Mar 18 – Mar 24, 2013 Edition Columbia University Essay Conference Set

New York, NY, March 19, 2013—The graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts is pleased to announce the inaugural Stalking the Essay Conference, to be held Saturday, April 6th, from 10 AM to 6 PM. The conference, organized by Nonfiction Concentration Director Phillip Lopate, is free and open to the public. With this symposium, the Writing Program aims to encircle the practices, theories and possibilities of the essay form by bringing together those who love it.

The essay has a long and glorious history as a literary form, and is the intellectual bellweather of any modern society. The genre is at a particularly interesting transitional moment, what with the emergence of the lyrical essay and other hybrid forms, the debate about the line between nonfiction and fiction, and the resurgence of the essay film, the digital essay and the radio essay. While considerable experimentation is going on at the moment, it should be noted that the essay has always been a daringly open, experimental form—from the French word “essai,” meaning, “attempt.” Unlike fiction and poetry, which have spawned systematized approaches to narratology and poetics, the essay continues to be an elusive eel in the literary waters, neglected by scholars. As one of the genre’s foremost experts, Carl H. Klaus, has written, “a methodology for understanding the essay is long overdue.” The one-day conference will attempt to contribute toward developing this methodology, as well as celebrating the varieties of this ubiquitous form.

This conference is intended to be the first of an annual event, as part of a larger effort to establish Columbia University as a magnet for studying the essay’s history and current practice, and nurturing and propagating its future. What makes this location so apt is Columbia's especially rich essayistic tradition that includes Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, F. W. Dupee, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Randolph Bourne, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Meyer Schapiro, Eric Bentley and Edward Said.

The goal of the conference is to help build a legacy for the essay as an enduring, various, mutating, endearing, essential literary expression. For this must be said in its favor: the Essay is the classic, reliable tool for human consciousness to track itself, and at the same time to overcome isolation—making it possible for writers to establish with readers a bond of friendship. It is a response to the present historical moment, and a fertile meeting-ground for truth and imagination, the personal and the impersonal.


Branka Arsiæ

Ian Buruma

Vivian Gornick

Michael Greenberg

Patricia Hampl

Margo Jefferson

Richard Locke

Daniel Mendelsohn

Geoffrey O’Brien

Katha Pollitt

David Shields

Ned Stuckey-French

Colm Tóibín

Nicole Wallack

Patricia J. Williams

Phillip Lopate, organizer


Welcome and Overview: Phillip Lopate, organizer

The 19th and 20th Century Essay: Branka Arsiæ (On Leaving: A Reading of Emerson, Professor, English, Columbia), Ned Stuckey-French (The American Essay in the American Century, Professor of English, Florida State University), Moderator: Nicole Wallack (English Department, Columbia).

The Column, Political Persuasion and the Essay: Patricia J. Williams (“Diary of a Mad Law Professor” columnist for The Nation), Katha Pollitt (Learning to Drive, columnist for The Nation), Michael Greenberg (Beg, Borrow, Steal, columnist for the TLS).

Criticism and the Essay: Vivian Gornick (Approaching Eye Level), Daniel Mendelsohn (Waiting for the Barbarians, Professor, Bard College), Margo Jefferson (Michael Jackson, Professor, Columbia), Geoffrey O’Brien (Sonata for Jukebox, Editor-in-Chief, The Library of America) Moderator: Richard Locke (Critical Children, Professor, Columbia).

The Personal and Impersonal Essay (four solo talks): Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories, Professor, University of Minnesota), Ian Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam, Professor, Bard College), David Shields (Reality Hunger, Professor, University of Washington), Colm Tóibín (New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Professor, Columbia).

About the Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts

The School of the Arts MFA degree in Writing is highly regarded for its rigorous approach to literary instruction and for its faculty of acclaimed writers and editors who are devoted and dedicated teachers. Students concentrate in fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction, and also have the option of pursuing a joint course of study in writing and literary translation. Columbia University School of the Arts Writing Program alumni of the last 10 years cumulatively have published more than 150 books and won major international and national literary prizes including Fulbright Scholarships, Rome Prizes, National Book Critics Circle Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships and more.

About Columbia University School of the Arts

Columbia University School of the Arts awards the Master of Fine Arts degree in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts and Writing and the Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. The School is a thriving, diverse community of artists from around the world with talent, vision and commitment. The faculty is composed of acclaimed and internationally renowned artists, film and theatre directors, writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, playwrights, producers, critics and scholars. Every year the School of the Arts presents exciting and innovative programs for the public including performances, exhibitions, screenings, symposia, a film festival and numerous lectures, readings, panel discussions and talks with artists, writers, critics and scholars. For more information, visit: