Excerpts from The Art Of The Personal Essay

Introduction by Phillip Lopate

Ann Staley

Oregon English 2009

  • Intimacy is its primary trait

  • The writer sets up a relationship with the reader—a dialogue, a friendship

  • The essay believes there is a certain unity to human experience

  • The personal essay has an implicitly democratic bent

  • It has open form, a drive toward candor

  • Elizabeth Hardwick says the "soloist's signature flows through the text"

  • A conversational approach, the self in dialogue with self

  • but, also the desire for contact

  • The essay strives for honesty, to be vulnerable

  • The essayist's stance is to interrogate her own ignorance & be intrigued by her own limitations

  • The essay has a taste for "littleness." It wants to turn something common, everyday, into a meditation

  • The essayist must reestablish "the persona" each time

  • The essay helps the reader feel a little less lonely and freakish

  • The essayist is "on the margins," wants to seem harmless, an "idler, a spectator, a tattler!"

  • The essayist is fascinated with perception

  • also the past, the local, the melancholy: she erodes the present, mocks the future!

  • The snail's track = the essayist's logo

  • Subjects are linked to each other by free association, open to meandering and to digression

  • The essay is a walk-about

  • All essays are addressed to "the common reader" (V. Woolf)


  • The essayist is an accidental philosopher

  • uses an impromptu approach, subversively anti-systematic

  • hopes to make the transitory eternal

  • The essay is unashamedly subjective

  • The essayist lays bare the process as she goes along

  • The essayist may contradict herself

  • and has the capacity for processing doubt

  • The essayist monitors the self, helps the self 'gel'

  • The genre suits the modern, existential situation, first diagnosed by Montaigne

"surrounded by darkness with nothing particularly solid to cling to"

  • The essay is a mode of inquiry, another way of getting at the truth