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?


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

  1. Yes! While I think the book is certainly more scholarly than the first quote/definition might suggest (it is certainly not “slight and superficial” even if they do suffer from some formlessness) but otherwise your characterization as personal essays fits very well – the “speak for yourself” (xi) in the “Preface”.

    Individually, the chapters each have something to offer, but the frequent diversions can undermine their effectiveness in parts, and here a more scholarly approach might have been beneficial. Even more problematic for me is that the book is missing a well developed through-line, something to tie everything together beyond the amorphous notion of the Archive. Collections of essays are fine but this seems presented as a coherent whole and while certain motifs reappear across chapters (dust, ‘History’, ‘Archives’, Michelet) the connections are not strongly made. The addition of a proper conclusion may have even been sufficient to tie it all together.

    Despite having a number of issues with the book, overall I enjoyed the experience of reading it. I liked her discussion of Archive Fever, her exploration of occupational safety in book manufacturing, and her reflections on space. There are certainly chapters which I will return to and others which I will forget about entirely (some which I have already forgotten, I am sure). I would recommend essays rather than the entire book as, for me, it is a case of the whole NOT being more than the sum of its parts.

  2. I’m only now chiming in on this book because it sort of knocked me out. I only got through three chapters of it before giving up, so I may be ignorant of some sort of later development, but “personal essays” seem to fit the bill to me. I thought the simile of the sermon mentioned before was particularly apt. Maybe it’s just because I have never been exposed to semiotics or historicity or whatever this thing was about, but for large chunks of what I read I had no idea about what it was that Steedman was trying to get across. There are certainly some academic tidbits, and maybe a little insight about the interaction between lived experience, record, and constructed history, but a lot of the stuff in between did feel like aimless introspection set to a sort of writing style that actively discouraged comprehension.

    Joel Wurl advises against using this as an introduction to postmodernist semiotics, which is what Dust ended up being for me. This was probably a mistake.

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