Episode 410 – Phillip Lopate

Virtual Memories Show 410:
Phillip Lopate

“This book is like a tracing of American history through the essay. The essay is way to process ideas. All these problems we face in America I came to realize we had cycled through again and again: immigration, racism, sexism, disabilities. All of these questions of inclusion and exclusion have been tackled by the essay.”

Essayist and editor Phillip Lopate rejoins the show to celebrate the publication of The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times To The Present (Pantheon). We talk about the origins of this anthology & how it transformed into a three-part series (two more coming next year!), Phillip’s self-admitted megalomania about the essay form, how the essay both paralleled and helped change American thought over the centuries, and just what’s so Glorious about The Glorious American Essay. We get into the challenge of limiting the collection to 100 essays, the value of canons and the need to revise them, the postwar golden age of the essay, the challenge of compiling work from the 21st century, and Emerson’s role as the key to the American essay (and how Phillip came to understand him through reading his notebooks). We also get into how his pandemic is going, how his students’ essays about lockdown life are better than some of the ones he’s read from older writers, his take on the Mets’ new ownership and why he’s glad sports came back during COVID, and what it was like to read so deeply in the history of American essays and thought during the Trump presidency. Give it a listen! And go read The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times To The Present!

“One of the plights of the anthologist is that, no matter how many pages they give you, if you just had 200 or 300 more pages, you could really nail that sucker.”

“When someone asked me about this project, ‘What about your own work?’, I said, ‘This IS my own work.’ I’m giving four or five years of my life to being the keeper of the essay.”

“My limitation as an anthologist, and perhaps as a teacher, is that I’m always looking for a spark of humor or irony. Solemnity turns me off.”

“The great thing about writing is that sometimes you write something and then you lose it as a living memory, because now you’re remembering what you wrote about it. Writing replaces the memory.”

“The way I see my own work is connected to tradition, connected to the past, connected to Montaigne, and Hazlitt, and Lamb.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Phillip Lopate is the author of To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, and of four essay collections: Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and Portrait Inside My Head. He is the editor of the anthologies The Art of the Personal Essay, Writing New York, and American Movie Critics, as well as the author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan, Notes on Sontag, and Totally Tenderly Tragically. A professor of writing at Columbia University’s nonfiction MFA program, he lives in Brooklyn. He is the editor of the new anthology The Glorious American Essay.

Listen to our previous conversations from 2013 and 2017.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Phillip by me from 2017. It’s on my instagram.

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