This brief piece, published in the New York Tribune in 1846, begins, “Farewell to New York City,” and reflects on her twenty months in the city—the people and pace of life, the city’s receptiveness to her and to her ideals (in very general terms). Two-thirds into the essay, she addresses her friends, and expresses her desires to see her work carried to completion. The piece does not have the polemical tone apparent in her other activist writings from the period (including Woman in the Nineteenth Century), and it carries an air of nostalgia as well as a hope for the future. Students can consider the piece as an epistolary essay and talk about the dual audiences of Fuller’s friends and the larger newspaper readership of New York City. Students can also compare the more distant and magnanimous tone to the personal and self-deprecating one of Joan Didion in “Goodbye to All That,” another essay about leaving New York.
Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) was an English woman trained in literature and dedicated to belles lettres. She wrote fiction and social commentary as well as essays, and was somewhat of a Hazlitt in her time—a character with a strong sense of right and wrong, who seemed to be perpetually falling out with friends, many of them writers. Limbo and Other Essays (1897), where “About Leisure” and “Limbo” were published, is associated with six other volumes of genius loci essays, or essays written about the spirit of place.
In “About Leisure,” Lee begins with an intriguing occasion, a description of a photograph of a painting in her room—a painting of St. Jerome, the patron saint of leisure. Students often have difficultly locating occasion in a personal essay, and the painting provides a clear example. I find students sometimes struggle to find subject matter, especially if they don’t want to write about themselves; this example of finding an entrance into a topic through a small physical object gets them thinking about a new way into essays. Lee recounts the legend surrounding St. Jerome and questions its truth—whether or not he actually had leisure as he lived—yet she holds fast to the usefulness of the myth: “St. Jerome really had leisure, at least when he was painted; I know it to be a fact; and for the purposes of literature, I require it to be one.” This playfulness reveals her stubbornness in pursuit of her topic, and creates a charming persona as one who entertains ideas for the sake of the chase. Students may discuss other ways Lee develops her persona, for example, using humor and emphatic statements. Lee could be seen as somewhat heavy handed, but others may see a strong voice similar to Hazlitt’s: a discussion of the expectations of gender can help further the discussion of persona.
In “Limbo,” Lee takes a fascinating romp around her subject; by the end, the reader’s understanding of the concept is radically shifted. She begins by using the metaphor of the “Children’s Rabbit’s House,” a custom that had apparently faded by Lee’s day, in which a corner of the garden was set aside for a tiny house, where children would pretend to “have tea with rabbits.” Through the image of the now dilapidated rabbit’s house, she evokes the feeling of what she calls limbo—both the innocence of childhood, and the nostalgia for its disappearance. Lee then defines limbo in the negative as well as the positive, and half the essay passes before we get to actual characteristics of limbo. I ask students to discuss how first defining Limbo in the negative affects the pacing of the essay; a possible exercise is to give students a topic and have them write about it completely in the negative. Lee speculates on the relationship of limbo to creative genius and its location in poetry. She digresses into topics such as shyness and what prevents the happiness of limbo from taking real hold in us—how it never seems to travel without its companion of nostalgic regret. I like to describe this essay as the author turning the crystal of Limbo around in her hand, and seeing what reflects, what shades and hues are rendered in the light of inquiry. Ask students to suggest other topics that might be suited to a similar essay, perhaps ones more concrete and relevant to them. Then ask them if they can think of a metaphor like the children’s rabbit’s house that would represent it.
Educated and trained in literature, Meynell lived a literary life (as an adult mostly in England), editing the Weekly Register, a Catholic publication, with her husband, and contributing to other periodicals. She wrote several collections of essays as well as acclaimed poetry. The essays I chose were published in1898 in The Spirit of Place And Other Essays, a collection of essays mostly published first in the column called “Wares of Autolycus” Meynell wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette in England. The essays, while playfully digressive, are controlled and distant explorations of her topic, and while they incorporate assumed experiences of the author, they avoid personalization.
“The Spirit of Place” is focused on how sound, especially that of church bells, evokes the memory of a place. In the first paragraph, Meynell hits us with a stunning (and funny) aphorism about bells: “The bell, like the bird, is a musician pestered with literature.” Because of her more distant tone, Meynell’s writing leans more towards the aphoristic observation, the essay can be used to illustrate aphorism to students. Meynell’s description of the bells of a cathedral in France, and how they create the spirit of place, is poetic and intimate, and provides opportunity for students to see how careful, poetic language is important to the rendering of detail. The topic of the essay shifts from a description of a place to how one gathers that perception—the experience of a traveler—and then back to bells, comparing their purpose at home and abroad. These subtle movements among subjects can be a challenge to more modern readers who expect a point to be revisited later in an essay; comparisons with Montaigne are helpful here. A possible exercise is to have students map out the trajectory of the essay by glossing each paragraph, and having them pull out the threads that are being woven together.
“The Hours of Sleep” is a meditation on insomnia and a comparison of the minds we possess during day versus night hours. She attributes a sort of creative innocence to night thinking, and explores the work of poets, surmising that certain passages must have been inspired by hours awake at night. Students can discuss her uses of quotation and allusion (William Blake and the painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot) and how they affect a reading of the essay. If students offer resistance to the references, it can be instructive to look at culturally specific references in their own writing or in others they read (perhaps an essay such as Joan Didion’s “I Can’t Get that Monster Out of My Mind”). Aside from the uses of quotation, students can appreciate the nuanced treatment of her subject—how she makes insomnia new and interesting.
These essays were published in 1841, contained in the volume Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry. The book was the first essay collection published by an African American in the US. Plato writes “Descriptions of a Desert” and “Reflection upon the Close of Life” from a more distant point of view, sparingly using the “I” pronoun, offering instruction as well as reflection. The essays have been criticized for not speaking about slavery, and for being moralistic or unoriginal. I ask students to respond to those critics when reading these two essays; were they right, or is there more going on here?
In “Descriptions of a Desert,” Plato begins with a factual description of the desert, and then moves into a contemplation of what dire natural conditions do to human relations, and ultimately, how they destroy the classes of master and slave. The more factual approach makes the author appear authoritative and omniscient, and I ask students why she would choose such a tone considering the environment in which she wrote. I also call attention to the possibility that the essay is speaking on more than one level; by talking about the desert, might she be alluding to the story of Exodus, in which slaves are freed? This discussion could be linked to the deft movement among audiences by essayists such as James Baldwin.
“Reflections on the Close of Life” can be looked at as a walking essay similar to Addison and Steele’s “Twenty-four Hours in London” and Woolf’s “Street Haunting.” We follow Plato’s thoughts as she wanders among graves. The essay touches upon a theme similar to “Desert,” namely that all are equal in death. But she also uses the graves as a springboard for imagination and soul searching, both recreating the lives of the dead, and wondering how they might instruct us in the present and future. She vacillates between a sense of yearning for progress and a sense of almost futility: “When will they learn humanity from the affliction of their brethren; or moderation and wisdom from a sense of their own fugitive state?” I ask students to parse what she’s saying, which can be cryptic at times to our modern ears, and to consider whether or not she could have used a more personal voice, given her audience.
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin) included this essay in her collection American Indian Stories, published in 1921. The essays in the book chronicle her “Indian Childhood,” her experiences in an Indian boarding school and later as a teacher in an Indian School, and they relate Indian cosmology and religious belief through stories. “The Great Spirit” demonstrates Zitkala-Ša’s connection to all of creation by describing her observations and feelings during a walk close to her home. Using Indian stories, she describes the landscape, the animals, her home and her dog, all encompassed in a “strong, happy sense that both great and small are so surely enfolded in His magnitude.” Then, a “native preacher” visits her and implores her to come to church, to the Christian god. The scene ends and she reflects on it, finally returning again to the Great Spirit and its all-encompassing love.
When teaching this essay, it’s helpful to point out both the context of the book and of Zitkala-Ša’s life as an activist and teacher as well as writer. Her writing holds the burden of speaking for a population who were hardly heard, yet it speaks through very personal and specific stories about her own life. I ask students, is she presenting an argument, and if so, in what way? Why would she choose to communicate through stories and personal observation? I try to impress that the personal essay can be argumentative as well as beautifully written, meaningful reflections. I also turn students’ attention to tonal and linguistic shifts in the section where she interacts with the preacher, asking them to think about how language itself loads the scene. In terms of form, students often pick up that this is a walking essay, similar to Woolf’s “Street Haunting” and “Going on a Journey” by Hazlitt.
teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio University in 2004; during his studies he was a Fulbright fellow in Uruguay. His recent essays are published in Northwest Review, Portland Magazine, and River Teeth, and forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007.