The name συγγράμματα (syngrammata) is Ancient Greek for “essays.” Or rather, since those people didn’t quite have the genre as we know it, it’s a word that comes reasonably close. And so you may rightly infer that I had a classical education and that I am interested in essays. This blog betrays my interest in writing essays.
My superpower is that I have an eye sensitive to the absurd, the ridiculous, the subversive, the anomalous, the unnoticed, and the outmoded. Look for a potpourri of items in this space that have struck my eye in passing, or which I’ve set aside in the past. My kryptonite is an unwillingness to be nailed down to one systematic topic.
Why essays and not poetry or narrative? I fell in love with the modern voice of George R. Stewart, having bought a copy of his U.S. 40 at a used book sale at the Athenaeum in Providence—literally across the street from Brown’s Classics department. If you know Stewart, who was an English prof at Berkeley, you probably know him for his post-holocaust novel Earth Abides or from his classic study of American place naming, Names on the Land.
In cross-country trips with his family following U.S. 40, which runs (or ran) from Atlantic City to San Francisco, Stewart’s eye was caught time and again by interesting facets of the landscape he passed through. He selected 92 photos he’d taken and published them with a short essay accompanying each. Nothing was beneath his observation, and no landscape, however unpromising at first sight, failed to provoke his interest. He brought his keen intelligence to explicating the landscape with a geographer’s insight, a historian’s knowledge and an artist’s eye. His voice was authoritative but never professorial. In some way, almost every essay I’ve written is indebted to his work, even while falling short.
But on top of that, I have learned a great deal about writing from other great essayists. Paul Fussell’s moral outrage (I think of his “Thank God for the Atom Bomb“), Orwell’s honesty, Bronowski on “Knowledge and Certainty,” Didion on the Central Park jogger case, Coates on reparations: they and many others serve as a (probably unapproachable) model for me. I hope to repay your visit here with something to interest you, and I hope you’ll leave comments to help me improve my writing.