- Woolf & the Art of the Essay
Every couple of years, I teach an upper-level writing course, mostly for English majors, entitled "The Art of the Essay." Focused on the historical development of the familiar (or personal) essay, the class introduces students to a more complex definition of this type of essay than straightforward narration of particular experiences in their lives, a definition nearly every student has encountered in his or her academic career. Articulating to students that the familiar essay can be more than straightforward narration, and getting them to adopt a wider range of strategies in their own personal essays, is the greatest challenge in teaching this course. There are many helpful textbooks that present these ideas in accessible language (I use Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay and Sheila Bender's Writing and Publishing Personal Essays), but these cannot replace monographs by specialists, whose work also informs my own thinking about the subject as I teach the course.
Virginia Woolf's Essayism is a welcome addition to this store of information, since it uses Woolf to highlight some of the key issues regarding how we define the familiar essay (and since Woolf is one of the essayists I always teach in my class). Saloman's main argument—that Woolf used the essay to "solve artistic problems" and explore the "deepest questions about herself as a writer, and about the writing process"—directly addresses how the essay is a unique form, unlike other genres in its ability to create a dialogue between author and reader, one of the key points stressed in Lopate's anthology. Specifically, Saloman argues that the essay is unlike the novel in its ability to "work without an attention-grabbing plot or a clear, linear narrative, trusting in the random acts of life, together with the essayist's ability to extract [End Page 543] thought and meaning, to create order." According to Saloman, the essay can be distinguished from the novel by its ability to "make connections and engage its readers," whereas the novel takes away the authority of the reader by adopting a more controlling narrator. With the novel, the reader's role is to "interpret and reflect" on characters rather than "participate or contribute" to the narrative by filling in the gaps left by the narrator, as the reader must do when reading an essay.
Certainly, there are objections one can make to Saloman's rigid definition of the novel, and it is surprising that Saloman does not address Mikhail Bakhtin's argument about the "heteroglossic" nature of the novel anywhere in her book, though she does refer to Bakhtin's work on speech genres in her concluding chapter. Still, if readers can overlook this and accept that Saloman has important ideas about the unique qualities of the essay, the arguments in the chapters of her book are very informative. Chapter one lays out the foundation for comparing and contrasting Woolf's essays and novels by focusing on one of Woolf's best-known (and frequently taught) essays, "Street Haunting," and its fictional counterpart, Mrs. Dalloway. Saloman places her analysis of the two works within the context of the development of the novel, and she shows how the essayistic qualities found in "Street Haunting" can be seen in Mrs. Dalloway as well. Although I do not find every claim Saloman makes about Mrs. Dalloway convincing (for example, that readers of Mrs. Dalloway are "never allowed to abandon a passive position and engage dialectically with the book, as one might an essay"), I appreciate her analysis of "Street Haunting," in which she provides new insight on the figure of the shoe-buying dwarf in the essay, a figure students frequently want to discuss in my class.
Chapter two brings attention to the specific qualities of the essay that make it such an engaging form for the reader, especially the relationship of trust between the essayist and the reader, with the essayist pledging to "grapple in an honest manner with whatever the issue at hand may be" and the reader "demonstrat[ing] the...