Many literary scholars trace the current craze for creative nonfiction to the 1995 publication of Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. Lopate gathered an eclectic mix of essayists old and new, but the hero of his book was clearly the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who wrote on topics as diverse as drunkenness, cannibals, the resemblance of children to their parents, and thumbs.
At the time, Lopate was probably best known for his wonderfully contrarian essay “Against Joie de Vivre,” but he soon went on to become a major force in creative nonfiction, championing writing that was conversational, intimate, graceful, and humble.
Lopate continues that tradition in Portrait Inside My Head, which he frankly admits is a “miscellany.” The book cover topics ranging from the poetry of Charles Reznikoff to the history of New York’s City Hall to the reasons why one might remain a baseball fan in the age of steroids.
As with Montaigne—and William Hazlitt, another of his favorites—the one constant among the dizzying array of subjects is Lopate’s own voice. That voice is by turns sardonic and sentimental, and frequently very funny. Curiosity is ever-present: something interests the writer and he wants to learn more about it, taking us along on his often circuitous journey of discovery.
To bring some organization to the potential chaos, Portrait Inside My Head is divided into four parts. “The Family Romance,” the opening section is, in effect, a brief autobiography. We learn that Lopate grew up Jewish in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was predominately African American. That experience deepened his outsider’s perspective, teaching him to fade into the background and become an observer when necessary, resorting to “any number of pusillanimous strategies to save my neck.”
Part two, “The Consolations of Daily Life,” is a kind of catch-all. Lopate is a renowned film critic, and he writes about movies, moviemakers, and movie-going. He also explores the exigencies of being a “wishy-washy left-liberal,” being attracted to women with affectations, and in “Duration, or Going Long,” sexual longevity. The latter essay begins with the memorable opening sentence, “Fornicating is like parenting: no matter how you do it, you have the guilty sense that somewhere other people are doing it more correctly.”
The third grouping, “City Spaces,” is perhaps the least gripping for those who live outside New York, or don’t have a fascination with its architectural arcana. Still, even here, Lopate manages to make urban planning and policy fairly interesting. The highlight is “Walking the High Line,” an investigation of the history and development of the elevated railroad tracks on Manhattan’s West Side that were turned into a city park. Lopate admires the “variety of spatial and recreational situations: narrow and wide paths, decked and open-air routes, limited and broad views of the city, beach-like lolling areas, conceptual artworks.” Indeed, after reading this well-researched and thoroughly descriptive essay, visiting the actual High Line might be a disappointment.
The most memorable essay in “Literary Matters,” the final section, is “‘Howl’ and Me,” which traces the evolution of Lopate’s response to Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem. Lopate chronicles his teenage enthusiasm, his young adult skepticism, and his mature assessment: “These days when I read ‘Howl,’ I forgive the Blakean seraphic bluster and attend to the superb atmospherics of place.”
In the book’s coda, “The Life of the Mind,” Lopate admits, “I plod through the hours of leisure with a pretense of grateful participation which does not fool for a second those closest to me (my wife and daughter), and I wait impatiently for the next opportunity to sit at my desk and write. Anything. For it is only when writing that I begin to exist.”
Luckily for readers, Phillip Lopate manages to make his way to his desk frequently, and usually with compelling results.