Understanding the Essay
  • Publication Date: July 25, 2012
  • ISBN: 9781554810208 / 1554810205
  • 280 pages; 6" x 9"

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Understanding the Essay

  • Publication Date: July 25, 2012
  • ISBN: 9781554810208 / 1554810205
  • 280 pages; 6" x 9"

This is a book on how to read the essay, one that demonstrates how reading is inextricably tied to the art of writing. It aims to treat the essay with the close attention that has been given to other literary genres, and in doing so it suggests the beauty and depth of the form as a whole. At once personal appreciations and acute critical assessments, the pieces collected here broaden our perspective on the essay as a major literary art, tracing its history from William Hazlitt to Joan Didion.


Understanding the Essay is a magnificently intelligent examination of the essay’s diverse pleasures, with fresh, revealing looks at writers from Montaigne to David Foster Wallace. Bravo to Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter for providing this important, insightful, readable resource. Teachers, students, and essayists will be bending back pages and marking the margins for years to come.” — Dinty W. Moore, author of Crafting the Personal Essay

Understanding the Essay is a warm and intelligent addition to our understanding of a form seemingly built for confusion. Foster and Porter know their subject: the subtle demands and inventions of the form; the tension between a narrator and her unsettled sibling, the author; the importance of integrity to both the known and the inventive voice. The brief biographies create a nuanced context in which to read the work; the analytic essays offer insight into work we think we know—or have yet to explore—in such a way that we can read as though for the first time.” — Sallie Tisdale


Introduction: “A History and Poetics of the Essay,” Jeff Porter

Introduction to David Foster Wallace
Reading “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Jeff Porter

Introduction to Anne Carson
Reading “On Trout,” Eula Biss

Introduction to Jamaica Kincaid
Reading A Small Place, Donald Morrill

Introduction to Scott Russell Sanders
Reading “Under the Influence,” James McKean

Introduction to Joy Williams
Reading “The Case Against Babies,” Sara Levine

Introduction to Joan Didion
Reading “Georgia O’Keeffe,” Patricia Foster

Introduction to John McPhee
Reading Encounters with the Archdruid, Adam Hochschild

Introduction to Cynthia Ozick
Reading “A Drugstore in Winter,” Sven Birkerts

Introduction to James Baldwin
Reading “Notes of a Native Son,” Honor Moore

Introduction to Seymour Krim
Reading “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,”
Vivian Gornick

Introduction to Ralph Ellison
Reading “The Little Man in Chehaw Station,” Gayle Pemberton

Introduction to George Orwell
Reading “A Hanging,” Carl H. Klaus

Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reading “The Crack-Up,” Patricia Hampl

Introduction to Virginia Woolf
Reading “Street Haunting,” Marilyn Abildskov

Introduction to Mark Twain
Reading “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Robin Hemley

Introduction to William Hazlitt
Reading “On the Pleasure of Hating,” Phillip Lopate

Introduction to Charles Lamb
Reading “New Year’s Eve,” David Lazar

Introduction to Jonathan Swift
Reading “A Modest Proposal,” Xu Xi

Introduction to Michel de Montaigne
Reading “On Some Verses of Virgil,” David Hamilton

Key Terms for the Essay


Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (2000) and Just beneath My Skin (2004) and the forthcoming novel Girl from Soldier Creek (2012). She has received a PEN/Jerard Fund Award for nonfiction, a Florida Arts Council Award, a Dean’s Scholar Award, and the Fred Bonnie Award for a first novel. She is Professor of English at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the MFA Program in Nonfiction.

Jeff Porter is the author of Oppenheimer Is Watching Me (2007). His essays have appeared in Antioch Review, Isotope, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, Wilson Quarterly, Contemporary Literature, Blackbird, and other journals. He is Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Nonfiction.