Professor Phillip Lopate's 'The Glorious American Essay'

BY Angeline Dimambro, December 11, 2020

The National Arts Club hosted an evening with Writing Professor Phillip Lopate ’64 (CC), accompanied by Vivian Gornick and Wayne Koestenbaum to discuss Lopate’s latest anthology, The Glorious American Essay


Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. His numerous publications include three personal essay collections, two novels, a pair of novellas, three poetry collections, a memoir of his teaching experiences, a collection of his movie criticism, a biographical monograph, and many more. He has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants. 


Gornick is a critic, journalist, memoirist, and essayist whose work has appeared in such publications as Village VoiceThe New York TimesThe Nation, and many others. Her books include Approaching Eye LevelFierce Attachment: A Memoir, and, most recently, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. Koestenbaum is a poet, critic, novelist, artist, and performer. He has published nineteen books, including Camp MarmaladeNotes on GlazeThe Pink Trance NotebooksMy 1980s & Other Essays, and several more. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

The Glorious American Essay is “a monumental, canon-defining anthology of three centuries of American essays, from Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin to David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith.” The anthology, which Lopate has worked on for five years, was recently named among Publishers Weekly’s “Top 10 New Titles in Essays & Literary Criticism for Fall 2020.” While Lopate has a long history with the essay form, it wasn’t where his writing career began: “I started out as a fiction writer and a poet. I don’t think there are many adolescents who dream of becoming essayists—it’s not the most glamorous, status-rich genre. But at a certain point, after I had written some novels and books of poetry, I fell in love with the essay as a kind of merger of these two kinds of writing that I was doing.” In fact, it was this blend between fiction and poetry that helped to shape Lopate’s nonfiction voice: “I think of myself as a natural storyteller. I could tell a story about the track of my thoughts and I could also use some of the associational leaping quality of poetry in the essay, because the essay is a very open form.”


After discovering his kinship with the essay, Lopate began to teach the personal essay. Previously disregarded, Lopate noted how the subjective voice was gradually embraced by the essay form and its writers. Once a genre of writing that might have been considered “commercially taboo,” the personal essay has become immensely popular in the last ten to fifteen years. In his role as an editor, Gornick commented on how each anthology Lopate curates seems to suit a different version of himself. “I want to draw a sharp distinction between my life and personality as a writer, and my life and personality as an anthologist,” said Lopate. “I’m a different person when I’m an anthologist...I become much more accepting of people who are very different from myself. Then the trick comes to be, ok, this is a writer who maybe I would not read on my own for pleasure, but I know this is an important writer—I’ve got to find one essay, at least, that I can fall in love with.”


The evening also featured readings from Gornick, Koestenbaum, as well as a recorded reading from author Richard Rodriguez, whose essay “Hispanc” wrestles with the titular word itself as a means of exploring and complicating identity. The conversation that exists among essayists, as Lopate pointed out, is not limited to events like this: “Those who interest me as essayists love the essay form. They’re not only in conversation with the form, but they’re in conversation with each other. One of the peculiar characteristics of the essay as a form that has been passed down from century to century is that the essayists are really talking to each other.” Lopate looks to these vibrations, these connections between writers, as he builds his anthologies. 


During the Q&A portion of the evening, one participant asked what distinguishes the American essay from other cultures. “It intersects with American history,” Lopate said. “It intersects with the problems and the potentials that come back again and again and again. That was one of things that I noticed when I was putting together this book.”


The Glorious American Essay is available for purchase through the NAC’s preferred bookseller, Books on Call NYC. A recording of the complete program, as well as all other events in the “NAC @ Home” series can be seen below.