"Essay" According to Railton

    There is no one model or formula for a good literary critical essay. You each have your own voice and style, and should think of the writing you'll do for this class as a chance to express yourself as well as analyse literature. But since I have my own prejudices about what a good essay will do, I'll try here to be as specific as I can about what I'll be looking for when I read -- and grade -- your essays.

    I want you to invest yourself in the essay. That's why I don't assign topics. To me, the best place to begin writing a paper is with your own reading experience. Try to find something in one of the works we read that really interests, perplexes, aggravates, excites or confuses you -- whether it's a part of the work's plot, the role of a character, a pattern of images or allusions, a theme, or whatever. For this class I'd prefer you to explore on some aspect of what we're calling "Relations of Race" -- the way "whiteness" and/or "blackness" is constructed, relations between the races, the depiction of slavery, etc. -- but if you are much more interested in something entirely outside that set of issues, come and see me about it, and if it makes sense to me, you can write on it. The crucial thing is to start with a question that genuinely interests you. If you can do that, then you've got two reasons to write the essay: to get a grade, sure, but also to explore the question and come up with an answer that satisfies your own intellectual curiosity.

    I want you to commit yourself to an answer, a specific conclusion. To write a good essay, you need to turn the topic into a focused argument. The topic is whatever subject you're writing about. The argument is what you are trying to say, what you want your reader to see about that subject. Let's suppose I'm most interested in the "almost white" slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin: Harry, Eliza, George, Emmeline, Cassy -- that's my topic. How Stowe uses these figures -- that's a narrower topic, but probably too broad for 6 pages. Stowe's use of the "almost white" slave women -- probably focused enough, but still not an argument. That Stowe uses this set of characters as mothers and daughters to appeal to the white women in her audience -- that's an argument, though a tough one to "prove," since it's tricky to try moving interpretively from a text to its author to its audience. So let's say "By comparing Stowe's depictions of Eliza, Emmeline and Cassy to the way she describes Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird and Rachel Halliday, we can see how she might be trying to use gender to build a bridge across the racial gap." That's an argument I can try to make persuasive by quoting and analyzing passages comparing these "almost white" women to the novel's "white" ones. One way to know you've got an argument is if you can see how people could argue against what you're saying. No one could disagree that there are a lot of "almost white" slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but there wouldn't be much point in writing a whole essay just to say that. You could, however, disagree that the novel depicts Eliza and Cassy as essentially similar to the "white" women -- as I'll suggest in a minute.

    I think it's more fun to write an essay when you've committed youself to an argument. You're not just filling pages, but you're building a case, proving how right your idea is. And having an argument makes it easier to shape and organize an essay too -- because you can plan it around the idea of making your point persuasive, leading your reader stage by stage to your own idea or conclusion, planning each paragraph as a step in that direction. And having an argument helps you define the boundaries of your discussion too -- if something isn't directly related to the larger conclusion you want your reader to reach, then it doesn't belong in this paper.

    I want you to read and write "closely." That was why I asked you to write that first assignment. To me a paper in a literature class should be about a text. You figure out what you want to say by looking closely at what the text itself says or suggests about the question you've asked, so once you've identified your subject, you should next go back to the text, looking carefully at the passages and episodes and chapters where the issue seems most prominent (with my essay on the "almost white" women I'd want to look at all Eliza, Emmeline and Cassy's major scenes, and probably examples of major scenes involving "white" women too, like Mrs. Shelby in her bedroom, Mrs. Bird in her parlor or Rachel in her kitchen; I'd want to think about looking carefully at how these women are described, what kind of language they speak, what kind of actions or emotions they're associated with, etc.). The most persuasive essays are the ones that can cite and discuss good textual evidence to explain, develop and support their ideas. To me, a good essay is going to have quotations in every paragraph, is going continuously to show how its ideas arise from the text itself and illuminate the meaning of the text itself. What I'll be looking for is not an interpretation I personally agree with, but rather a well-developed, well-supported conclusion of your own, a paper that shows me how the text supports your answer to the question you asked.

    [By the way, all three of the texts we've read so far can be searched electronically -- i.e. you can use the technology to help you find passages you might use as evidence. In the case of my essay, for example, I could search the E-text of Uncle Tom's Cabin for all instances of the names "Eliza," "Cassy," "Emmeline," etc. -- or uses of the words "woman/women/mother/lady," etc. Stowe and Douglass's text are in the UNCLE TOM'S CABIN & AMERICAN CULTURE site, and Huckleberry Finn is searchable in MARK TWAIN IN HIS TIMES. The technology can't tell you which passages to choose or what to say about them, but it can help you identify them.]

    I want you to stay on target. That's why I recommend beginning to write the essay at least a week before it's due. When I write an essay I don't usually know "what I think" until I see "what I write" -- by which I mean that it's usually only as I write a first draft that my interpretation comes into focus for me. That means I usually have to throw away most of the first draft and begin again, because the whole essay needs to be focused on developing that interpretation to a conclusion, and it's not until I have a clear idea of that conclusion that I really know where to start from, what to say next, &c. For example, I'd probably start out writing to show how much Eliza as mother is like Mrs. Bird and Rachel Halliday, but then I might notice that passage where Eliza first appears, and we see her through Haley's eyes as a sex object. We never see Rachel that way (in fact, there's a passage contrasting Venus to Rachel that overtly segregates Rachel's "beauty" from any sexual component). And I might find myself more and more interested in Cassy's unconventionality: she admits her passion for her first lover ("I loved that man!"), admits killing a child, speaks in French to Simon Legree as part of what Stowe calls her hold over him -- a very different kind of "power" than the novel ascribes to Mrs. Bird's "sway" over her husband. The more I got into these characters, the more significant might become the way, as "non-white women," they allow Stowe to articulate or narrate aspects of female experience that don't appear in the book's "white" women. So I might change my argument entirely, and show how, although she apparently wants to show her white women readers how similar these "non-white women" are, Stowe wound up using their "blackness" to make them into "dark heroines," through which she could explore the more forbidden side of feminine desires and experiences. I might then realize I need to begin, for example, with Eliza cutting her hair and "passing" not as a white, but as a man -- transgressing that gender boundary to be free.

    This has been my experience with almost everything I've sat down to write. It may not be true for you, but you should make sure that before you begin writing you could tell someone else, in 25 words or less, not just the general topic of your paper (the "almost white" characters in Stowe's novel) but the specific point you're going to argue (say, "I'm going to show my reader that because Eliza and Cassy aren't 'white,' Stowe can use their characters to explore parts of the feminine self -- sexuality, anger, aggression -- that is repressed in the 'all white' women characters." (That's 30 words, but close to "25 or less.")

    By the way, once you know the specific point you're trying to prove, then it's easier to come up with a good title for your essay. A good title is one that lets your reader know you know what you're writing about. "Race in Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a lousy title. "Almost White Characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin" is better, but could be the title of a lot of different arguments. How about "Cassy and Eliza -- Almost White or Dark Heroines?"

  There are abstract terms for the basic strengths I'm trying to describe -- focus, coherence, etc. But to sum them up more concretely, and I hope clearly: I think good literary analyses have a point and stick to it, that they develop an idea to a conclusion -- or ask and answer a specific interpretive question, that they make good and consistent use of examples from the text to develop and support their ideas, that they give the writer and the reader (i.e. you and me) the chance to go deeply into some one aspect of what a text means.


  I hope by now you know your own interest and my expectations, but it might help if I go on to add the kinds of papers I'm not looking for:

  • A comparison paper. If you're really interested in looking at how two different writers treat a particular issue, you can organize the paper that way -- just make sure your focus is particularly tight. Six pages isn't much to talk about a work. The problem with most comparisons is that they don't give you time to get to the bottom of an issue. If you really want to compare two writers, okay -- but unless you've got a comparison that really interests you, my advice would be to stick with one of the authors we've read.


  • A research paper. Some topics might require you to do primary research in Alderman, but I don't want you to look up or rely on published critics' ideas about the text you're interested in. I can find out what other critics have said; only you can tell me what you think.


  • A paper about "race in American literature," or any other huge, vague topic. Keep your focus on what you can really discuss and support in 6 pages. That means keeping the focus on what you know firsthand and have a right to talk about. Unless you've done a lot of outside reading, you probably don't know enough about "society in those days" to try writing about it, but if you've read, say, Douglass' "Heroic Slave" carefully, you not only know it, you have every right to develop your own ideas about it. As I hope you already know, there's plenty to say about a work of literature -- and by "limiting" yourself to that, you're actually opening up the chance to really see and say a lot more than big generalizations can express.


  • And one last thought:

  • Another starting point for your essay might be something I said in lecture that seemed to you like a misreading of a particular work. Some of my favorite essays have been the ones that showed me what I missed. As I said above, I don't have to agree with an essay to give it an "A" -- I just have to be able to see exactly what it's point it, how it defends that point with well-chosen evidence from the text, and so on.


  • FIRST ESSAY HOMEPAGE | SECOND ESSAY HOMEPAGE