Saturday, December 16, 2017

Dec 16: Of Women and the Essay (a conversation between Jenny Spinner and Patrick Madden)

What follows is a conversation between Jenny Spinner and Patrick Madden, who, like many people (especially around these parts) share an interest in essays and have made some efforts to rediscover women essayists of the past. Spurred by Phillip Lopate’s introductory comment explaining the dearth of women essayists in The Art of the Personal Essay that “there were no female Hazlitts and Lambs,” Spinner and Madden set out to find them. Given this year’s Advent Calendar theme of rediscoveries, they thought it appropriate to briefly introduce readers to some of the many wonderful works now available on Madden’s or soon available in Spinner’s Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000, a groundbreaking book due out in fall 2018 from the University of Georgia Press. If you’re interested in finding new great essays, and you know you are, this conversation will get you started, and maybe tide you over until you can get Spinner’s anthology next fall.

PM: A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for the Essay Daily Advent Calendar about one of my favorite essays, Louise Imogen Guiney’s “On a Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket.” I found Guiney originally in a 1921 anthology of Modern Essays edited by Christopher Morley. She was the only woman in the book.

JS: Ah, Christopher Morley. The “Preface” to that anthology is a gem. He actually apologizes for not including “the most widely bruited essayists of our day,” instead offering that he wanted to include essayists less known to readers. Apparently, women were even lesser known than the lesser known essayists in his anthology. But at least he chose Guiney! You were the one who introduced me to her work many years ago at an AWP conference. Is she your favorite discovery?

PM: Certainly she’s one of them. Top five for sure. I find her utterly mellow and charming, concerned with all sorts of seeming trivia, which she makes interesting (and important) through her clear and beautiful prose. She claimed a deep love of William Hazlitt, citing him as one of her influences, so she intentionally trained herself in the stylings of the classical essay. The one Morley chose is “The Precept of Peace,” by the way, and one can still find first editions of her best book, Patrins, for less than $20.

JS: I have a copy of that, too! I’ve picked up a lot of these first editions for a song--bargains of neglect. I paid less than $10 for a first edition of Gail Hamilton’s Gala-Days. It contains her essay “Happiest Days,” which I include in my book. This essay makes me laugh aloud. In it, Hamilton argues that the notion that childhood is the happiest period of a person’s life is complete bull. I guess I’m less for the mellow and charming essayists and more for the biting wits, in part because that voice upends stereotypes not only of essayists but especially of women essayists. Rebecca West is in that category, too. She roasts the essayist Max Beerbohm in her fabulous “Notes on the Effect of Women Writers on Mr. Max Beerbohm.” That one’s in my book, too.

PM: Having recently read and reviewed The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, I’m truly looking forward to that West essay, which I’ve never heard of before now. In fact, despite my researching and reading quite a lot of women essayists, I know that your book is chock full of people I haven’t yet read. How did you find all of them?

JS: Mostly following trails left by other scholars and editors, though I’ve had to whack away at some serious brush to find a number of those trails. I think I pored over every table of contents of just about every essay anthology or annual written in English and published in the last two hundred years looking for women. One here, one there--it took a lot of anthologies to come up with a decent list. But one of the most useful sources for me was John Seely Hart’s The Female Prose Writers of America, first published in 1852. Do you know it? It’s this multi-volume, multi-edition tome, over five hundred pages long, packed with biographical entries on and excerpts by women prose writers from the nineteenth century, like Susan Fenimore Cooper and Caroline Kirkland, and Sara Jane Lippincott, who wrote as Grace Greenwood. I use Greenwood’s essay “My First Hunting” in my book. I found my way to so many writers through Hart’s book--and got a sense of how well thought of these writers were in their own time. You know what I finally realized? We aren’t just digging little-known writers from the pits of obscurity. We’re digging well-known writers from pits of obscurity dug by scholars and anthologists.

PM: I dig your double meaning of “digging.” It seems to me, or it is my hope, that the double pit of “essay” and “women” is filling in generally, nudged along by efforts like ours, to refocus attention on those writers that scholars and anthologists forgot. For a time, I also looked through all the anthologies I could find, in the library stacks and online at Project Gutenberg and, and I believe it was one of my searches that led me to your dissertation many years ago. But I was haphazard while you were methodical, it seems, and I never encountered the Hart books. That dissertation of yours was an early draft of your forthcoming anthology, and since that day (over ten years ago, I think!) I’ve longed for your book, wanted to have it myself and teach from it henceforth and forever. Maybe you can tell us a bit about the process from dissertation to book?

JS: Well, first, I am so grateful for your prodding all these years. But, yes, this project has taken me well over a decade to complete--though I always like to add that I had four kids in that decade as well. While compiling the biographical information for the headnotes, I found myself particularly interested in the children, aging parents, spouses, lovers--the whole cast of characters--that are part of the life-work juggle of so many women essayists. I’m waiting for someone to point this out as a negative in my headnotes, but I live this challenge of carving out physical and emotional space from the chaos of responsibility to write essays, and in a book of women essayists, I’m going to note that. In any case, in some ways, my dissertation was the dream, and the book is the reality. When putting together my dissertation, I didn’t have to worry about length or permission costs. I just gathered and gathered and gathered. I could have kept on gathering except I wanted to graduate at some point. There were sixty-one essayists in my dissertation. There are forty-six in the book. I had to make a lot of tough editorial decisions. So, for example, you won’t find in the book one of my favorites, Katherine Anne Porter’s “St. Augustine and the Bullfight.” No Adrienne Rich or Angela Carter or Ada Louise Huxtable or Natalie Angier. Any other glaring absences? Now’s your chance!

PM: I know that you did include a few essayists I recommended, so I wouldn’t think of suggesting more now! And I recognize the difficulty of including everything one would want, especially when living and recently living authors might require hefty permissions fees. But you still have the appendix naming lots more women essayists, right? So the book is a nexus from which readers can continue to read.

JS: Yes, the appendix lists nearly two hundred additional essayists publishing from 1500 to 2000. Even at that, I don’t suggest that it’s a comprehensive list. There’s so much recovery work left to do, especially when it comes to women of color and other marginal voices from earlier centuries. You asked about differences between my dissertation and the book, and a major one is that I am now much more focused on diversity when it comes to the politics of canon formation. Earlier this year, I sat down with my colleague Aisha Lockridge, who teaches African-American literature here at St. Joe’s, and told her I was having trouble finding women of color who wrote literary essays (not polemical or advocacy essays) prior to Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 publication of “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Who am I missing? Where should I be looking? I asked her. Even though I had a solid argument for why I was coming up empty-handed, I didn’t want it to be an excuse. Aisha didn’t know the answers to my questions, but she handed me about ten books, including collections of essays written for The Crisis, and Opportunity, two publications particularly important in the Harlem Renaissance. I eventually found my way to Marita Bonner, and then to Gertrude Bustill Mossell. I didn’t end up using Bonner’s essay “On Being Young--a Woman--and Colored,” but I do include Mossell’s essay “A Lofty Study,” which appears in her collection The World of the Afro-American Woman.

PM: Yet again, more essayists I haven’t yet read. I’m truly excited about this book! It has always felt very important to me that writers recognize our deep debt to our forebears, whether or not we know them, and to consciously seek to know them, to own our influences, to discover great writers that came before us. That’s one reason why David Lazar and I edited After Montaigne, a collection of contemporary “cover” essays honoring the “father of the essay,” as he’s often called. It’s also why when we chose a name for the yearly book prize from Ohio State University Press’s Twenty-first Century Essays Series, we named it for Marie de Gournay, Montaigne’s “adopted daughter” and literary executrix, and a fine essayist, too. But who would you consider the mother of the essay?

JS: I agree that Marie de Gournay is important to the essay’s history, in part because of how the public responded to her attempts to imitate Montaigne, the essayist she so admired. Basically they shut her down, and she apologized, claiming temporary insanity. I mean, that says a lot about the bravery of women embarking on this whole essaying business. In our own contemporary moment, in what’s been called the “Golden Age of Women Essayists,” we take for granted our participation in the genre. For at least the first couple of centuries, however, it was anything but simple for women to write essays. But don’t let their absence in the history of the essay canon fool you. They were writing essays. My book happens to start with Margaret Cavendish, who published The World’s Olio in 1655. Is she the “mother of the essay”? I’m not interested in linking the essay’s lineage to a single writer, so I’ll only offer that Cavendish is a good place to start. Virginia Woolf thought so, too. In her essay “The Duchess of Newcastle,” Woolf bemoans Cavendish’s slip into obscurity, calling her both “noble and Quixotic” and “crack-brained and bird-witted.” What a sell!

PM: I’m sold. Cavendish I do know, a bit, and have enjoyed my colleague Brandie Siegfried’s scholarly work on her as well. Here at BYU there’s a good, growing Cavendishish movement, which is heartening, as it suggests a broader interest in early women essayists. It’s not just us practitioners who enjoy their work.

JS: Let’s end at the beginning, just like a good essay. Years ago, when I first imagined a book to address Phillip Lopate’s assertion that were no female Hazlitts and Lambs--by the way, I have great respect for Phillip and when I mentioned to him what I wanted to do, he told me “Go find them!”--I began by asking asking every scholar and conference panelist I came in contact with, “Who’s your favorite woman essayist?” I think it was Bob Atwan who mentioned Agnes Repplier, and that was the first I’d heard of her--even though she was once a household name and one of the most prolific essayists writing at the turn of the twentieth century. As these conversations continued, I realized that outside of what I call the “Female Essay Triumvirate”--Woolf, Didion, Dillard--women have largely been absent from the history of the essay. More than anything, my book is an attempt to write them back into it, so that when we talk about influential movers and shakers in the history of the essay, we are talking about, say, Eliza Haywood, Judith Sargent Murray, Frances Power Cobbe, and Fanny Fern, too. Even though I’m finally done with this book, I can’t stop asking. So, who are your favorites, Pat? Who belongs in the history of the essay?

PM: Well, in addition to Guiney, whom I mentioned above, and Repplier, whom Atwan mentioned, I’d say my top five rounds out with Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), Alice Meynell, and Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris, though I’ve recently grown very fond of Katharine Fullerton Gerould and Grace Little Rhys as well. If I can recommend one essay from each for readers to start with, I’d choose Lee’s “About Leisure,” Meynell’s “Shadows,” Repplier’s “Words,” Morris’s “The Embarrassment of Finality,” Gerould’s “On Being a Sport,” and Rhys’s “Radiances.” Most, if not all, of these writers are in your book, I believe.

JS: All, save for Grace Rhys. She’s in the appendix. I like Gerould’s “On Being a Sport,” but I love “Ringside Seats” more, maybe because it’s set in Philadelphia, maybe because she’s a woman writing about boxing in 1937. You don’t have to be a fan of Philly or boxing, though, to sink yourself into her prose. At times, she can be a bit of a Genteel snob, but not in this particular essay. She’s all left jab, Greek tragedy, beauty of defeat.

PM: As I don’t care much for boxing, I’m glad to hear that! It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you about essays, and I hope our brief recommendations will inspire some readers to discover some new favorite essayists, and, of course, to put Of Women and the Essay on next year’s Christmas list, or Thanksgiving list? Halloween list? Labor Day list?

JS: Ha, do we really need a special occasion to buy a book of women’s essays? Some time in the fall of 2018, I’m told. In the meantime, I’m going to be at AWP in February, talking women and essays with some fabulous essayists and scholars of the essay, including Kyoko Mori, Angela Morales, Mary Cappello, and Jocelyn Bartkevicius. Kyoko’s essay “On Language” is in my book, by the way. Happy reading!


Jenny Spinner’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Assay, Brevity, Writing on the Edge, and on NPR’s All Things Considered, among others. She is co-author with her twin sister Jackie Spinner of Tell Them I Didn’t Cry. She is currently at work on an adoption memoir, the essayistic traces of which can be found on her blog, Twinprints. She teaches at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne. Winner of fellowships from the Howard and Fulbright foundations, he curates and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. He teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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