The Essays of Leonard Michaels

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A Year in Reading: Phillip Lopate


The new book that dazzled me the most this past year, and that I loved the most, was The Essays of Leonard Michaels. The essays range from meditations on literature (Shakespeare), religion (Bible stories), language (metaphor, psychobabble), painting (Edward Hopper) and film (Gilda, Hollywood screenwriting) to personal matters, but as the author says, with him everything he writes is personal.

The pieces about his mother and father, various teacher mentors and the Yiddish language are some of the greatest essays I know; they will break your heart and excite your thinking at the same time. Michaels had a trenchant, elegantly forceful style that cut to the bone; what impresses me the most, as a fellow essayist, is that he always tried to get to the bottom of what he knew and understand. He had a brilliant mind and, unlike the tough guy streetwise swagger adopted in some of his early stories, here he stands unashamedly before us as a cultivated intellectual, a man who lived through and in language. He was especially sensitive to certain mature, subtle, courtly distinctions in word usage and manners that are passing out of existence, to our loss. We think of Michaels as a cutting edge modernist, but this collection reveals how deep was his appreciative grasp of older traditions. He expressed gratitude again and again in these essays for all those he learned from; and gratitude is what I feel for all we can learn from him.

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