- Roundtable:Teaching the Classical Essay
Many creative nonfiction classes use assigned readings drawn largely from living authors and contemporary examples of personal narrative and literary reportage. But a good many professors and practitioners are conscious of the rich influence and inspiration of the classical essay, the focus of a long, abundant tradition; these teachers and writers are determined to keep themselves in touch with that tradition and to put their students in contact with it.
With contemporary creative nonfiction dominating the attention of writing curricula and textbook publishing, questions arise about where to begin reconnecting to the classical essay: Which essays are best to read and teach? How might they be taught to twenty-first-century students? What advantages are there in revisiting those long-gone days of yore? This roundtable attempts to answer those questions while it poses others.
The roundtable participants, all influenced by the spirit of the past and deeply committed to the history and theory of the essay, have been exploring these questions in their own classrooms, conference papers, and conversations. Patrick Madden, who organized and facilitated the roundtable, is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University; David Lazar is a professor at Columbia College in Chicago and the author of The Body of Brooklyn (2003); Shannon Lakanen is an assistant professor at Otterbein College; Kelley Evans is a doctoral candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University; Michael Danko is an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art; Desirae Matherly is a Harper Fellow at the University of Chicago; and Michelle Disler is a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio University. Using the availability of classical essays in the public domain and the accessibility of the Internet, they have created a free, online, full-text essay website, http://essays.quotidiana.org/, and made available over 250 essays by over 50 [End Page 153] essayists of the past, including nearly 20 women essayists whose work is scarce and infrequently reprinted (if at all). Nearly all of the essays referenced within the following discussion are available at this site.
This roundtable grew out of panel presentations at recent Associated Writing Programs and Iowa NonfictioNow conferences and was conducted in an online discussion forum in July 2007. Note: Titles in brackets refer to the Cotton translations of Montaigne; other titles are from the translations of Donald Frame.
Patrick Madden: When I think about "teaching the classical essay," I wonder why it's important to make that sort of distinction, whether "classical" is a subgenre or a timeframe, and whether people can write "creative nonfiction" without much notion of the history of the essay.
David Lazar:Classical is a difficult term, which runs the risk of mustiness, though I think it might have some uses, too. You're suggesting the classical essay as a subgeneric designation, as opposed to an encompassing generic term. This comes with an ironic distinction, since it's a current subgenre that got the entire genre rolling—the most generous form of the essay, and the least, perhaps, currently written. Don't you think? The Uressay? The Mother Essay? In any case, I suppose we're speaking about a Montaignean form of the essay, digressive, somewhat expansive, open in form. The time period question is rather sticky, I think. I suppose you could say the classical period of the English essay runs up to the Romantics: Lamb, Hazlitt, et al. In terms of formal qualities, Lamb and Hazlitt may be writing what you mean by the classical essay, though.
But I'm not sure the distinction between the Romantic and the Classical essay is all that useful. We're always confronted with the problem of Montaigne. It's hard to argue for the advance in a form that was done best first. With the novel, we can see kinds of progression over time. Nonfiction seems to attract generic distinctions as though it had some kind of epistemological flypaper. Creative nonfiction, nonfiction, essay, lyric essay, formal essay, informal essay, familiar essay (unfamiliar essay? I kind of like that idea!), political essay, autobiographical essay, braided essay . . . I'm not...