Take, for instance, Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," whose plot is utterly undramatic--she goes in search of a pencil--and yet whose technique is highly imaginative--she invents thoughts and backgrounds for the strangers she encounters along the way. No critical reader believes that Woolf knows the details she writes. She obviously makes them up.
And what can we make of Joseph Addison writing in the voice of a shilling that has traveled the world or of George Orwell perhaps borrowing the haunting central scene of "A Hanging" from a comrade's recollection?
What of Ian Frazier writing as one of Elizabeth Taylor's ex-husbands? Or as a coyote captured in Central Park!?
Charles Lamb wrote his essays under the pen name Elia, an Italian immigrant, a clerk, a person very much like "the real" Lamb, but not entirely. To complicate matters further, "Charles Lamb" appears as a third-party in some of Elia's essays, including "Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago," written by Elia to debunk an overly sunny Lamb composition on the same subject. A third level of difficulty arises as Elia appropriates Samuel Taylor Coleridge's troublesome experiences as a youth at the boarding school both Coleridge and Lamb attended.
There are other examples, too, of essayists trying on fictional personas, perhaps most notably Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman posing as a visiting Chinese man writing about eighteenth-century England [Citizen of the World (volume I; volume II)].
Edith Maude Eaton performed a similar self-revision, writing as Sui Sin Far [Sui Sin Far's own essay "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," collected on Madden's web site, provides a much deeper reflection on her identity].
Violet Paget wrote her essays as Vernon Lee [e.g. Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life]
Theodor Adorno, as I have mentioned briefly, begins his "Essay as Form" railing against the tendency of humans to categorize, compartmentalize, and therefore cage. [...] Central to Adorno's idea of the essay form, then, is its fragmentariness (a mirror of fragmentary reality), its intuitiveness, its "luck and play" (4), its individuality, its uncertainty, its incompleteness, its focus on the "transient and ephemeral" (10), its dealings in experience, its contingency, its situatedness within culture, its immediacy, its skepticism, its non-linearity, its direct treatment of complexity, its resistance to reduction, its grounding in language, its musical logic, its self-reflexivity, its heresy. He is often quoted for this last sentiment, with which he ends his essay on the essay: "The essay's innermost formal law is heresy" (23).
The essay, according to Phillip Lopate [... "What Happened to the Personal Essay?"], "allows one to ramble in a way that more truly reflects the mind at work," struggling, grasping, circling, but never preaching.Via. Previously: Sebald; Oliver Goldsmith; Edith Maude Eaton / Sui Sin Far; and a MeFi article on Patrick Madden's web site, Quotidiana.org.
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