Is Dust a collection of “personal essays” rather than scholarly ones?

I was reading last Sunday’s (March 3)  New York Times book review section and there were two reviews that reminded me of the problems we were having with talking about Dust. First, from Morris Dickstein’s review of two volumes of Phillip Lopate’s essays:

The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story, or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative–in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives.

And from Christopher R. Beha’s review of Cynthia Zarin’s An Enlarged Heart:

“An Enlarged Heart” is a collection of personal essays written mostly over the past decade by the poet Cynthia Zarin. I assume the book is labeled a “personal history” for the same reason that collections of short stories are sometimes calld “linked stories” or even “novels in stories,” which is that the reading public apparently prefers unified, book-length narratives to such hodge-podge. This is a superficial point, and the packaging decision was almost certainly out of Zarin’s hands, but I mention it up front for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, the book isn’t uniform in quality or even–seemingly–in intent. A few of the essays clearly show their beginnings as magazine assignments. Others have an occasional slightness that sits awkwardly beside, say, the fierce urgency of the title essay … Such internal consistencies might mar a book-length project, but they’re entirely forgivable in a collection whose high points are so good.

Do some of these statements also ring true for Dust? If these essays had been couched more as “personal” rather than presented as scholarly, would they have been more successful? Is this collection of essays, written as individual assignments not successful because of these origins? Or does it have high points that are so good it makes these origins forgivable?


Announcing next book: History’s Babel

Thanks to everyone who voted in the poll. The clear winner was Robert Townsend’s, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940, so that will be our next book.

How does a start date of April 15 work for you? Does that give you enough time to get the book and read it? Want more time?

Rodney Carter on Chapter 4: Archives, Facts & Flights of Fancy

Today’s post comes from participant Rodney Carter. Thanks, Rodney, and if anyone else would like to write a guest post on one of the other chapters or a general topic on the book, please let me know.

Memory, identity, narrative, and dreams are all touched on in Chapter 4, “The space of memory: in an archive.” This essay* is, I believe, the most useful and interesting chapter in the book from an archival point of view as it focuses on historians’ work in archives and with records, even though, as we’ve come to expect from Dust to this point, it is a wide-ranging essay which draws on a number of varied theoretical perspectives. Here Steedman examines the (ideal) Historian working in the (idealized) Archive, walking yet again with Michelet as he reads the purloined letter and breathes in the dust of those gone before him, a necessary step in making the documents speak.

In her examination of the relationship of memory, history and the Archive, drawing on Bachelard and psychoanalysis, Steedman frames the work of historians in archives as a question of longing & appropriation (81); of finding not what is there but what they want to find, be it a sense of self, the confirmation of identity or sense (77). They go beyond the accumulation of names, dates, and other facts to ponder, imagine, dream, and create a narrative of self.

Does this search for confirmation contradict the idea of the fever-inducing thrill of discovery? Are you convinced by Steedman’s idea of the archives as a space which spurs the imagination? What do you think of the Archive as “a place of dreams” (69)?

* Originally this essay appeared in an issue of “History of the Human Sciences” devoted to “the archive” (vol. 11, no.4 [Nov 1998] , the first of two special issues on the topic. The second is Vol 12. no 2 [May 1999] ; both are worth having look at.)