columbia), Geoffrey O’Brien (Sonata for Jukebox, Editor-in-Chief, The Library of America) Moderator: Richard Locke (Critical Children, Professor, Columbia).

3:30 - 5:30: The Personal and Impersonal Essay (four solo talks)
Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories, Professor, University of Minnesota), Ian Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam, Professor, Bard College), David Shields (Reality Hunger, Professor, University of Washington), Colm Tóibín (New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Professor, Columbia).
5:30 - 6:00 PM: Q & A

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