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Favourite Essay Collections

What makes a great essayist? What had it, who didn’t? And whose work left the biggest mark on the New Yorker? A longtime writer for the magazine picks out five masters of the craft

  • 1

    And Even Now
    by Max Beerbohm

  • 2

    The Common Reader
    by Virginia Woolf

  • 3

    Essays of EB White
    by EB White

  • 4

    A Sad Heart At The Supermarket
    by Randall Jarrell

  • 5

    Visions Before Midnight
    by Clive James

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. During his time at the magazine he has written fiction, humour, criticism, profiles and reportage. Gopnik has won the National Magazine Award for essays and for criticism three times, and also the George Polk Award for magazine reporting. His books include The Table Comes First and Through the Children’s Gate

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Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. During his time at the magazine he has written fiction, humour, criticism, profiles and reportage. Gopnik has won the National Magazine Award for essays and for criticism three times, and also the George Polk Award for magazine reporting. His books include The Table Comes First and Through the Children’s Gate

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Before we get into the books, I wanted to ask you about essays generally. In your introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008 you have a rather nice phrase: “The essay is a classical form for short-winded Romantics.” What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that in lots of ways essay writing is classical, in the sense that it works if it’s poised, elegant, compressed, composed – it’s not a rhapsodic outpouring of emotional language. At the same time, what distinguishes it from true criticism is that its purpose is usually to communicate some emotional state or the alteration of an emotional state, rather than an argument.

There are certain kinds of criticism that I think of as essentially essays – Clive James or Randall Jarrell’s criticism, for instance – whereas there are other critics whom I admire just as much – say [William] Empson and [WH] Auden – but whom I don’t think of as essayists. They’re superior literary critics.

Is the distinction to do with the presence of the “I” in their work?

The “I” need not appear in the piece, but it’s always implicit in the essay. Empson and Auden want to win you round to their point of view, Jarrell and James want to make their experience persuasive. Of course, one of the best ways of winning you round to a point of view is to make your experience persuasive, and one of the best ways to make your experience persuasive is to win you round to a point of view!

There are no absolute lines in this. But there does seem to me a real difference between the things Empson – who is an absolutely wonderful writer and an amazing companion – is trying to do in his critical articles and the things Jarrell is trying to do in his. Jarrell conceives of criticism poetically. That is, that it should have some of the surprise and delight of personal revelation: “I felt this then, and I passed through the prism of a work of writing” rather than “this is a general truth of literature”.

With essayists, we feel we’re reading their first names rather than their honorifics. We’re reading Clive and Virginia and Randall rather than James and Woolf and Jarrell, in a way we never feel we’re reading William and Wystan rather than Empson and Auden.

You have written that the essay has an implicit politics to it, and that the job of the essay is “to drain the melodrama from overwrought debate and replace it with common sense and comedy”.

Did I say that? When you think [of essays] historically, beginning with Montaigne, one of the things Montaigne does – at a time of violent and feverish religious debate – is he makes the case for both and at once, for either and or, for the division within oneself. That there is no pure or certain state which we can be in in our mental lives.

Even someone as seemingly non-political as Max Beerbohm is placed at the intersection of all kinds of political passions – Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw’s socialism, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialism and so on – and he makes fun of them all. That’s one of the things that makes Beerbohm attractive. In a very decorous and mischievous way, he mocks that kind of ideological passion.

EB White did the same kind of thing when writing in the 1930s. His arguments against fascism and totalitarianism are not rhetorical but highly particular, trying to assert the actual fabric of life as it is rather than accepting abstraction. Maybe that’s a good way of putting it. The essay is against abstraction, and by being against abstraction it is against ideological thought.

You mentioned Beerbohm. Let’s begin with his book And Even Now. You said his approach was to parody and make light of things. He was also a caricaturist. Do you see a link between his illustrations and his essays?

Yes, absolutely. He was a caricaturist with remarkable insight and relatively little malice in his parodies and cartoons. He found the pomposities of over-zealous ideology absurd. He also had a lovely vein of affection. One of my favourite of his picture-books is called Rossetti and His Circle. It’s basically imaginary pictures of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in their very complicated domestic life. The implicit theme of the whole book is that behind the Pre-Raphaelite dream of the perfect Botticelli nymph and the medieval romantic life is this very funny, furtive domestic life in Chelsea [London]. Constantly referring dream-life back to reality is another way Beerbohm works.

He’s an essayist who isn’t so widely read these days. Why do you think that is?

For me, Beerbohm has an almost dangerously perfect tone – a mixture of benign serenity and quiet intellectual authority that I think is the tone every essayist searches for. It’s not accidental that Beerbohm was influential on the first generation of The New Yorker writers, people like Wolcott Gibbs.

One of the dangers of that tone, though, is that it can seem unduly complacent or self-satisfied. I suspect that the note of complacency in Beerbohm’s writing is kind of out of kilter with the times. It’s a note that was so hugely popular for 50 or 60 years that I guess it came to seem old-fashioned. If you ever read old collections of light editorials from The London Times, they all strive for the Beerbohm sound. Inevitably, when a sound gets imitated for too long it becomes a little empty.

Beerbohm is also not a writer of fanatic passion or political certainty. You can’t consult him directly for the quote you might need about the topic of the day. For those reasons, he’s gone a bit out of fashion. But he remains a wonderful writer, and for me the best witness of that period – the end of the Victorian age and the beginning of the modern age.

What do you think he writes best about?

Literature. My favourite of his essays are ones like “A Clergyman”, which is a very close, loving analysis of an obscure passage of [James] Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. A clergyman, identified in no other way, squeaks out a little objection to something Dr Johnson has said, and Johnson crushes him with his rejoinder. Beerbohm reflects on the lost and hidden life of this clergyman, who made one brief bid for literary immortality and whose name even Boswell couldn’t recall.

Another favourite is called “William and Mary”, and is a memory of a couple he has known since his Oxford days. It’s a really beautiful story that has an almost Proustian quality.

Let’s go on to another English essayist, Virginia Woolf. She wrote a great deal of non-fiction. Why does her writing in The Common Reader qualify as essays rather than what they strictly appear to be – reviews or criticism?

Exactly because we read Woolf for her tone – her equanimity, her ability to weave together a detached and usually very severe critical judgement with a tone of ruminative engagement. That’s a tone, as much as Beerbohm’s is in another way, which seems to me particularly enviable.

Is it, along with Beerbohm, a particularly English tone? The next three essayists we’re going to talk about are American or Australian.

I think that’s true. There’s a sense in which both Woolf and Beerbohm come after the age of Victorian literary industry. They both take for granted this common pool of Dickens, [George] Eliot and Trollope – writers of huge industry, enormous achievement and vast social observation – and they both make a quiet case for the miniature, for the perfectly wrought. So there’s a kind of running commentary on Victorian fiction in both of their work.

I also think, without having illusions about the nature of the societies in which they worked, that there is a strong lure of a stable and secure literary society in their work. They both feel themselves to be at home with literature, not out of place in any way. Their tone – unlike certain American essayists – does not give a sense of having an uncertain or anxious relationship to literature.

That sense is certainly something you get from the title essay of Jarrell’s collection.

One of the dirty secrets of literature, I’ve always thought, is that there are much stronger “pop” elements to great writing than we would like to admit. The Great Gatsby appeals to us, at least in part, because it’s about rich people and bootleggers in the roaring twenties. Beerbohm and Woolf appeal to us, in part, because of the worlds they live in. Chelsea and Bloomsbury in the early part of the 20th century seem to us, at least, thrillingly stable.

Next, you have gone with a collection of EB White’s essays. He is one of the most iconic New Yorker writers.

White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and Beerbohm suddenly look stuffy and literary. White has an amazing ability, which I still marvel at, to come very close to a faux-naïve simplicity that’s excessive and then pull it back.

I’m just picking up one of his collections. I’m going to open it up at random and look for a sentence that captures White. Here’s one from a piece called “The Trailer Park”:

“Before sitting down to draft a preamble to the constitution of a world federations of democracies uniting free people under one banner, I decided I would mosey over to the trailer park at the edge of town and ask some of the campers whether they favoured any such idea of this union.”

The virtue of White’s kind of writing is to start with something that sounds pompous and editorial and then use a verb like “mosey over” to make it work. He cleans up the prose of the essay. Both Beerbohm and Woolf are belle-lettrist sort of writers and they connect to that leisurely tradition. White is a much more urbane and American writer.

What is the key “if you haven’t read any White, read this essay” essay for you?

“Death of a Pig”, in this collection, is a very good one. We have a section in the New Yorker called “Notes & Comments”, which White wrote for over 40 years. If you can find his comment pieces, they’re particularly wonderful. They appear in most of his collections in one form or another, and are the ones that I relish most. They’re kind of perfect miniatures.

Next up is A Sad Heart At The Supermarket. Randall Jarrell is best known as a poet, rather than an essayist. Why are his essays worth reading?

Jarrell, for me, is the absolute master of what I like to think of as “cabaret criticism”. The man has endless wit. I think his novel Pictures From an Institution is the single wittiest book of the last century, even though I’ve read it 10 times and can never recall the story! He’s a very poor storyteller but an amazingly witty writer.

Jarrell is a comedian of a kind. He always finds something not just witty in a literary way but outright funny to say about extremely serious subjects – about Auden, [Robert] Graves, Laura Riding or Wallace Stevens. I admire that ability to turn straight, old-fashioned literary criticism into a constant performance in the best sense – into a form of entertainment in itself. He supplied a new tone of enormous, wonderful excitability. That’s one of the things I love about Jarrell, and one of the things I struggle to infuse my own work with – a sense of excitement and pleasure even in the driest texts. Most of all he’s just a wonderful joker.

Do you have any favourite lines of his?

Again, let me open the book and take a sentence at random. Here’s one. He’s writing about [Walt] Whitman:

“The interesting thing about Whitman’s worst language (for, just as few poets have ever written better, few poets have written worse) is how unusually absurd, how really ingeniously bad, such language is.”

It’s that tone of hyperbolic excitability in the presence of literature, which is a constant antidote to the solemnity and false seriousness of most literary study.

You mention that Jarrell is a model you seek to emulate. But in terms of taste, at least, you’re a very different kind of writer. In the title essay of A Sad Heart at the Supermarket Jarrell is very wary of popular culture, whereas in last week’s New Yorker you compare the Book of Revelations to Transformers. Love of popular culture runs through your work.

That’s very true. I think all the interesting writers of my generation drew the high brow-low brow line in a very different way to Jarrell’s generation. We all came of age – I’m thinking of Louis Menand or Martin Amis or Clive James – when there seemed to be more genuine artistic energy in popular culture, movies and rock music in particular, than there was in high culture. The experience of The Beatles or Fellini or the Godfather films illuminated our understanding of high culture, rather than the other way around. I think that is a true fault line in the history of modern writing – you’re either on one side of it or the other.

Do you think for Jarrell and his contemporaries it was a lack of genuinely great pop culture in their time that put them off? Or was it a generational thing where they couldn’t get on board with the idea that pop culture, even if very good, is something you can consider seriously alongside high culture?

A little of both. Jarrell writes wonderfully about race cars and American football. He was no snob. But as far as I remember he never references jazz – which is a kind of in-between form of pop culture, more culture than pop in lots of ways. You have to remember too that for Jarrell’s generation, the GI generation, they were in the process of recognising and discovering what we now think of as high culture.

My own father was one of that generation. For him, each piece of high culture he achieved, understood, enjoyed – whether it was Bach or Milton – was part of a mountain climbed. We all, in a sense, started too easily – somewhere up on the mountain – because of their work, and therefore had a different view of it.

Do you have a favourite Jarrell essay?

I like the title essay, even though I don’t share his views. But my favourite is the one called “The Taste of the Age”.

Your last choice is Visions Before Midnight by Clive James. How did you come across his work? He’s well known in Britain, especially for his TV career, but not so much in America.

In 1980, Knopf did an anthology of his essays called First Reactions. In a curious way it was an advantage to read him flat-out as a writer. All of my friends in England read him as an entanglement of personal presence and prose style. I read him simply as prose style, without any knowledge of what his personal presence was like.

What was it you liked about his writing?

He has some of Jarrell’s excitability in the presence of creative energy. He has the ability to bring you into his writing, even when he’s writing about things that are in some ways utterly trivial and often completely forgotten, like British TV of the 1970s. He has a way of turning each of those subjects into a wonderful essay – an exercise in cabaret criticism – about values.

Values, I think, are his real subject. The overriding lesson of his work is that categories – high art, low art, television, theatre – are misleading guides to value. That even runs at a deeper, moral level in James’s work about the larger categories – provincial and metropolitan, for instance. He’s a provincial guy who comes to the city, but his provincial experience is in lots of ways richer than his metropolitan experience. It’s the rejection of categories in place of values that is the Montaigne-like takeaway in all his work.

Did he have an influence on your writing, or were you far enough in your writing career to find him as a friend and ally rather than a mentor figure?

Whereas Jarrell, Beerbohm and White were in different ways direct elements in the long-simmering braise that produced my prose style, for whatever it’s worth, Clive came along when I was already, in some sense, a formed writer.

But I did learn one very specific thing from his writing. He’s a very linear writer. His essays are always organised around sharp, direct and forward-pushing sentences. Whereas with Virginia Woolf your first response to one of her paragraphs, in the best way, is to read it again. Your first response to a Clive James piece is to keep on reading. I learned a great deal about how to make a piece propulsive from reading him.

And can you pick a favourite Clive James essay?

As with Woolf, the joy is cumulative – it’s the pleasure of reading all of his work. But here’s a good one. It’s a television column from December 3rd 1972 which goes from an argument between the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, to a documentary on “Bomber” Harris and the morality of area bombing, to a production of Oedipus Rex, to a new David Mercer play. In the midst of it, this comes up:

“Why, then, with all this talent [in the production of Oedipus], including a sumptuous lighting design that covers the décor with spiced gloom, does the production have so little sting? The answer, I think, is that there’s not much point in trying to supply a binding image to a play whose author was so intent on leaving imagery out. It’s difficult to think of Sophocles looking with favour on any attempt to pin his universalised theme to mere political instability.”

That’s a deep and original thought, perfectly expressed, which rises out of the normal eddies of TV journalism. That combination of range, ease and aphoristic subtlety is what I love in Clive’s work.

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