“A Very Strong Effect on the World”: A Conversation with Phillip Lopate

By Jonathan KirshnerSeptember 18, 2021

“A Very Strong Effect on the World”: A Conversation with Phillip Lopate
PHILLIP LOPATE’S NEW ANTHOLOGY, The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945–1970, follows swiftly on the heels of The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present (2020), a formidable collection that nevertheless left regrets about what had been sacrificed to the cutting-room floor, and thus stimulated two additional anthologies. (The third volume, The Contemporary American Essay, features contributions from the 21st century.) 

Golden Age covers that extraordinary quarter-century following World War II when American economic, political, and cultural influence was nothing short of colossal. It was also an era of dramatic social ferment and innovation across the arts, an environment that, not surprisingly, elicited bracing and gauntlet-hurling missives alive with the boundless energy, possibility, and critical passion of the moment. Golden Age boasts a manifestly heterogeneous lineup of leading critics, activists, historians, theologians, and renowned novelists, whose contributions (and outstanding prose style) remain urgently relevant, at times distressingly so, more than 50 years after they were launched into the tumult of their historical moment.

Lopate, professor of Writing at Columbia University, is distinctly well positioned to assemble these offerings and to introduce the contributors and contextualize their manifestos. A distinguished essayist in his own right, Lopate has explored a broad array of themes. His books include Notes on Sontag (2009); Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (2005), which takes its place alongside such classics as E. B. White’s Here Is New York; and Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (1998), which includes the extraordinary coming-of-age memoir essay “Anticipation of La Notte: The ‘Heroic’ Age of Moviegoing.” A paladin of the “personal essay,” many of Lopate’s contributions to this genre have been collected in Bachelorhood (1981), Portrait of My Body (1996), and Portrait Inside My Head (2013).

A dedicated contrarian, Lopate wrote the dissenting chapter “What ‘Golden Age’?” in When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited (2019), edited by Jonathan Kirshner and Jon Lewis. The following interview about The Golden Age of the American Essay was conducted via correspondence.


JONATHAN KIRSHNER: In selecting the essays for this volume, were you at times pointing the reader to the current moment? For example, some passages of George F. Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” seem even more relevant today than when he wrote his legendary missive in the late ’40s. Characteristically cautious and sober, Kennan concludes, “To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.” Of course, recent history suggests that we are at a considerable and receding distance from living up to our best traditions. Similarly, including Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” must have been with a purpose.

PHILLIP LOPATE: Certainly, I was eager to show that the crises of our moment have their roots in earlier times and repeat circularly. Americans need not feel particularly cursed that we have these problems today; we have had them in the past, dealt with them, and somehow survived. In the case of the Kennan essay, I was well aware that it is held in a bad odor by the left, who sometimes accuse him of being responsible for starting the Cold War; but that sentence that you think would give readers pause was his attempt to say that military action was not necessary or advisable in containing the Soviets: the United States need only live up to its shining promise of liberty, equality, and opportunity to win over uncommitted nations. Of course, easier said than done! We have certainly fallen short of that goal as a nation. But as regards Kennan, above all I wanted to expand our notions of the essay as a form so that it could include not only belletrists like Emerson and Thoreau and E. B. White, but also authorities in other fields, such as history, religion, biology, and political science, whose writing impacted society. Hence, my inclusion of Kennan and Hofstadter, both of whom wrote essays that presciently addressed conundrums we still face today.

More generally, in choosing an essay for canonization, substance presumably plays a role. Every essay in this volume, I think, is more than just an example of graceful prose — it has something to say. Do you have a rule of thumb in this regard, or were these choices more instinctive?

First of all, I don’t think I was necessarily putting forward a “canon,” which sounds highly presumptuous. I mean, who am I, Harold Bloom? What I wanted to do was start a conversation about the varieties of essay writing, to include the usual suspects but also those who had been lost in the shadows of American amnesia. Meanwhile, I’ve always been drawn to essays that had “something to say” because I am not such an aesthete who can be contented with the felicities of prose style alone. Form and content can never be separated, in my mind; graceful prose can only take a piece so far: it has to make a point, or points, that register deeply and stirringly.

You note that “[t]he twenty-five years that followed the end of World War II (1945–1970) were an exceptionally fertile period for American essays.” The same could be said for theater, film, and popular music, among other arts. Do you see any synergy or inter-relationship between this flowering of the American essay and other art forms?

I do see a flowering of other art forms during this period. Much of it I view as flowing from cities on both coasts — specifically, New York and San Francisco — and as an unapologetically urban expression. Modern jazz was a breakthrough that influenced every other art form: bebop, the birth of the cool, Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Miles, Mingus, Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, etc. provided the soundtrack for the era. Poet Robert Creeley said that he was more influenced by Charlie Parker than any contemporary poet. Modern dance and ballet (Merce Cunningham, Balanchine, Yvonne Rainer, Paul Taylor) started incorporating walking-around movements drawn from the streets. Abstract Expressionism (de Kooning, Pollock, Kline) can be seen as an attempt to put on canvas that explosive simultaneity that Frank O’Hara celebrated in his walking-around poems. The Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti) went in for a first-thought/best-thought jazzy expression that downplayed the demands of classical literary composition. Rauschenberg and Johns both employed a finding-stuff-in-the-street aesthetic, as did photographers like Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, and Lisette Model, while John Cage wrote pieces that attuned audiences to the actual sounds around them. The New American Cinema (John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Morris Engel) all took their cameras into the street. Critics like Edwin Denby gloried in the higgledy-piggledy, “impure” mixture of architectural styles of New York avenues that had previously been seen as a blight. All these aesthetic approaches seemed to stem from a discovery of what was vital in the American popular scene, that jolie-laide admixture, regardless of its resistance to the previous demands of high art. Meanwhile, the essayists of the time drew inspiration from these art movements and also sounded an alarm about the rise of the middlebrow and consumerist culture.

The Glorious American Essay offers 100 essays drawn from four centuries. Eleven of those are from 1945 to 1970, with the result that five authors appear in both books: Baldwin, Didion, King, Mailer, and Sontag. I am curious to hear more about this “distinguished five.”

The answer to that question takes me back to the original premise, which was to select a one-volume anthology that would encompass the whole arc of American history. After I had completed my initial research, I found that my desired inclusions so far exceeded the permissible page count that there would have to be two more volumes. As it happened, I was particularly intrigued by the postwar period, 1945 to 1970, and many of the pieces that found their way into Volume Two were originally slotted for Volume One. In a world without limits, I could have put in two or more pieces by the same author, as I had in The Art of the Personal Essay (1994), but that would not be possible given book-binding restrictions. Baldwin, Didion, and Sontag I thought of as no-brainers: they belonged both in any selection of the most important American essayists, as well as in any compendium of the years 1945–1970. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., I became enamored of his eloquent writing style, and his incomparable stamp on American history, and liked the idea of including a speech of his in one volume and a letter in the other, as examples of the plasticity of the essay form. With Mailer, I simply felt that he has been underrated as an essayist, that he is one of our best nonfiction writers, and that he is in danger of being forgotten by younger generations — or reviled for his politically incorrect positions. I would have loved to include his controversial essay “The White Negro,” which is both stimulating and appalling, but did not have the courage.

You observe that the era’s greatest novelists tended not to be our finest essayists, whereas the greatest of the latter group, and here I think Mailer is an exemplar, “did their most lasting work in essays and extended non-fiction.” Can you elaborate on this? I understand, for example, that you hold this view with regard to the relative primacy of your own essay writing.

Fiction has always enjoyed a higher status than essay writing in this country, so it’s not surprising that Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer all tried to excel primarily as novelists. Being creative artists, they were also naturally drawn to every possible narrative expression (Mailer and Sontag directed movies, Baldwin wrote plays, Didion did screenplays). It’s just my opinion that Mary McCarthy never wrote a novel as strong as Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) or a character as rich and complex as her narrator in that book; Baldwin’s novels, while competent, did not reach the heights of Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963); Joan Didion’s novels paled when compared to her essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979); similarly, Sontag’s only decent novel was The Volcano Lover (1992), but I doubt we would still be talking about her were it not for her nonfiction; and Mailer’s best book was The Armies of the Night (1968). Mailer is the one disputable case, given the power of his uneven novels, although his other masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song (1979), was a hybrid work of fiction and nonfiction.

Mailer’s essays were clearly stronger than his fiction — he was utterly brilliant in his ability to see through people and power structures in the midst of tumultuous moments. He was also an active presence in those essays (similar to Baldwin and unlike the often-distant Sontag). As someone who is closely identified with the personal essay, how do you see the contributions of Mailer (and others) in this context?

Mailer was not only a brilliant essayist, with an acute sensitivity to the way individuals were impacted by historical crises, he was also able to make himself into a vivid character in his essays. He did it with humor, self-mockery, and a playful awareness of how he would be judged an egomaniac anyway by those who didn’t get the joke. Baldwin, too, had an innate ability to dramatize his “Jimmy” character with complexity, rue, and honesty: just take a look at his wonderful “Equal in Paris,” which I included in Glorious. Sontag, on the other hand, had a disdain for autobiographical writing, and generally did not go to the trouble of developing a persona as an active presence in her texts. But we still come away with a very sharp sense of who is this person behind her pronouncements, by virtue of her judgments and preferences.

In a book of 38 essays, you feature two about Lolita (1955), one by Nabokov and one by Lionel Trilling (“The Last Lover”). Am I reading too much into the fact that, surely, Lolita would be unpublishable today, and Nabokov just as surely “cancelled” for writing it?

Lionel Trilling was a professor of mine, and I’ve always admired his thoughtful, ambivalent way of going about circling a problem in his literary criticism. When I “test-drove” some potential pieces with my graduate classes at Columbia, I was surprised that a number of students objected to the Trilling essay on the grounds that no one should find anything positive to say about Lolita. I don’t think I’m alone in regarding Lolita as still a very fine novel, one well worth reading. So, my stubbornness kicked in, and I decided in the end to include the Trilling essay. I was well aware that Nabokov had volunteered that he disliked his hero, Humbert Humbert, and was by no means trying to justify him. As for the Nabokov essay, it was a rarely encountered literary bauble that I stumbled upon and included for another reason: my desire to foreground the contributions of American émigré authors.

I’m going to speculate that the choices of these essays also say something about you. In my view, you’ve always positioned yourself at a friendly but critical distance from some of the social movements of the ’60s, especially those associated with college-age students, who were in that decade a good handful of years your juniors. The longest essay in the collection, by far, is Harold Rosenberg’s “The Herd of Independent Minds,” a critique of the narrowness of then-fashionable liberal thought, an essay that has affinities with Irving Howe’s “This Age of Conformity.” You also, and I took this personally, have Joan Didion as the sole voice to summarize the decade. In “On the Morning After the Sixties,” she writes: “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade,” which is quite a thing to say about a decade that witnessed the Civil Rights movement, opposition to the obscenity of the Vietnam War, and the struggle for the equal treatment of women.

There is no question that the choices of these essays also say something about me (how could they not?) — but not in the way you infer. They speak to my taste for analysis, thinking against oneself, contrarianism, skepticism, all aspects that are associated with the essay as a form. In a way, I came to regard The Golden Age of the American Essay as a debate about liberalism, and so the pieces by Harold Rosenberg and Irving Howe fit that idea perfectly. They were cross-examining what Lionel Trilling had called “the liberal consensus” then ruling American intellectual life. As for Didion’s piece, I gave her the last word because her essay fell at the last chronological point, 1970, though I hardly think her take was the only one to summarize the ’60s, since many pieces from the era preceded it and articulated a very different vision from hers. I liked her essay because I thought it was honest and, in its own way, modest. Myself, I often went “to the barricades” in the ’60s, demonstrating every chance I got against the war in Vietnam, getting arrested, put on trial, beaten by pro-war demonstrators, etc. Nor do I think I was especially critically distant from college-age students in that era who might have been younger than me. If anything, I have been critically distant from the young man I was, in retrospect, more than the younger students who marched with me.

John Cheever once said, “I truly believe that a well-crafted sentence can change the world.” But W. H. Auden insisted that “Poetry changes nothing.” What effect do you think essays can have?

Some essays have had a very strong effect on the world. I am thinking of several I included in The Glorious American Essay and The Golden Age of the American Essay. The suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self” certainly resonated with feminists of the next hundred years and beyond; Rachel Carson’s essays regarding the lasting effects of DDT and other poisons led to legislation prohibiting them; Frederick Douglass’s, W. E. B. Du Bois’s, and James Baldwin’s essays inspired African American leaders in the struggle for civil rights; the aforementioned George F. Kennan’s warnings about the Soviet Union’s plans were taken very seriously in the Pentagon; Audre Lorde’s writings have inspired a new generation of LBGTQ activists, just for starters. Then there were provocative essays like Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” that shook up English and American Studies departments, or Clement Greenberg’s opinionated writings that challenged traditional art criticism. Often the first shot in a public debate was fired by an essayist. So, essays may not bring about a total revolution or cure social injustices permanently, but they do stir things up.


Jonathan Kirshner is professor of Political Science at Boston College. He is author of numerous books, including American Power after the Financial CrisisHollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society and the Seventies Film in AmericaAn Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics, and the novel Urban Flight.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Kirshner is a professor of political science at Boston College. He is the author of numerous books, including An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics (2022), American Power After the Financial Crisis (2014), Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America (2012), and the novel Urban Flight (2015).


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