by Ned Stuckey-French
I am here to evangelize for the personal essay. I believe the essay is more than the “fourth genre.” It is literary, possessed of a rich tradition, and full of unique possibilities. It deserves to be studied in literature as well as writing classes. It deserves anthologies that emphasize historical and cultural context and that promote serious critical interpretation. It deserves a diverse and expansive canon full of challenging essays that are read by general readers and scholars alike. It contributes to and benefits from the digital revolution, for the essay will lead to new mixed media forms. At the same time, digitization will help us retrieve and re-illuminate existing essays. To test these hypotheses, I want to reexamine three canonical essays: E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Joan Didion’s “The White Album.”
In her groundbreaking 1999 article “The Essay Canon,” Lynn Bloom argued that the essays most people know—the essays that establish the canon and define thegenre—are the ones that appear most frequently in freshman composition anthologies. As a result, the essay canon is fundamentally a teaching instrument and not a historical, critical or national force. Because of this, the essay is dismissed as a service genre used to write about other, more “literary” genres, an implement used to teach first-year college students how to write.
Such teaching is hard work. New teaching assistants are assigned multiple sections in which they are expected to introduce the entire writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading. Editors select essays for first-year writing anthologies with the needs of these beginning teachers and their students in mind. Is the selection current and accessible? Can it be used to model this or that rhetorical mode? Is it short enough for use in a one-hour class? Is it in the public domain, and if not, how much will the permissions cost? Will it help diversify the anthology in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender? Does it help establish a balance between classic and contemporary essays, and between emerging authors and established big names? These concerns are real and understandable, but they push toward the inclusion shorter, simpler, “teachable” essays.
The form of an essay is best understood when the author’s choices are examined in the historical and cultural context in which the piece was written. This is not to say that studying the historical and rhetorical context of an essay is a substitute for close reading, but rather that it is a necessary complement to it. Consider the way we read and teach E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” the most widely anthologized American essay of the last half of the 20th century. As Robert Root has shown, although it was widely anthologized, the anthologies that include it only occasionally mention when the piece was published (October 1941). If they do, they rarely remind contemporary readers of the historical events of that time period. Nor do they mention where the essay was first published—inWhite’s “One Man’s Meat” column for Harper’s. Finally, they almost always use head notes and discussion questions to push students toward a reading of the essay as a nostalgia piece about fathers and sons, often recommending it as a prompt for awhat-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.
Readers in the fall of 1941 approached White’s essay quite differently. In his Harper’scolumn, White had been making the case against fascists abroad and isolationists at home for three years. He’d written a excoriating review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, lambasted the collaborationist, and often anti-Semitic, views of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, criticized Chamberlain’s “horse trade” in Munich, and bemoaned his own tendency to stick to what he called the “spineless middle ground.” The Pearl Harbor bombing was two months away, but in October of 1941 Harper’s (which can be viewed at harpers.org) was already full of war news. It included articles with titles like “The Great Defense Migration,” “Education for Freedom,” “The Farm Bloc and the War,” and “Physical Fitness and the Draft.”. Against this backdrop, “Once More to the Lake” becomes a rich allegorical essay, mournfully anticipating the catastrophic trajectory of the American Century. When, at the end of the essay, White describes a climactic thunderstorm as “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen a long time ago with childish awe”; when he sadly acknowledges that “America had not changed in any important respect”; when he remarks on “a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that made life tick” and the storm began to roll in off the North Atlantic with a “crackling light against the dark and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills,” White’s readers would have heard him rejecting the naïve view that World War I was the “War to End All Wars”, bemoaning his country’s imminent and sickening return to the international battlefield.
Almost exactly fourteen years later, in November 1955, James Baldwin published an essay titled “Me and My House…” in Harper’s, the same magazine where White had conducted his column. Baldwin’s essay, like White’s, can profit from a contextualized close reading. A fuller version of Baldwin’s piece, now called “Notes of a Native Son,” appeared a month later as the title piece in his first essay collection. White’s essay had been the story of a week on a lake in Maine; Baldwin’s told the story of two incredible days: July 29, 1943, when his father died and his sister was born, and August 3, 1943, when the family buried his father in the midst of the Harlem riots when Baldwin turned 19.
Baldwin’s essay is a narrative essay and a close reading of it invites some use of narrative theory – a given with a Joyce or O’Connor short story, but not perhaps with a personal essay. Using Freytag’s triangle, for instance, or its descendent, the inverted checkmark, we can try to identify the essay’s rising tension, climax and denouement. But where is the climax of “Notes of a Native Son”? I would propose that there are at least two – the first coming in the scene in the segregated New Jersey restaurant when Baldwin throws a pitcher of water at a white waitress, and the second when Baldwin’s father asks his son, “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?” Baldwin refers to this latter as “the one moment in all our life together when we had really spoken to each other.” This doubleness suggests that essay is made up of at least two braided narratives – one that traces Baldwin’s conflicted relationship with his father, a second that focuses on Baldwin’s understanding of racism. Mary Louise Pratt (building on the work of William Labov) argues that “natural narratives” (i.e., oral narratives of personal experience) are composed of six parts that usually appear in the following order: Abstract, Orientation, Complicating action, Evaluation, Result or resolution, and Coda. If a personal essay, especially a narrative essay, is a first-person telling of a story of the author’s experience that, while written, attempts to sound “spoken” and appear “natural,” then Pratt’s categories may be of help.
A search for codas in “Notes of a Native Son” reinforces the view that the essay is doubled and that its two threads are interwoven. A coda is a statement, usually explicit, that closes off the action, announces the passing of the climax, and offers some assessment of that climax. The coda for the climactic scene in the restaurant arrives when Baldwin says, “I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder.” This statement is echoed at the end of the essay, further connecting the two narrative threads, bringing together father and son, and reiterating the subject of the essay— that hatred kills. In the final paragraph, Baldwin writes,
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power; that one must never, in one’s own life, accept that these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
Labov proposes that evaluation is key among the six features of narrative. According to him, it is a kind of “secondary structure” that overlays the rest of the story and is composed of moments when the narrator employs direct address, repetition, and other interjections to suggest the point of the story, what it is “really about.” One of Baldwin’s evaluative techniques in “Notes” is his characterization of racism as a disease or illness that affects not just white people, but everyone. This illness makes us all ill at ease, discomforted, even crazy, and it can be fatal. Baldwin mentions his father’s tuberculosis in passing but makes clear that it was his hatred and his bitterness that killed him, and he announces early on, in what might be considered the abstract of the essay, “that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.” Baldwin tells us that it was in New Jersey that he “first contract[ed] some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels,” and he adds, “[t]here is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood.” Later, he remarks that “[a]ll of Harlem…seemed infected by waiting,” and that “hatred becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose,” a pose that leads to self-hatred and “having to decide between amputation and gangrene.”
This essentially formalist reading can be deepened by comparing the version of the essay that Baldwin published in the book Notes of a Native Son in December 1955 with the one that appeared in Harper’s a month earlier. The differences between the two texts are striking. TheHarper’s editors removed several instances of Labovian evaluation from the essay, thereby clouding and altering its overall meaning. First and most obvious, the title is different. The decision by the Harper’s editors (and the evidence suggests it was theirs) to call the piece “Me and My House…” rather than “Notes of a Native Son,” erases the implicit allusions in Baldwin’s title to Richard Wright’s scorching 1940 novel, Native Son, as well as to Henry James’s 1914auto-biography, Notes of a Son and Brother, taking with them the 30-year-old Baldwin’s audacious adoption of two important American literary forefathers but also the more provisional feel that comes with the term “Notes.” The Harper’s title substitutes a different set of effects that derive from its allusion to Joshua 24:15—“But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” The Biblical allusion shifts the reader’s focus from James’ rich subordinations and Wright’s righteous anger, and foregrounds forgiveness and the story of the essay’s two preachers: Baldwin’s father who had, according to the essay, gone “from church to smaller and more improbable church,” eventually finding “himself in less and less demand as a minister,” and his son, our narrator, who had been a boy preacher but now preferred writing to preaching. The Old Testament verse is cited twice in the essay’s penultimate paragraph. Baldwin and his family are driving to his father’s burial through the “wilderness of smashed plate glass” that is Harlem after the riot. His thoughts keep returning to this verse on which he and his father both had preached. He realizes that the “familiar lines [have] a meaning which had never been there for me before.” He recognizes that while his father had succumbed to hatred, he had tried not to. His father wanted to serve the Lord and to love. He was bitter but also recognized that “bitterness was folly.” The father accepted himself, and now the son accepts the father.
But, this is the penultimate paragraph so the essay does not stop there, even if the Harper’s title suggests that it could. In the final paragraph, Baldwin reminds us that, within the context of racist America, the chore is “to hold in the mind forever two ideas which [seem] to be in opposition.” If the first of these is acceptance and love and the release from bitterness that comes from such acceptance, the second is the equally essential recognition “that injustice is a commonplace” and it must be resisted. The title change emphasizes Christian love while deemphasizing racial politics, but Baldwin’s essay is finally about both and the moral dilemma inherent in these two apparently irreconcilable views of life.
Racial tensions in the United States in November 1955 made it hard for the Harper’seditors to face the second horn of the dilemma. At the end of August, a week after arriving from Chicago to stay with his uncle in Mississippi, Emmett Till had been kidnapped and brutally murdered because he dared to whistle at a white woman while buying bubble gum in her grocery store. The boy’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, decided the world should see what had been done to her son and had an open-casket funeral. In its September 15 issue Jet magazine – taking a much bolder stand than Harper’s – published three photographs of Emmett Till’s mutilated body. On December 1, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, launching thethirteen-month long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The release of Baldwin’s book in the fall of 1955 was delayed a month so he could make a little money from the sale of his essay to Harper’s and, according to Sol Stein, Baldwin’s friend and editor at Beacon Press, so that the essay’s publication in such a prominent magazine might “swell the audience for the book.” If the intensifying movement for civil rights heightened interest in Baldwin’s work, it also required the editors at Harper’s to treat that work with special care.
As we move past the title into a fuller comparison of the two texts, we encounter several troubling elisions and see where the editors’ caution, indeed timidity, took them. Early on in the essay, they removed a reference to the contradiction that lies at the heart of the essay, a passage that I quoted part of earlier. Here it is in full:
I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.
At first glance, this passage seems mainly retrospective, pointed as it was toward ancestors and a moment of personal realization that had occurred fourteen years earlier. But the Till case and Montgomery’s challenge to Jim Crow reminds us that it was also pressing, current, and loaded.
Further comparison of the two texts makes it even clearer that the Harper’seditors were editing defensively. During the lead up to the description of the Harlem riot, they dropped some more sentences, including this one:
The situation in Harlem had grown bad enough for clergymen, policemen, educators, politicians, and social workers to assert in one breath that there was no ‘crime wave’ and to offer, in the very next breath, suggestion as to how to combat it.
Many of the magazine’s readers were undoubtedly members of these professions (except, perhaps, the police) and may not have liked having the hypocrisy of their colleagues pointed out. Such edits, while clearly meant to protect the magazine’s almost exclusively white, liberal, middle-class, upper middlebrow readers from distressing accusations of racism, might also have been designed to protect Baldwin from himself.
If these passages were interpreted by some white people as unfair or even hateful, then the editors may have felt they were doing Baldwin a favor by toning down his essay (never mind that the essay characterizes all bitterness – white or black – as a fatal disease). Never mind that there paternalism was muffling one of the century’s great essayists.
In the final section of the essay, Baldwin dramatizes his father’s funeral. The scene recreates the minister’s eulogy in an extended tour-de-force of indirect discourse, elevated language, and stunning repetition. But the Harper’s editors cut the entire passage – all three hundred and sixty-three words of it– including both the eulogy and Baldwin’s commentary on it. The elision prevented Harper’s readers from hearing Baldwin reveal how the sermon affected him and how it raised the question of what the “antidote” to the “poison” that is hatred might be, “whether or not an antidote was desirable,” or whether “poison should be fought with poison.” In the end, however, the preacher advances the proposition that we should not “judge the man who had gone down under an impossible burden” and that it is “better to remember, Thou knowest this man’s fall; but thou knowest not his wrassling.”
By omitting these powerful words, words that lie at the heart of this essay, the editors ofHarper’s were silencing a real man. That man, Baldwin tells us elsewhere in the essay, was the minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street in Harlem. He was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and his church, founded in 1808 when Thomas Jefferson was president, had 10,000 members in 1943 when the funeral took place. It was the largest Baptist church in the world. Not only does Baldwin not identify Powell by name, he does not remind us that Powell was also a political leader. In 1943, Powell had become the first African-American elected to the New York City Council. By 1955, when the essay was published, he had been representing Harlem in the U. S. House of Representatives for eleven years and was a leader in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Powell argued that the Harlem riot of 1943 was not a race riot, but an “economic riot.” For Baldwin, Powell was someone who understood the absolute need for acceptance and equal power, love, and justice.
Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” which also deals with riots, race, illness, and weird constellations of personal and public events, may not reach as firm a resolution, but it too can only be fully understood by understanding the context in which it was written, published, and read.
In a famous definition, Alfred Kazin said the personal essay is a “peculiarly modern” form because it is an “expression of the self thinking.” Edward Hoagland proposed something similar: “A personal essay is like the human voice talking, its order the mind’s natural flow, instead of a systematized outline of ideas.” If Didion’s essay is a narrative essay, it is the story of her mind searching for a story. More particularly, she is searching for a story that might make sense of the 1960s. Her essay includes fifteen sections that read sometimes like stanzas or cantos – some short, some long, all musical. It is laced with profiles of Sixties celebrities such as Huey Newton, Jim Morrison, and Linda Kasabian as well as copies of Didion’s own medical records and packing list. The result is an essay that feels chaotic and decidedly post-modern. Among theorists of the essay there has been much discussion and debate about what to call this kind ofessay– collage, mosaic, montage, segmented, disjunctive, or paratactic. I am not going to concern myself too much with issues of taxonomy, but I will say that while in general I prefer the broader term disjunctive, I think that because Didion pastes many pre-existing texts or pieces of text such as the packing list and doctor’s report as well as court transcripts, a wall sampler, and song lyrics into “The White Album,” collage is appropriate; because “The White Album” focuses on scripts, improvisation, roles, and the feeling that life is a movie, and because the essay flash cuts in and out of 15 sections and several scenes, montage is also applicable. But whatever our term of description, I think there is little question that this essay requires the reader to do a lot of assembling. To read it is to simulate Didion’s own attempt to find some order in the disorder of the Sixties, for the essay is as fractured as the Sixties were. Form and content in “The White Album” are indissoluble. The essay enacts the Sixties.
Didion in Los Angeles
Didion is trying to find not only order, but also mental health and a moral center, or as she puts it in the essay’s first sentence, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Montaigne’s central question was “What do I know?” Didion asks herself, “Am I telling the right story to live now?” The stakes of asking such a question are high. When she published the essay in its entirety for the first time in the June 4, 1979 issue of New West magazine, its full title was “The White Album: A Chronicle of Survival.”
The New West version was the culmination of a ten-year long writing process. Earlier versions of sections 3, 6 and 9 (about, respectively, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, and the student revolt at San Francisco State) were published between March 1968 and January 1969 as installments of the “Points West” column that she and her husband John Gregory Dunne wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, alternating months. Later in 1979 “The White Album” served as the title essay for a collection of Didion’s work, just as “Notes of a Native Son” had for Baldwin 24 years earlier.
Didion with her corvette
Didion took her title from the unnamed Beatles album that came to be called “The White Album.” Finding herself and her times without a narrative or script, she chose to improvise, piecing together a narrative from among bits and pieces of Sixties culture. Though she mentions the Beatles album explicitly only in her title, it seems to have been her model of disjunctiveness and improvisation. The Beatles album contained the helter skelter that defined the Sixties and in retrospect reflected the breakup of the band that defined that decade. The Beatles album contained bits of narrative (“Rocky Raccoon”), sound pictures of chaos (“Revolution 9”), and a track named “Helter Skelter.” The racist meglomaniac and murderer Charlie Manson famously thought the lyrics of the Beatles album, especially “Helter Skelter,” told him to direct the murders of Sharon Tate and others in order to set off an apocalyptic race war.
Manson did not recognize his own insanity. For Didion, on the other hand, the challenge of the Sixties was to learn how to distinguish whether it was you or the times that was crazy. At the beginning of her essay she acknowledges that she “participated in the paranoia of the time.” Then a page later, lest we think she was speaking figuratively, she reprints her own psychiatric report, which refers to an “attack of vertigo and nausea,” “a personality in the process of deterioration,” and a person whose “basic reality contact is obviously and seriously impaired at times,” though Didion argues “that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
But if life seemed chaotic, without a script, and necessarily improvised, that did not mean that it was without roles. For some of the players, in fact, the problem was that they were trapped in their roles. Jim Morrison saunters into the recording studio, bored and cynical, playing the part of a rock star. Ray Manzarek and the other members of the Doors play the roles of sidemen, unimpressed by their lead singer, refusing to even acknowledge his tardy arrival at their recording session. Similarly, Huey Newton seems to not to have “intended to become a political martyr,” but his lawyer Charles Garry and the Black Panther Party’s Minster of Information Eldridge
Cleaver clearly have him playing that role. Finally, at San Francisco State University “the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy of college life,” and everyone—Black militants, deans and white radicals alike—“seemedjoined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment.”
But life is not “festive” everywhere and Didion herself is not exempt from this role- playing and the identity crisis that results from it. Of the list of items she keeps taped to her closet so that she can pack quickly to go on assignment, she notes that “this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had a script, heard her cues, knew the narrative.” As if, for she also asks us to note what is missing from this list – a watch – the absence of which suggests that this narrator is loosed from time. She is also haunted by the possibility, even the felt likelihood, that one day she will open the door of her house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles to strangers just as her neighbor the murdered silent film star Ramon Novarro had opened his door to strangers, just as the murdered Sharon Tate and her murdered friends had opened their door to strangers.
The fine line between sanity and insanity, between real paranoia and the old joke that sometimes even paranoid people are being followed, is made real to Didion when she gets to know Linda Kasabian, who had been a member of the Manson family. Kasabian, a vulnerable single mother whose husband had just left her, was flattered when Charles Manson chose to sleep with her. Because she was the only member of the group with a valid driver’s license, she was tapped to chauffeur the rest of the gang to the Tate-Polanski house. She witnessed at least one of the murders when she left the getaway car for a time. Within days, she saved herself from sinking completely into the helter skelter by abandoning her daughter, sneaking away for help, and turning state’s evidence. Didion says, “I once asked Linda what she thought about the apparently chance sequence of events that had brought her first” into the Manson family and then out of it, and Kasabian responded, “Everything was to teach me something.” It is a haunting phrase, suggesting as it does the delusion that hidden meanings are everywhere. Didion has saidthat one of her earliest and strongest influences was Henry James, who in “The Art of Fiction” said to young writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Didion seems to have worried, especially in the discombobulated Sixties, that following James’ dictum might have led her to become one of the people who thinks everything, everything, has meaning, and that is why she felt the need to tell herself a story in order to live.
In the heightened, over-determined decade that was the Sixties, the narrative thread was lost and Didion was searching for it, at least in part so that the story, which was rapidly becoming a nightmare, might come to an end. In “The White Album,” Didion says she is trying to figure out what marked the end of the Sixties. Was it Altamont? The fall of Saigon? Watergate? Didion says for many of her friends “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire though the community.” The allusion is toTate-LaBianca murders, which she decides, were the climax, if not the end, of the Sixties, the top of the inverted checkmark. “The tension broke that day,” Didion writes, and the “paranoia was fulfilled.”
Didion’s story of the Sixties finds its dénouement, or what Pratt and Labov refer to as the result or resolution, when she changes locale. Just as her well-known paean to New York City, “Goodbye to All That,” another story about dislocation and breakdown, ends with her evacuating Manhattan and returning to California so does “The White Album” end with her leaving her house on Franklin Avenue and moving to Malibu.
Both Baldwin’s and Didion’s essays are about violence, race, and illness. Didion, writing later, knows Baldwin’s work and he even makes a cameo appearance in “The White Album.” Didion quotes Eldridge Cleaver quoting Huey Newton quoting Baldwin as having said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” It is a quote that begins to get at the conclusions Baldwin arrives at in “Notes of a Native Son,” but it only speaks to one half of the dilemma Baldwin identified and not the other, focusing as it does on injustice rather than acceptance. It is the kind of statement the Harper’s editors might well have cut.
But once more we need to look more closely at the larger historical context–especially at the publishing history–of Baldwin’s statement. Didion doesn’t tell us, or have Cleaver or Newton tell us, the source of the quotation, but their version likely came from a short symposium that appeared in the August 20, 1965 issue of Time magazine titled “Negro Leaders on Violence.”Both text and context are more nuanced and complicated than they first appear, and as they change then so do they change Didion’s essay and our reading of it. Time’s version of the statement is actually an edited version of an answer Baldwin gave to a question Nat Hentoff had asked about Langston Hughes at a symposium broadcast by radio station WBAI in 1961 and published in a book titled The New Negro, Cross Currents Magazine, and Negro Digestover the next two years. At that time Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The use of “Negro” rather than “black” and the addition of the qualifiers “relative” and “almost all the time” might seem inconsequential , but they might also create some space for the acceptance Baldwin advocated at the end of “Notes of a Native Son.” Apparently, Didion, Newton, and Cleaver were not aware of the original quotation, but now we are and we cannot ignore it. Our readings must consider such evidence, and they will be better for having done so. A fuller examination of the context of this or any essay deepens that essay, complicates our reading of it, and helps us welcome the essay as a form into the company of literary genres.
Ned teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, forthcoming May 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming fall 2011), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed three times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. (from NedStuckeyFrench.com)