English R1A

Reading and Composition: The Personal Essay

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
7 Fall 2018 Stevenson, Max
MWF 2-3 206 Dwinelle

Book List

Lopate, Phillip (ed.): The Art of the Personal Essay

Other Readings and Media

The Center Will Not Hold (film)
I Am Not Your Negro (film)


The personal essay and the lyric poem share many qualities: aside from the (not insignificant!) fact that they’re short, they affect both personal intimacy and a supposedly equally intimate relationship to the truth. But the essay is far less studied — an omission all the more curious given that while in your time here at Berkeley you’ll not necessarily have to write any poetry, lyric or otherwise, your work in a whole range of subjects will require you to write the same lucid, careful prose that characterizes the best essayists.

This class takes its experimental cue from the etymology of the word “essay” itself: it is an attempt, a try, and (as in its modern English cognate “assay”) a test. In order to write better essays yourselves, then, we will subject both the personal essays we’ll read together and your own nonfiction writing to a series of trying questions. Who is the “I” in an essay? What are the — or are there — differences between an essay that poses questions, and an essay that answers them? How are works structured in a genre that affects an ostentatious nonchalance, and how can those supple forms move us beyond the seemingly regimented form of the academic essay? How do you take material — whether gathered through research, reading, or your own lived experience — and shape it into compelling prose? Can a short story be an essay? Can a list? Can, indeed, a lyric poem? While we will focus on the Anglophone personal essay in the twentieth century, we’ll read essays originally written in Latin, Chinese, Japanese, French, and German, and from the first century CE to the twenty-first; the authors we will study include James Baldwin, Seneca, Joan Didion, William Hazlitt, Sei Shonagon, and many others. We will also read a range of critics writing on the personal essay and the unique literary and literary-historical problems that the genre poses, and we will in turn act as critics of each other’s essayistic writing.

The object of the course is the personal essay, but since it is an offering in the University’s Reading & Composition program its objective is the production of the academic one. While the requirements of R1A mean that you’ll produce academic essays that put forward vigorous arguments supported with copious evidence from the texts you’ve read, you’ll produce a range of writing over the course, in a range of other, less academic genres — including, yes, the personal essay in a range of guises.

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