Excerpts Reflecting a Wide Range
It is frequently said that the best way to learn to write is to read the work of others — especially in the genre in which you have interest. While this does not mean you should imitate the writing style of other writers, it is an excellent way to study the genre so you can then proceed to develop your own unique voice and style. With this in mind, consider the following excerpts and if you are serious about the genre, you should read other literary essays in their entirety.
Combining Literary and Personal Essays
“Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All” by William Manchester was first published in the New York Times Magazine and was subsequently selected for The Best American Essays 1988 as well as The Best American Essays of the Century. In this article, the author uses his presence at a ceremony attended by Japanese and American war veterans to dedicate a monument of those killed in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war to expound upon the battle of Okinawa. As you will see in the next chapter, by dwelling upon his own experience and then drawing more universal implications, Manchester has followed the path of the personal essay but since the essay at hand is fundamentally an exposition of the battle itself, it is more properly categorized as a literary essay. The point being, there is not always a clear demarcation between these two popular kinds of essays. Consider how the information and the writing style of Manchester's piece brings it into the domain of literary essays.
Manchester introduces his exposition of the battle the following way:
“No one doubted the need to bring Japan to its knees. But some Americans came to hate the things we had to do, even when convinced that doing them was absolutely necessary; they had never understood the bestial, monstrous and vile means required to reach the objective — an unconditional Japanese surrender. As for me, I could not reconcile the romanticized view of war that runs a red streak through our literature — and the glowing aura of selfless patriotism that had led us to put our lives at forfeit — with the wet, green hell from which I had barely escaped. Today, I understand. I was there, and twice wounded. This is the story of what I knew and when I knew it.”
Note how Manchester establishes his voice of authority from personal experience and consider how he makes use of word choice and language in his composition. In the subsequent paragraph, Manchester goes on to describe the battle and provide basic information about the confrontation. Can you see the change in word choice and sentence structure? Even the tone has shifted from personal reflection to a clear and lucid reporting of facts.
“To our astonishment, the Marine landing on April 1 was uncontested. The enemy had set a trap. Japanese strategy called for kamikazes to destroy our fleet, cutting us off from supply ships; then Japanese troops would methodically annihilate the men stranded ashore using the trench-warfare tactics of World War I — cutting the Americans down as they charged heavily fortified positions.”
The Incidental to the Notable
A device you might want to consider employing when writing a literary essay is to expand on a seemingly unimportant subject as a means to bring the reader to a larger topic. For example, in “The Creation Myths of Cooper-stown” first published in Natural History (1989) and selected for The Best American Essays of the Century, the renowned anthropologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould begins with the following account:
“The Cardiff Giant, the best American entry for the title of paleontological hoax turned into cultural history, now lies on display in a shed behind a barn at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, New York. This gypsum man, more than ten feet tall, was ‘discovered’ by workmen digging a well on a farm near Cardiff, New York, in October 1869. Eagerly embraced by a gullible public, and ardently displayed by its creators at fifty cents a pop, the Cardiff Giant caused quite a brouhaha around Syracuse, and then nationally, for the few months of its active life between exhumation and exposure.”
Gould went on to consider what he calls “origin myths” and how it applies to the evolution of baseball. He is able to move from the Cardiff Giant to baseball because of what they share in common — the colossal was “discovered” in Cooperstown, New York, the location of the baseball hall of fame.
Finely Crafted Writing
In an essay titled “New York City: Crash Course,” which first appeared in Granta and was included in The Best American Essays 1991, Elizabeth Hard wick informs the reader about some historical notes of interest concerning New York City — just as the title implies. She touches upon subjects as diverse as slavery, tenements, the opera house, jogging, early explorers, immigrants, and stock traders. Yet, despite the abundance of facts, the reader is never bored because the data selected is fascinating and is presented in a method of writing that pays great attention to language and style. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening paragraph.
“The old New York airport was once called Idlewild, a pastoral welcome to the gate of a zoological garden of free-ranging species. Or so it seemed to say before the names were changed to those of politicians, those who won. Kennedy Airport, international arrival to our hysterical, battered and battering, potholed, bankrupt metropolis. A spectacular warehouse this city is: folk from anywhere, especially from those sunny sovereignties to the south of us, coming to peer out of blackened windows, each one in his shelter of sorts.”
Write about Setting
Writing a literary essay is an excellent medium to elucidate upon a specific location whether it be a nature preserve, a village, a museum, a bridge, a park, or as in the essay “City Out of Breath” (first published in Manoa and later included in The Best American Essays 2006) by Ken Chen, a literary explication of Hong Kong.
Consider how Chen relies on details and language to provide a sense of the uniqueness of the city of Hong Kong.
“Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong's energy and flashy contradictions: Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of sticky-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor's pass.”