Nerdy Essays

A brief and sudden departure, today, from the trajectory of discussions I established in the first two installments. I’m still writing about Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, and I imagine I’ll likely write next week once again about issues of narrative self. Today, however, I’m interested in thinking about a curious feature of form contained in this beautiful collection.

I’m thinking about the overall arc of the book, in part, and the way the narrative voice shifts. Hampl begins with writing that the reader recognizes easily as memoir and.or personal essay. And she ends similarly, with two essays that return to questions about the memoirist’s task. In the middle, her voice gradually recedes for awhile as her writing becomes tremendously external. Certainly, we can think about this from the perspective of self-creation…but I don’t want to do that yet. I promise I will. Next week. Yes, next week.

Instead, I want to consider how the center essays of this collection are written as differing versions of a hybrid scholar-essay. There’s a clear intellectual intention to these pieces (the Nerdy), but there’s also the inclusion of the self (in various degrees) and, more importantly, a sense of the journeying mind working through material (the Essay) instead of declaring and defending a thesis. I understand, of course, that within the world of academic specialization, Hampl’s method of writing about Whitman, Milosz, Stein, Plath, Augustine, and Frank wouldn’t pass muster. She “fails” to hit the marks of scholarship, since her work “wanders” around considerations of these individuals. Yet for me, as an essayist who also has published work clearly defined by the great soporific title of “scholarship,” Hampl’s manner of intellectual engagement presents itself as far more interesting, and far more energized than the faux-objectivity, forced-rationality, sobriety that we (at least those of us in the academy) expect. Hampl’s life intersects with this scholarship, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

I find myself wanting to veer into a discussion of content, here, though I’ll resist. Suffice it to say, there’s a clear way her essaying can be read as the artful construction of…

…Next. Week…

Again, to construction, and a question of genre, offering an apparent digression: it unduly annoys me when colleagues across my campus (and other campuses), in and out of the discipline of English, refer to the assignments they make and the scholarship they write as essays. As I tell my own students, professors are rarely, if ever, asking for or producing essays. They’re talking about articles, those self-conscious, thesis-bound, straight-line attacks that can be understood more or less fully by reading the first paragraph. Hand in an actual essay for most assignments asking for an essay, and you’re looking at comments along the lines of, 

where is the thesis? 

you argument meanders all over the place!

Cut this entire section: it’s just a tangent, unrelated to your main point.


Unsupported opinion!

Who taught you how to write? I recommend you return to Strunk&White’s Elements of Style and review the basics.

Ah, but, but, but E.B. White was an essayist, first and foremost, and a pro at the sort of intuitive, connective leaps that motivate a reader through a text instead of repelling them into outer space, like a rocket missing the angle of re-entry and ricocheting off the impenetrable surface of the Derrida-o-sphere, thereby doomed to a life of lonely space-faring. A few words, then, on why I find Hampl’s intellectual engagement so compelling, and the genre choices of the center of her collection such a fine model for how essayistic scholarship can and ought to have a place in the canon of serious thinking.

Another sidelight: in “The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss,” Sara Levine makes the point that early-career academics write articles. Then, once they have the freedom, they more or less write essays, giving up on the safety blanket of citation. Now, I think I’ll suggest that many of those artifacts aren’t good essays…but they are perhaps essays.

In the case of Hampl, we see a writer who thinks and writes within the more organic style of the essay, meandering (this is a good thing) through her consideration of, for example, the life and martyrdom of Edith Stein. She’s weighing things, here, using the writing to wrestle with complexity, instead of wielding the writing as a mace to bludgeon the reader with a falsified sense of fully-formed idea.

Notably, in this essay Hampl fully suppresses the “I” of her narrative stance. A representative and important line, late in the piece: “The mind goes back instinctively to the brief flashes that spark from Edith Stein’s memoir as if to live again in her life rather than her death, jots of personal life indelibly inscribed in her account of her ‘life in a Hewish family.’ They are the small moments she chose to rescue and reveal as evidence of simple humanity…” (126). This excerpt is not about Hampl (thus no “I”), but is about a consciousness at work. And I think it also demonstrates the honest of the “personal” as a mode of scholarship. Here, Hampl suggests that Stein’s legacy as martyr must be considered, in fact cannot be fully considered at all, without thinking about the life that was lived. Stein can do easily exist as mere idea: a Jew who became Catholic who was murdered by Nazis because she was a Jew who was later beatified by the Catholic Church.

Similarly, in the essay that follows, Hampl writes extensively about Sylvia Plath (the “I” has returned in force in this one!), partly to consider the importance of viewing Plath as an individual who lived and breathed and not just as an idea or representation of American Feminism. To ignore the life is, here, to ignore the reality and complexity and vitality of the idea, as it is in discussing Stein.

“Ultimately, a life seeking greatness is about the loss of the self in the service of a more complete reality,” Hampl writes (105). Yet that complete reality cannot ignore that a consciousness is at work. Even as much as Stein refused to tell her conversion story — as Hampl relates several times in the essay — she was still animated by that story, as private as it might have been.

Ultimately, this is the power I see in the activation of lived experience in scholarship, and why as much as I admire the intellect of Hampl’s Stein essay, I vastly prefer her writing about Plath, where she offers close reading of the poet alongside Plath’s biography and Hampl’s own autobiography (more on why she chose to be so distant in discussing Stein next week). By writing about how our live’s intersect with our reading, we can better articulate how the meaning of texts cannot resonate in a vacuum. Indeed, texts are meaningless without readers. If I veer a bit too close to reasserting an unfiltered Reader Response theory here, I apologize. But, still, we cannot ever refuse to acknowledge the way our own experiences govern our thought. There is no such thing as pure scholarship: everything is written from a subjective position, from an “I” who is shaping the material. The act of the essay, then, becomes a more genuine act of intellectual engagement.

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