The Art of the Essay

I once thumbed through Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, skimming her seductive writing with the speed of a racehorse headed toward the finish line. Or at least the deadline for a book review due the next day.

Years passed.

Woolf’s essay became a feminist classic, a rallying manifesto for women intent on being taken seriously as creatives, be it as writers or artists in other areas of specialization. Quotes taken from Room abounded in all sorts of writing, especially the one that goes like this: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” (p. 18) Many food writers latched into that quote, which contains much truth. In fact, in that quote, Woolf sums up the essence of life for nearly all sentient beings on the planet.

Some scholars questioned the predominant trend to leave Room in the line up with other feminist works, a part of the literary canon of the women who burned their bras and kept their maiden names, names gleaned from their fathers and their fathers before them. Michael Degen presented a contrary opinion in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: A Contribution to the Essay Genre (2014). He summed up his argument with these words:

“The pulse of freedom and opportunity does not merely beat within the content of A Room of One’s Own; the pulse of freedom and opportunity beats within the form itself.”

As an essayist, Woolf took her inspiration from Michel Montaigne, that brilliant French writer who knew that inside his head were things that needed to be said. And so he retired to his study and set down those words that reverberate still, all these years later. The essay form provided him – and Woolf – with the wide open spaces necessary to run with a thought, to bring a theory to fruition, to explore a topic from angles unavailable to writers in other genres.

So I have set for myself the task of reading all of Woolf’s essays, which can be had in digital form.

Note: You may notice that I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. There’s reason for that: another retinal hemorrhage, this time in my right eye, my “good eye,” the left one being of low vision and poor function. 

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