Recent Writing

2:30p-3:45p TR (30 students) 3 CR. - Satisfies A&H Distribution Requirement

Topic: “The Contemporary Essay”

Recently, the essay has come to be called “the fourth genre,” by analogy to the more familiar and more celebrated genres of drama, poetry, and fiction. This quirky and inquisitive mode of writing was named, and more or less invented, by a 16th-century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne. He derived the name “essai” from a French verb meaning to make a trial of something, the way a geologist “assays” an ore to determine its value. The term suggests an experiment, a weighing out. For Montaigne, an essay was an effort to make sense of life—not the whole of life, but some confusing or intriguing portion of it. With a lineage stretching back five centuries and including such noteworthy practitioners as William Hazlitt, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and James Baldwin, the essay has enjoyed a flowering in our own time. It is a wide-open form, skeptical and reflective, ideally suited to an age of multiplying possibilities and dwindling certainties.

In this course, after a sampling of work by important precursors such as Woolf, Orwell, and Baldwin, we will concentrate on essays by American writers published in the last twenty or twenty-five years. To keep costs down, we will use two anthologies—most likely Sam Cohen, ed., 50 Essays (2003) and Wendy Martin, ed., The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women (1997)—along with four or five titles from the following list:

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces (1985)
Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays (2002)
Phillip Lopate, Portrait of My Body (1996)
Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground (1988)
Kathleen Dean Moore, Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (1995)
Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory (1982)
Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put (1993)
John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (1984)
Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991)

This is a discussion class, a semester-long conversation in which insights and ideas carry over from session to session. For this reason it is crucial that everyone be there consistently, and that everyone enter into the dialogue. There will be three short (3-5 pp.) papers and a longer final project. All of these writing projects may be either critical or creative. You will also be asked to keep a reading journal, in which you record your responses to the texts. No exams. Roughly three-quarters of the grade will depend on the papers, journal, and final project, one-quarter on the quality of your participation in class.