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ISSUE 120 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/4/2007

Boldt Chair guest Phillip Lopate shares essays

By Kirstin Fawcett
Copy Editor

Friday, May 4, 2007

Author Phillip Lopate's reading on April 26 in Rolvaag 525 was a direct contrast to the success formula that usually equates into a packed house full of eager Oles, eschewing homework and projects to be in the presence of greatness for a brief period of time. Lopate was in residency as a guest of the Boldt Chair and the English Department. Widely considered one of the foremost American essayists and a central figure in the recent revival of interest in memoir writing, Phillip Lopate is best known for his essays, which have been collected in Getting Personal: Selected Writings, The Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize series. His most recent book of nonfiction prose is the urbanistic meditation Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan.

Throughout the years, St. Olaf College has attracted an eclectic range of notable public figures, spanning from former political powerhouse Bob Dole to earthy author- illustrator Lynda Barry. Nevertheless, St. Olaf's visiting celebrities have all possessed ostensibly practical, down-home sensibilities, most likely stemming from childhood upbringings in rural midwestern corn country.

The majority of various literary luminaries, singer/songwriters, and politically conservative Presidential candidate that have ventured to speak on campus have not been incongruous or intimidating to the polar-fleece clad cohorts that make up the majority of the St. Olaf student body.

Like a typical St. Olaf scholar, these influential characters were also raised to develop self-effacing modesty, a dogged work ethic and resilience to scorching Southern summers or icy Northern blizzards. Therefore, their messages of talent and inspiration have come across as both real and relatable to the Wisconsinites and Minnesotans that pack the lecture halls of Holland to hear their success stories.

Instead of cracking jokes to the admittedly populated, yet not crowded room, Phillip remained elusive and silent, flashing glimpses of a tentative smile as English Professor Diana Postlewaite introduced Lopate as the "most significant American voice in shaping the American personal essay." Postlewaite continued to share student responses to Lopate's essay collections, which categorized Lopate's prose as "honest, engaging, questioning" and "[so engaging that one] forgets they are reading," a comment that elicited chuckles from the audience.

After Polstlewaite finished her litany of praises, Philip Lopate strolled up to a podium stationed at the front of the room. Dressed in a tweed coat, slacks, and tie, Lopate appeared to be every bit the pretentious East-Coast critic. As he began reading various essays from his book American Movie Criticism from the Silent to the Present, a row of upperclassmen clad in argyle and horn-rimmed glasses nodded enthusiastically in response to particularly-well nuanced points, and laughed perhaps a little too enthusiastically at Lopate's sly sense of humor, which admittedly livened up potentially dry prose.

Lopate's reading would have been hailed as a success story by all listeners had he taken his audience into consideration before selecting his pieces to be read out-loud. Lopate's first essay, entitled "Confessions of a Shusher," chronicled the suffering that a hard-core movie critic undergoes when the chattering of noisy cinema neighbors detract from their viewing experience.

Lopate's second essay, "The Bullet Stop," was most likely the crowd's favorite, due to his gruesome yet comical descriptions of a woman so devoted to her husband that she would use her body to shield him from a mad killer's rampage. The audience obviously expected these two essays to be mere foreplay to an explosion of witty literary genius, yet cumulated in a tedious 20-minute reading of an essay entitled "Novels and Films: A Comedy of Remarriage." In this essay, Lopate discussed the relationship between literary works and their subsequent, often-controversial, transition into cinematic form.

While Lopate made several brilliant points, he also failed to carry the charisma of the first two essays into his reading's finale. As Lopate's essay finally came to an end, moderate applause took several seconds to deliver, as most of the audience's hands had been engaged in killing time through doodling, doing homework, or cleaning the lenses of horn-rimmed glasses.

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