Greg Wurm and Joey Franklin, English Department
The purpose of my project was to explore and demonstrate how the personal essay could be used as more than just a literary form of the humanities, but as an epistemological method in the social sciences. I built off the work of Dr. Andrew Abbott, of the University of Chicago, who, in 2007, proposed what he called “lyrical sociology.” In his piece, “Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology,” he described that a lyrical sociology sought to “communicate its author’s emotional stance toward his or her object of study, rather than to ‘explain’ that object.” The personal essay has also been shown to be an effective tool to investigate one’s emotions, and therefore, as I argued, could also be an effective way of accomplishing the aims put forth by Abbott.
I provided a comparison between the two styles, that of the lyric and of the personal essay, using Abbott’s piece and the book The Art of the Personal Essay, by Philip Lopate, as the texts upon which to draw this comparison. The comparison was categorized into two main sections; stance and mechanics. Abbott outlined three components to stance for the lyric: it was engaged emotionally, it was located personally, and it was located in time. All three of these interacted with one another to influence the overall attitude the author had toward what they wrote and toward their audience. The personal essay shared this same emotional, personal, and momentary stance.
The mechanics ensured that the stance was properly communicated. Two important mechanical devices for the lyrical sociologist to use in constructing his or her text were image and the balance between emotional and theoretical creativity. Abbott stated that lyrical writing, in contrast with quantitative and qualitative methodologies centered on an image or images rather than a sequence of events or variables (Abbott 76). These images, by evoking the sources of the writer’s emotional reaction, would bring to sociology a “humane sympathy” (Abbott 96). Lopate wrote accordingly about the personal essay saying, “The essayist attempts to surround a something–a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation-by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter… narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it (Lopate xxxviii). Thus, both seemed to have the same aim, and same process of arriving at it.
In order to see the relationship between the lyric and the personal essay I wrote my own vignettes about the time I served as a missionary in inner-city Detroit. I attempted to adhere to the rules of both Abbott and Lopate in constructing them and include one of them in the results section below.
We saw smoke rising above the cityscape a few blocks away. Fires were common, seeing them almost every other week; once, three times in one day. This one was black and billowing, which must have meant it was still fresh. We had some extra time before lunch, so we decided to investigate. We sped over and rolled up on our bikes just as the fire engines did.
The house, which was two-story, looked like it had been abandoned for awhile. Bright orange flames shot out the windows and door. It was beautiful. We could feel the heat across the street. Others who heard the sirens came out to watch as well, one man even brought a lawn chair; a neighborhood block party. We saw an older Spanish man we taught earlier that day, also on his bike watching. I tried to tell him in broken Spanish a joke about how religion was like fire insurance, for those who didn’t want to burn in hell. I don’t think he understood.
The firemen hurried to pull the heavy hoses close enough to shoot inside the house. One wall looked like it was about to collapse. The flames were big and the struggle was real, so I asked my companion to take a picture of me in front of the house. Not knowing how to pose, I smiled and gave a thumbs-up. Behind the burning house, a man with white headphones on and no shirt mowed his lawn and whistled.
The purpose of the vignettes were not to try and explain or generalize the social phenomenon I witnessed, but rather to give readers the emotional reality of each scene and recreate the “overpowering excitement and deeply affecting human complexity” (Abbott 70) of Detroit. To do this, I had to be sure to maintain the lyrical position of not taking a position. I had to withhold judgment, resist the urge to moralize, overcome the temptation to draw “objective” conclusions based on my observations, add commentary, or coerce–explicitly or implicitly–the reader to a specific point. Instead, I sought to simply tell of my experiences, and to treat them the way empiricists treat data; to let them speak for themselves.
Given that this was still the purpose of the vignettes, my discussion and analysis did not do any of these things. Rather, it was an exposition of the intentional literary moves I made while writing them, to show the value of both the lyric and the personal essay and how my writing was informed by both.
Lopate wrote about the personal essay as an epistemological method, or way to discover the laws of “human nature and society” (Abbott 72). He stated, “The essay is not, for the most part, philosophy; nor is it yet science.” But that it “is what it is: a mode of inquiry, another way of getting at the truth” (Lopate xlv).
In the social sciences, where different methodologies are used to get at the truth, I concluded that both lyrical sociology and the personal essay could be used as effective tools to get at the emotional truth, or reality, of one’s experiences. This emotional level was not captured by traditional methods and was therefore what the lyric and personal essay offered to sociology.