Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf essays’

Virginia Woolf’s entreaties in A Room of One’s Own were directed to women, urging them to write. To write all kinds of books, to write whatever they wish. She said: “When I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.”

The authors of two recent essay collections are living Woolf’s legacy. Jericho Parms and Durga Chew-Bose acknowledge the footprints that precede them, and their successful debuts are a gift to today’s readers.

I was struck repeatedly in Jericho Parms’s collection, Lost Wax, by word constructions and rhythms that brought Woolf to mind, especially in her contemplations of memory and the self. It was no surprise to read in an interview: “I first fell in love with the essay and the unending possibility of the form from reading the works of Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf.” She mentions Moments of Being as a major influence, and it’s evident in reflections about her own life.

The final essay in Lost Wax is “Immortal Wound,” in which Parms ponders a dead luna moth and relates it to human mortality, to the recognition that one can expire “in a moment unobserved, as if it never came to pass.” Woolf had witnessed her moth’s death, and Parms says, “I envied Woolf her day moth zigzagging against a windowpane.”

The title of Durga Chew-Bose’s book of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, comes from Woolf’s diary entry of April 11, 1931. Woolf is bogged down in making corrections to a number of her articles. She’s working with a faulty pen, for starters, “And not much to say, or rather too much & not the mood.”

The prose in these essays evokes Woolf’s interiority and love of language. I underlined phrase after phrase, passage after passage, as Chew-Bose, like a moth herself, lights here and there, pausing on family and friendship, on James Baldwin and Nina Simone and the young Al Pacino, on her name and her voice and her skin color.

The opening essay, “Heart Museum,” is a 90-page abstract meditation, in which she likens writing to body language, to “a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity,” to “an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument,” to “a closed pistachio shell.” In which she describes her version of happiness as “curling up inside the bends of parentheses,” and in which the odds and ends on a friend’s dressing table represent “a parish of miscellany,” “a village of items.”

The essay is alive and well, and women’s writing in all genres is more wide-ranging and abundant than even Virginia Woolf might have imagined.

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Susan Sellers

Susan Sellers

The Eighteenth Annual Virginia Woolf Birthday Lecture, “Woolf and the Essay” by Susan Sellers, Professor of English and Related Literature, St Andrews University, and General Editor of the Cambridge University Press Edition of  the Works of Virginia Woolf, will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday 28 January 2017 at the Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. See map and directions.

The lecture is sponsored by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. The cost is £15 for Society Members and £20 for non-members. The event includes a wine reception following the lecture and a copy of the lecture when printed.  Bookings are available via the Institute of English Studies website.

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Alice Lowe, a regular contributor to Blogging Woolf, blends her life stories, food and Virginia Woolf in her writing.leftovers on lettuce

Read her latest creation, “Leftovers on Lettuce: ABCs of a Life in Food,” an essay published Feb. 24 in Middlebrow Magazine.

Lowe describes the British journal as playing on “Woolf’s snooty but tongue-in-cheek essay in which she castigates ‘middlebrow’ as ‘the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between’ the highbrow and the lowbrow, ‘the bane of all thinking and living.'”

Lowe writes that “the editors seek to reclaim it as a positive concept, calling Woolf’s own essays middlebrow, so I consider myself in good company on their pages.”

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I marvel at well-crafted essays. Virginia Woolf was a master, of course, right up there with Montaigne, whose name is most identified with the form. Lately, though, I’ve been absorbed with the work of contemporary work, personal essays in particular. E.B. White is one of the reigning champions of the genre, but my current favorite is Anne Fadiman.

I’d read a couple of her essays in Best American Essays collections and went looking for more. I wasn’t surprised to find that she’s a Woolf enthusiast. Her first collection, Ex Libris, is subtitled Confessions of a Common Reader—the homage makes her affinity pretty clear. She loves books and in these personal essays she writes about them lovingly, intimately, humorously. My favorite is the first one, “Marrying Libraries,” in which she talks about the true test of love and commitment: after five years of marriage, she and her husband decide to merge their books and bookshelves, their “mutually quarantined Melvilles.”

I identified with her in “Insert a Caret,” about compulsive proofreading, how misspellings and punctuation errors jump out at her from restaurant menus. In “Eternal Ink,” she writes about pens as muses and fall-guys, citing Woolf’s proclivity to do the same. (Woolf: “What am I going to say with a defective nib?”)

I read her newer collection with a combination of awe and envy—these are the kinds of essays I’d like to write. The works in At Large and At Small (Confessions of a Literary Hedonist) are what Fadiman calls “familiar essays,” personal essays with a larger scope. Each one has a broad focus—butterflies, Charles Lamb, ice cream, and sleep patterns to name a few—that she researches thoroughly but brings home with personal experience.

Essays, she says, “provide for the writer a chance to move into the sort of leisurely, slightly hedonistic mode that, in the 21st century, has become a luxury.” They are “pools of opportunity to stop, and sit, and slow down, and think.”

Fadiman claims Woolf as one of her two favorite essayists (the other is E.B. White). Woolf, along with Coleridge and Lamb, would be guests at her ideal dinner party. “Virginia and I would be the centre of attention,” she says.

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best american essays

I just treated myself to the new 2009 edition of The Best American Essays. I’m often left speechless at the incredible diversity of work as well as the brilliance, cleverness, wit and pathos of individual selections.

The first essay in the collection, “Taking a Reading” by Sue Allison, starts with, “A yard, a pace, a foot, a fathom. How beautiful the language of measurement is…,” and ends a mere page later, reiterating her point: “A ream is a lot of paper, sold and purchased blank. Written on, it’s a book.”

John Updike and Cynthia Ozick offer insightful pieces about writers. And Brian Doyle, in “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” speaks of the perfect essay as having an ending that provides “a shot of espresso hope.” Wow!

In her editorial introduction, Mary Oliver champions the form. In the essay, she says, “what we receive is not didactic, not even, sometimes, totally believable, but the soul-felt truth from the individual perspective of someone deft in the craft of expression. The essay is not the world of Middlemarch, of Mrs. Dalloway going out to buy the flowers—it is neither less nor more, but different.”

Her reference to Mrs. Dalloway struck me as an irony in that she’s using Woolf the novelist to talk about what the essay is not, and yet Woolf was such a prolific and masterful essayist herself. One only has to revisit “Street Haunting” or “On Re-Reading Novels,” to name just two that come to mind, to recognize that she takes her place among the greats from Montaigne and Samuel Johnson to E. B. White and Joan Didion.

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