P O W E L L, W y o. - What do "Charlotte's Web," fast food and risky behaviors have in common? Robert Atwan. The nationally recognized writer and literary critic finds ties to all three topics when he explores the role of the essay in modern culture. Atwan will talk about the genre he helped revive in a 7:30 p.m. presentation Thursday, Sept. 13, in Room 70 of the Fagerberg Building at Northwest College.
When it comes to the American essay, Atwan has been described as "probably as close as we come to a national sage on the genre," by award winning journalist Kathleen Hirsch. Atwan is best known as the series editor of "The Best American Essays," the highly acclaimed annual collection he founded in 1985.
Part of his talk will reference an essay written by "Charlotte's Web" author E.B. White about a different pig. While White's short essay, "Death of a Pig," never achieved the fame of his longer work about Wilbur, the "famous" pig, Atwan pulls from it to demonstrate the power of the essay.
The essay has long been a serious companion to American thought. Eighteenth century essays are often pointed to as seedbeds for the thoughts that sparked the American revolution. A century later, essays provided self-reflection to a nation tearing itself apart during the Civil War. The genre's popularity slumped dramatically in the 20th century. Its revival, in both literary and cultural standing, is often credited in part to Atwan and his annual essay anthology.
Atwan maintains the genre is still vital to society even though the value it offers isn't delivered at the same speed to which Americans have become accustomed. In an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, Atwan told Hirsch, "The essay is certainly slow... It's not fast food, it's not fast culture." He explained that, "What essays give you is a mind at work... it's a wonderful thing, and in a world of sound bites and cant and cliché you want to hear the mind at work."
In that same interview, he cites another important difference distinguishing the essay from other genres when he talked about writers like Emerson, Mencken or Montaigne. Atwan claims, "They did not want to be correct people. There's a lot of feistiness there." He believes the risks these and other authors took is what makes the essay enduring. "Risk is so essential to the genre that an essay is hardly an essay without it," Atwan said.
Because his name has become almost synonymous in literary circles with the genre of essay, Atwan's willingness to come to Powell came as a surprise to Northwest College English faculty Renee Dechert and Rob Stothart.
"Each year in his foreword to the latest 'The Best American Essays,' Atwan invites writers and editors to send him their manuscripts," Stothart said. "And he gives his mailing address right there in the foreword for all the world to see."
Dechert explained that "by offering his address, he opens himself up to a volume of mail that surely stacks up mountains of manuscripts in his office."
Last spring, buried deep in that avalanche of correspondence to Atwan was an invitation from Dechert and Stothart to speak in the NWC Writers Series. When he answered them right away saying he would be glad to come, they were surprised not only at his willingness but also that he even found their invitation amidst all his mail.
Atwan's essays, reviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and such literary journals as The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, and River Teeth.
His presentation in Powell is sponsored by the Northwest College Writers Series. Click here to read "Death of a Pig" prior to Atwan's program.
Sponsors for evening are the NWC Academic Affairs Office and NWC Work-Based Learning.
Admission is free.