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The Best American Essays of the Century written by Joyce Carol Oates


The Best American Essays of the Century written by Joyce Carol Oates


This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America’s tumultuous modern age, as experienced by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. Joyce Carol Oates has collected a group of works that are both intimate and important, essays that move from personal experience to larger significance without severing the connection between speaker and audience.
From Ernest Hemingway covering bullfights in Pamplona to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” these essays fit, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “into a kind of mobile mosaic suggest[ing] where we’ve come from, and who we are, and where we are going.” Among those whose work is included are Mark Twain, John Muir, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard.


This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America’s tumultuous modern age, as experienced by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. Joyce Carol Oates has collected a group of works that are both intimate and important, essays that move from personal experience to larger significance without severing the connection between speaker and audience.
From Ernest Hemingway covering bullfights in Pamplona to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” these essays fit, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “into a kind of mobile mosaic suggest[ing] where we’ve come from, and who we are, and where we are going.” Among those whose work is included are Mark Twain, John Muir, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard.

Publishers Weekly

"Here is a history of America told in many voices," declares Oates in her introduction, revealing the heart of her intelligent and incisive collection of 55 essays by American writers. Never attempting to capture or replicate a single, authentic "American identity," this collection succeeds by producing a comprehensive and multifaceted look at what America has been and, by extension, what it is and might become. While it's not explicitly political, the volume's multicultural intentions are visible. Beginning with "Cone-pone Opinions," a 1901 Mark Twain essay that uses the wisdom of an African-American child as its central image, Oates has fashioned a collection that calls attention to the way that "America" is made up of competing, and often antagonistic, cultural and social visions. There is not only the apparent contrast between the populist, overtly political visions of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and Mary McCarthy's "Artists in Uniform" and the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Oates has managed to find numerous pieces whose vision and philosophy resonate with one another without becoming homogeneous, so Gretel Ehrlich's meditation on pastoral aesthetics in "The Solace of Open Spaces" contrasts abruptly and ingeniously with Susan Sontag's urban-centered "Notes on Camp." In all, Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of various American identities. QPB and History Book Club selections; BOMC alternate. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|


The Essay in the Twentieth Century
When I was very young, my father purchased a small, uniform set of
cheap literary classics. Why, I never knew. He was not a reader.
Perhaps he had been duped by a door-to-door salesman. Perhaps he had
aspirations for his children. The books crowded the only bookshelf in
a cramped two-family house hedged in by humming factories on a narrow
street that dead-ended into the mysterious and spectacular sumac-
lined banks of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. As a result
of his once-in-a-lifetime purchase I grew up with the privilege of
knowing that Emerson was not merely the name of a television set.

I found Emerson's message bracing and liberating. I can see
it now as self-help elevated to the highest literary standard, but
reading "Self-Reliance" as an adolescent I simply took heart from his
exhortations to resist conformity, trust in oneself, and not feel
pressured by conventions, parties, and authority: "I am ashamed to
think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large
societies and dead institutions," he said. "If I know your sect, I
anticipate your argument," he said. "Insist on yourself; never
imitate," he said. He warned about the physical pain of forced smiles
and acknowledged the advantages of being misunderstood. If the
writings of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides comprised a
Guide for the Perplexed, Emerson's essays provided a Guide for the
Intimidated. His independent, freethinking, inquisitive mind shaped
American thought and writing, and his spiritual heirsinvented the
twentieth-century essay.
Although Emerson may be said to hover over the volume, his
presence can be detected more directly in one of his most prominent
descendants, William James. Although this selection of great American
essays begins in 1901, one could argue that the symbolic origins of
the twentieth-century essay go back to the day in 1842 when Emerson
was invited by the James family to visit their New York apartment
and "bless" young William in his cradle. As a teacher, lecturer,
physician, scientist, and one of the founders of modern psychology,
William James would exert a powerful influence over the new century.
Two of his students, W.E.B. Du Bois and Gertrude Stein, would
permanently alter the course of the American essay by initiating two
new modes of literary introspection: Du Bois's "double-consciousness"
grounded in racial identity and Stein's experiments with "stream of
consciousness." Both originated in the critical first decade of the
century, and their literary legacies can be felt throughout this
The twentieth-century essay also emerged from a resistance to
the "familiar" or "polite" essay that had been a literary staple of
the preceding era. Proper, congenial, Anglophilic, the genteel essay
survived, even against the skepticism and irascibility of the Mark
Twains, Randolph Bournes, and H. L. Menckens, who did their best to
bury it. By the 1930s, however, some writers were lamenting its
demise, and in the most curious metaphors. "The familiar essay, that
lavender-scented little old lady of literature, has passed away," one
wrote, regretting that magazines now filled their pages with "crisp
articles, blatant exposés, or statistic-laden surveys," and
concluding that one day "her pale ghost will not appear at all, and
the hard young sociologists can have her pages all to themselves."
But the "pale ghost" did not vanish all at once. It lived on in
college courses and gave the essay a bad name for decades. The goal
of English teachers, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut recalls, was to get
you "to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago."
This collection features none of those "lavender-scented"
essays, not even for historical reasons. Our object was not to
construct a Museum of the American Essay. Although some vestiges
of "gentility" or essayistic "leisure" may have seeped in here and
there, the ruling idea behind the volume was that the essays should
speak to the present, not merely represent the past. So you will find
more "hard young sociologists" here than "cultivated" literati. After
all, some of those young social scientists were Jane Addams, Zora
Neale Hurston, and a youthful Saul Bellow, who happened to be
studying sociology and anthropology at Northwestern at precisely the
same time the genteel essayists were lamenting their own demise. The
sociologists, accompanied by such self-taught social critics as
Edmund Wilson, Richard Wright, and James Agee, brought the essay out
of the library and into the American factories, city streets,
courthouses, and tenant farms. For many of them, ardent pacifists and
reformers, writing essays would amount to what James called "the
moral equivalent of war."
Unlike their predecessors, twentieth-century essayists were
eager to confront inner as well as outer strife. To be sure, the
genteel essay was personal, but no matter how "familiar," it always
politely stopped short of full disclosure. Here, too, William James
made his presence felt. The brilliant chapters "The Divided Self"
and "The Sick Soul" in his monumental The Varieties of Religious
Experience (1902) would become a valuable resource for essayists
seeking ways to articulate despair, breakdowns, aberrant states of
consciousness, psychic confusion, the ineffable in general. F. Scott
Fitzgerald's famous observation in "The Crack-Up" - "The test of a
first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in
the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function" -
laid out a course for future essayists and expanded the
possibilities of self-disclosure. As writers began amplifying the
personal essay into what is now known singularly as "the memoir," the
processes of confession would know no limits.
What next? Will this new century reject our "best" essays as
dramatically as the twentieth discarded those of James Russell Lowell
and Oliver Wendell Holmes? The 1890s, too, saw astonishing changes in
technology, rapid changes that frightened Henry Adams as he wondered
what the "Law of Acceleration" would finally lead to. We have reached
his speculative end point - visionary though he was, he never
imagined a world transformed by electronics. The Internet is already
generating new sources of essays. Will it somehow channel the usual
processes of prose into new literary forms the way some thought the
typewriter had once done? Will young essayists discover audiences
without having to sweat through the hundreds of rejection slips James
Thurber received before he could break into print? And will they do
what few from any century have ever done: make a living writing
essays? These remain to be seen, but what I think we can say for
certain is that whatever new forms the essay takes, if they are
wonderful, they will have the blessing of William James and his
legitimate heirs.

About This Collection
This volume is not a "best of the best." I founded The Best American
Essays series in 1986, and therefore Joyce Carol Oates and I had only
a small slice of the century to provide us with essays that had
already achieved an annual "best" status. Only seven of the essays in
this volume come from the series. We wish we could have included many
more of the superb contemporary writers who have contributed to the
yearly books, but it was of course not possible. Our consolation is
that their work is still accessible to readers and that the annual
books are for the most part available in libraries and bookstores. It
was important that we include writers from previous generations who
may not be well known to today's readers and who in our opinion still
very much deserve an audience.
I proceeded with this book in much the same way that I have
with the annual volumes. I screened a good number of essays - though
far, far more than usual - and turned them over to Joyce Carol Oates
for a final decision. There were hundreds of essays to consider and
so little space. But we winnowed and winnowed and arrived at these
fifty-five. We tried to include the best of as many different kinds
of essay as possible - personal, critical, philosophical, humorous,
pastoral, autobiographical, scientific, documentary, political.
Obviously we had to pull back in many cases. A comparable volume
could be assembled to showcase each one of these categories. I also
exercised one final choice: I insisted that Oates's essay from The
Best American Essays 1996, "They All Just Went Away," be included.
"Essays end up in books," Susan Sontag writes, "but they
start their lives in magazines." That fact may not interest many
readers, but it played a large role in the research for this book,
since between an essay's debut in a periodical and its inclusion in a
collection, a good deal of revision often occurs. Vladimir Nabokov's
memoir of his father, for example, went through three very distinct
publishing stages. It began life as "The Perfect Past" in The New
Yorker in 1950, but Nabokov, dissatisfied with some of the editing,
returned to his original typescript when he included (and expanded)
it as the opening chapter of his 1951 autobiography, Conclusive
Evidence. When he revised that book as Speak, Memory: An
Autobiography Revisited in 1966, he expanded the essay yet again. Of
the three published versions, we chose - as we did with many of the
selections - to reprint the final version, as it would reflect and
respect the author's final decisions. But in some instances
(consistency "is the hobgoblin of little minds," Emerson said), we
selected the first or a different published version.
Some essays start out looking like essays only to reemerge in
unexpected contexts. James Agee's lovely childhood
reminiscence, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," started out in Partisan
Review in 1938 but was given a new twist when an editor cleverly
borrowed and italicized it in 1957 to serve as the introduction to
Agee's posthumously published novel, A Death in the Family. Other
essays in this book were also put to service by their authors to
introduce works of fiction: Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living
Jim Crow" became the preface to his collection of stories Uncle Tom's
Children, and N. Scott Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain" now
serves as the prologue to his popular novel of the same title.
I discovered that there is rarely only one version of an
essay. Susan Sontag's useful observation sometimes gets reversed: an
essay starts out in book form and ends up in a magazine. Several
essays in this volume were skillfully carved out of books and re-
created either by their authors or a magazine's editors as
independent essays. Usually, what's required is the removal of the
interstitial glue that connects a book's separate chapters. For
example, the opening sections of Maya Angelou's 1970 memoir, I Know
Why the Caged Bird Sings, were transformed into a memorable childhood
reminiscence of the same title in Harper's Magazine.
Because essays may go through so many publishing variations,
settling on a precise date for each selection was no easy matter. I
proceeded largely case by case. Nabokov's 1966 essay on his father
was so transformed from its 1950 origins that it seemed only
reasonable to use the later date. So, too, I decided to use the final
publication date for John Muir's Alaskan adventures with his
unforgettable companion Stickeen; it was that version, and not the
earlier and now forgotten essay, that became his most popular work.
But occasionally I thought it would be misleading to use the final
date of publication. Langston Hughes's "Bop," for example, clearly
comes out of the forties; though it was revised considerably for
subsequent book publication, to place it in a later decade would
distort its contemporary flavor. An essay like Mark Twain's "Corn-
pone Opinions," never published in the author's lifetime, is listed
by date of composition.
For the reader's convenience, I have attached brief notes to
each essay outlining its publishing history and supplying relevant
contextual information. I have placed an asterisk before the source
used for this collection. I have also translated foreign words and
phrases within brackets when it seemed necessary. Additional
information is contained in the Biographical Notes in the back of the
book, where I included pertinent information on the writer's career,
relevant details to establish a context for the selected essay, and
titles of books and collections (with the emphasis on nonfiction)
that will direct interested readers to more books by that writer.
Writers and magazine editors interested in submitting
published essays for the annual volumes should send complimentary
issues, subscriptions, or appropriate material to Robert Atwan,
Series Editor, The Best American Essays, Box 220, Readville,
Massachusetts 02137-9998. Criteria and guidelines can be found in the
annual book.
As I researched books and periodicals for this unprecedented volume,
I often felt like Henry Adams, poised at the crossroads of two time
periods: the rapidly accelerating age of cyberspace that instantly
furnishes vast amounts of information and the old-fashioned era of
dim library stacks and dusty, out-of-print books. The experience was
both high-tech and low-tech. If it was satisfying to sit at my desk
and click a few keys for immediate access to material that only a few
years ago would have required frequent library visits, it was even
more satisfying to hold in my hand hardcover first editions of books
like Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait or H. L. Mencken's
Prejudices. Even obtaining these books involved travel in both
worlds: through the Internet I could enter my local library's
regional network, discover books it didn't own, and conveniently
order them online. A day or two later - and sometimes within hours -
I would be experiencing the tactile and intellectual pleasures of
handling some of the treasured pieces of our literary heritage. For
their invaluable assistance, then, I want to thank especially the
staff of the Milton Public Library as well as all the other
institutions connected with the Old Colony Library Network in
What I was unable to find, my researcher could. Much of the
knottier research - establishing the original source or date of an
essay, or tracking down an elusive periodical - was performed by
Donna Ashley, who relied on the superb resources of the libraries at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Boston
College, and the Boston Public Library. Nearly all of the source
notes attached to each essay derive from her dogged research; without
her assistance this project might have taken another year to
complete. I want to thank, too, Arthur Johnson for his generous help
in providing permissions data for all of the essays. I borrowed a
good deal of biographical information about the essayists from some
of my previous anthologies and would like to thank a few coeditors
for their contributions: Martha Banta, Bruce Forer, Justin Kaplan,
Donald McQuade, David Minter, Jon Roberts, Robert Stepto, and William
Vesterman. I'm enormously grateful to Charles H. Christensen for his
advice and encouragement over the years. The Houghton Mifflin staff
has been helpful and supportive as always, and I'd like to thank
Janet Silver, Sean Lawler, Larry Cooper, Bridget Marmion, Dean
Johnson, and Bruce Cantley for all their efforts. My wife, Hélène
Atwan, kindly read over portions of the manuscript and offered many
valuable suggestions for which I am very grateful. Finally, it was a
great pleasure to work once again with Joyce Carol Oates. Her broad
knowledge of American writing and her literary judgment transformed
what seemed like a paralyzing critical task - reducing several
hundred great essays to a mere fifty-five - into a spirited,
illuminating assessment of the modern American essayist's struggle to
encompass the creative energies and social emergencies of a century
that had no shortage of either.
Robert Atwan

The Art of the (American) Essay
Here is a history of America told in many voices.
It's an elliptical tale, or a compendium of tales, of the
American twentieth century by way of individual essays that, fitting
together into a kind of mobile mosaic, suggest where we've come from,
and who we are, and where we are going. In his probing,
provocative "The Creation Myth of Cooperstown," Stephen Jay Gould
asks: "Why do we prefer creation myths to evolutionary stories?" The
more we know of history, of both the natural and the civilized
worlds, the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever
evolving, and that our culture, far from being timeless, is a living
expression of Time.
The essay, in its directness and intimacy, in its first-
person authority, is the ideal literary form to convey such a vision.
By tradition essays have been categorized as formal or informal; yet
it can be argued that all essays are an expression of the human voice
addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to
influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common
humanity. Even the most artfully composed essay suggests a
naturalness of discourse. As our precursor Montaigne advised, "We
must remove the mask."
The essays in this volume have all been written by writers
who have published at least one collection of essays or nonfiction.
Not only did this principle allow the editors a reasonable means of
limiting selections, it is an acknowledgment that writing is a
vocation, not merely an avocation. In a historical overview of a
century virtually teeming with talent, I wanted to honor those
writers who have made writing their life's work. I didn't see my role
as one to reward the lucky amateur who writes a single good essay,
then disappears forever. Better to search for little-known but
excellent essays by, for instance, writers of historical significance
like John Jay Chapman, Jane Addams, Edmund Wilson. Most of the essays
are "informal"; but this isn't to suggest that they are innocent,
unmediated utterances lacking the stratagems of art. Even Mark
Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions," delivered in the author's
characteristic forthright voice, is driven by a passionate
intellectual conviction regarding the gullibility of mankind and the
tragic consequences of this gullibility.
My general theme in the assemblage of this volume has been a
search for the expression of personal experience within the
historical, the individual talent within the tradition (to paraphrase
T. S. Eliot). My preference was always to essays that, springing from
intense personal experience, are nonetheless significantly linked to
larger issues, even if, as in the case of James Thurber and S. J.
Perelman, these issues are viewed playfully. The emotion I felt when
beginning to read most of the essays gathered here was one of great
excitement and anticipation; even, at times, a distinct visceral
thrill. As an editor, I am primarily a reader. I could not
countenance including essays out of duty's sake that, in fact, I
found deadly dull. For the many essays considered for this volume,
the majority of which ultimately had to be excluded, I was the ideal
reader: I wanted to like what I read, and I was committed to reading
the entire essay with sympathy. If you will substitute "literature"
for "poetry" in this famous remark in a letter of Emily Dickinson's,
you have my basic criterion for the work included in The Best
American Essays of the Century: "If I read a book [and] it makes my
whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If
I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know
that is poetry."
And what powerful openings in certain of these exemplary
We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most terrible
crimes in history - not for the purpose of condemning it, but to
repent of our share in it.
- John Jay Chapman, "Coatesville" (1912)
The knowledge of the existence of Devil Baby burst upon the residents
of Hull House one day when three Italian women, with an excited rush
through the door, demanded that he be shown to them.
- Jane Addams, "The Devil Baby at Hull-House" (1916)
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that
do the dramatic side of the work - the big sudden blows that come, or
seem to come, from outside - the ones you remember and blame things
on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show
their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes
from within - that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything
about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you
will never be as good a man again.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up" (1936)
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our
existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of
- Vladimir Nabokov, "Perfect Past" (1950)
On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same
day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before
this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these
events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots
of the century.
- James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (1955)
The decaying, downtown shopping section of Memphis - still another
Main Street - lay, the weekend before Martin Luther King's funeral,
under a siege.
- Elizabeth Hardwick, "The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King" (1968)
We were all strapped into the seats of the Chinook, fifty of us, and
something, someone was hitting it from the outside with an enormous
hammer. How do they do that? I thought, we're a thousand feet in the
- Michael Herr, "Illumination Rounds" (1977)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
- Joan Didion, "The White Album" (1978)
Of course there are crucial distinctions between the art of
the essay and the art of prose fiction, yet to the reader the
immediate experience in reading is an engagement with that mysterious
presence we call voice. Reading, we "hear" another's speech
replicated in our heads as if by magic. Where in life we sometimes
(allegedly infrequently) fall in love at first sight, in reading we
may fall in love with the special, singular qualities of another's
voice; we may become mesmerized, haunted; we may be provoked,
shocked, illuminated; we may be galvanized into action; we may be
enraged, revulsed, and yet! - drawn irresistibly to experience this
voice again, and again. It's a writer's unique employment of language
to which we, as readers, are drawn, though we assume we admire the
writer primarily for what he or she "has to say." For consider: how
many intelligent, earnest, right-minded commentators published essays
on such important subjects as racial conflict in twentieth-century
America, social and personal disintegration in the thirties,
morality, democracy, nostalgia-for-a-vanishing-America; class
struggle, civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, the
mystical experience of nature, ethnic diversity, various
American "myths" - and how few of these are worth rereading, let
alone enshrining, in this new century. To be an editor in so massive
an undertaking, committed to reading with sympathy countless essays
of high worth and distinction published in the most prestigious
journals of their era, beginning in about 1900 and sweeping through
the decades, is to experience first-hand that quickening of dread,
which Nabokov calls mere "common sense," in the realization of human
mortality. So many meritorious voices, so much evidence of American
good will and wisdom, and so many fallen by the wayside! There were
times when I felt as if I were indeed standing at the edge of an
abyss, entrusted with rescuing pages of impeccable prose being blown
past me into oblivion, preserving what I could, surrendering all the
rest. (Those excellent essayists of a bygone time John Muir, Randolph
Bourne, and John Jay Chapman are preserved here; surrendered to the
exigencies of space limitations are John Burroughs, George Santayana,
Joseph Wood Krutch, Ellen Glasgow, and others listed in the Appendix.)
My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort,
we have mass entertainment, and one another. Art should provoke,
disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we
may not anticipate and may not even wish. Art should certainly aspire
to beauty, but there are myriad sorts of beauty: the presentation of
a subject in the most economical way, for instance; a precise choice
of language, of detail. There is beauty in the calibrated ugliness of
the opening of William Gass's meditation on suicide and art, "The
Doomed in Their Sinking," because it is so finely calibrated; there
is beauty in the eloquent, elegiac expression of hurt, rage, and
despair in James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," because it is
eloquent and elegiac, in the service of art. That staple of
traditional essay collections, the unhurried musings of a disembodied
(Caucasian, male, privileged) consciousness, is missing here, except
for its highest, most lyric expression in E. B. White's classic "Once
More to the Lake" and its total transmogrification in Edward
Hoagland's powerful "Heaven and Nature" - which is about neither
heaven nor nature. (Hoagland, one of the few American writers who has
forged a brilliant career out of essays, is our Chopin of the genre.
Though best known for such nature essays as "The Courage of
Turtles," "Red Wolves and Black Bears," and "Earth's Eye," in the
tradition of Thoreau, Hoagland is equally memorable as a recorder of
startling, confessional utterances of a kind the very private Thoreau
would not have dared.) Though there are deeply moving essays in the
nostalgic/musing mode by such fine writers as White, James Agee,
Eudora Welty, and John Updike, I have given more space to what might
be called a radical expansion of this familiar genre, essays that
have the power of personal nostalgia yet are not sentimental, and in
which private contemplation touches on crucial public issues, as Zora
Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Richard
Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," Baldwin's "Notes of a
Native Son," Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps," N. Scott
Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the
Caged Bird Sings," Richard Rodriguez's "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual
Childhood," and others. If you begin Edmund Wilson's "The Old Stone
House" presuming it to be another nostalgic lament for a vanishing
America, you will be shocked by the author's conclusion:
And what about me? As I come back in the train, I find that - other
causes contributing - my depression of Talcottville deepens. I did
not find the river and the forest of my dream - I did not find the
magic of the past . . . I would not go back to that old life if I
could: the civilization of northern New York - why should I idealize
it? - was too lonely, too poor, too provincial.
Similarly, Donald Hall's "A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails" is
both a sympathetic portrait of an older relative of the writer's and
a devastating critique of the romance of American rural eccentricity,
the stock material of how many homespun reminiscences in the Norman
Rockwell mode:
[Washington Woodward] worked hard all his life at being himself, but
there were no principles to examine when his life was over . . . The
life that he could recall totally was not worth recalling; it was a
box of string too short to be saved.
Apart from being first-rate reportage, Joan Didion's "The White
Album" can be seen as a radical variant of the genre of nostalgia as
well, in which the essayist positions her intimate, interior life
("an attack of vertigo and nausea does not seem to me an
inappropriate response to the summer of 1968") within the larger,
wayward, and "poorly comprehended" life of our culture circa 1966-
1978, with the defiant conclusion "writing [this] has not yet helped
me to see what it means": the antithesis of the traditional essay,
which was organized around a principle, or epiphany, toward which it
confidently moved. So too Michael Herr's "Illumination Rounds," from
Dispatches, is appropriately ironically titled, for little is finally
illuminated in this account of a young American journalist's visit to
Vietnam in the mid-seventies, at the height of that protracted and
tragic war; the techniques of vividly cinematic fiction writing are
here employed in the service of the author's vision, but there is,
conspicuously, no "moral" - no "moralizing." This is the art of the
contemporary essay, or memoir: a heightened, trompe l'oeil attention
to detail that allows the reader to see, hear, witness, as if at
first hand, what the essayist has witnessed. Though this
is "informal" writing, there is no lack of form. Postmodernist
strategies of fragmentation and collage have replaced that of
exposition, summary, and argument.

For all their diversity, essays tend to fall into three general
types: those that present opinions primarily, and have been written
to "instruct"; those that impart information and knowledge; and those
that record personal impressionistic experiences, especially
memories. These categories often overlap, of course, as in the
outstanding essays named above, and in recent years, judging from the
annual series The Best American Essays, from which essays in this
volume published since 1985 have been taken, the genre has evolved
into a form closely akin to prose fiction and prose poetry, employing
dialogue, dramatic scenes, withheld information, suspense.
The essay of opinion, of which Montaigne (1533-1592) was an
early, highly influential master, was for centuries the
quintessential essay. Here, you find no dialogue or dramatic scenes,
only a rational, reasoning voice. Such an essay is an argument, often
couched in conversational terms; its intention is to instruct, to
illuminate, to influence. Except for editorial and op-ed pages of
newspapers, in which they appear in miniature form, and in a very few
general-interest magazines like Harper's and the Atlantic, such
essays are not much favored today. In our egalitarian culture we tend
to feel, rightly or wrongly, that an essayist's opinion is only as
good as his or her expertise, and in such uncharted areas as ethics,
morals, and general wisdom, whose opinion should be taken more
seriously than anyone else's? In the past, however, the gentlemanly
art of opinion-offering was commonplace; Ralph Waldo Emerson is the
North American master of this form. With the publication of "Nature"
in 1836, Emerson's prestige and influence through the whole of the
nineteenth century was incalculable. Here was a brilliant aphoristic-
philosophical mind expressed in an elegantly idiosyncratic language.
Henry David Thoreau, Emerson's younger contemporary, combines strong
opinions with a wealth of observed information and firsthand
experience in a crystalline, poetic prose, and for this reason seems
to us more modern, and far more accessible, than Emerson. There is a
rich subcategory of American essays, the confrontation of nature by a
refined, fastidiously observing consciousness, that has descended to
us from Thoreau; I would have dearly liked to include more
practitioners of this sort but had room for only John Muir, Rachel
Carson, Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, and Gretel Ehrlich. (But all
these essays are gems.) In general, our patience tends to wear thin
when we're confronted with sermonizing in its many forms; I most
often encountered such essays among those published in the first four
or five decades of the century, when magazines seemed to have
unlimited space for rambling, genial prose by men with nothing
especially urgent on their minds apart from platitudes of nature and
morality. Who were the readers of these essays, I wondered. The more
elusive the subject, the more verbose the style, as in two
fascinating masterpieces of ellipsis, indirection, and irresolution
by Henry James at his most baroque, "Is There a Life after Death?"
(1910) and "Within the Rim" (1915). ("Is There a Life after Death?"
was initially included in this volume, and then reluctantly excluded;
then included again, and finally excluded. A longtime admirer of
Henry James, I wanted badly for him to be represented, but the essay
is, one might say, "Jamesian," and long, and could hardly be
justified as among the best of the century. And "Within the Rim," on
the apparent theme of war, is even more abstruse.)
Yet for all their unfashionableness, the opinion essays
included here are, I think, excellent, and will repay the sort of
close, sympathetic reading required for prose that isn't immediately
gripping and specific. Henry Adams's "A Law of Acceleration," from
the classic The Education of Henry Adams, is a bravura work of
astonishing intellectual abstraction; written nearly one hundred
years ago, it strikes a disturbingly contemporary note in its somber
contemplation of a mechanistic universe reduced to a series
of "relations" and mankind itself reduced to "Motion in a universe of
Motions, with an acceleration . . . of vertiginous violence." With
the authority of science, Adams says, history has no right to meddle,
since science "now lay in a plane where scarcely one or two hundred
minds in the world could follow its mathematical processes."
Fittingly, William James's famous "The Moral Equivalent of War" was
written in the same year, 1910, as Henry James's "Is There a Life
after Death?" Though William James is a far more lucid prose stylist
than his younger brother, both brothers are concerned with profound
questions of life and death; William James broods upon the future of
civilization itself in a prophetic work that looks ahead to Freud's
late, melancholic Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). What is
history but a bloodbath? "The horrors make the fascination. War is
the strong life; it is life in extremis; war-taxes are the only ones
men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us."
John Jay Chapman, once considered an essayist of nearly Emerson's
stature, is not much read today, yet his passionate meditation upon a
notorious lynching that took place in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in
1911 transcends its time and tragic circumstances.
The two most influential literary essays of the twentieth
century are perhaps T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual
Talent" ("The emotion of art is impersonal") and Robert Frost's "The
Figure a Poem Makes" ("No tears in the writer, no tears in the
reader"); each gains from being read in conjunction with the other.
Sui generis is Gertrude Stein's "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are
There So Few of Them," itself a masterpiece of polemics, an argument
that convinces by sheer repetition:
. . . One has not identity [when] one is in the act of doing
anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you
and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are
not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog
knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are
you and your recognizing that he knows, is what destroys creation.
H. L. Mencken's "The Hills of Zion" is, like many of
Mencken's essays and columns, a passionate repudiation of evangelical
Christianity and anti-intellectualism. This is sermonizing disguised
as social satire, zestful in its accumulation of damning details; one
can see why the young Negro Richard Wright was so impressed by
Mencken's example, seeing the older white man as "fighting, fighting
with words . . . using words as a weapon . . . as one would use a
club." Katherine Anne Porter's "The Future Is Now" is an almost
purely cerebral opinion piece, less compelling perhaps than Porter's
elegantly composed short stories, but gracefully argued nonetheless,
while "Artists in Uniform," one of Mary McCarthy's most anthologized
essays, smoothly combines her satirical gifts with her passion for
intellectual discourse. Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" is both
opinion essay and cultural criticism of a high order; Adrienne Rich's
dramatically fragmented "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying" might
be defined as an essay of opinion in a unique, poetic form. Essays by
Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, N. Scott Momaday, and Cynthia Ozick
advance arguments by means of an accumulation of memoirist detail,
and each presents us with the wonder of how, in Ozick's words, "a
writer is dreamed and transfigured into being." And essays that seem
to be primarily concerned with the imparting of information and
description, like Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps," Tom
Wolfe's "Putting Daddy On," Elizabeth Hardwick's "The Apotheosis of
Martin Luther King," Lewis Thomas's "The Lives of a Cell," Annie
Dillard's "Total Eclipse," among others, contain arguments of
subtlety and insight. Saul Bellow's "Graven Images" is a meditation
in the author's characteristic ironic mode on photography as a
violation of personal dignity and privacy and the "revolutionary
transformation" of a world that no longer honors such values. John
McPhee's wonderfully original "The Search for Marvin Gardens" makes
of the popular American board game an allegory of capitalist
adventure, and rewards us with the unexpected discovery of the
secluded middle-class bastion Marvin Gardens, the security-
patrolled "suburb within a suburb" that is one's reward for winning
the game.
The earliest essay in the anthology, Mark Twain's "Corn-pone
Opinions," is a superbly modulated argument that begins with an
engaging portrait of a young black slave (this is the Missouri of
Twain's childhood, in the 1850s) and proceeds to a ringing
denunciation of cultural chauvinism that is as relevant to our time
as it was to Twain's:
Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly
speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is
acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is
By which Twain means that deathly conformity that leads to an
acceptance of slavery, lynchings, white bigotry, and injustice in a
nation constituted as a democracy.
Twain's essay strikes a chord that resounds through the
anthology: the ever-shifting, ever-evolving issue of race in America.
It can't be an accident that the essays in this volume by men and
women of ethnic minority backgrounds are outstanding; to paraphrase
Melville, to write a "mighty" work of prose you must have a "mighty"
theme. And what mightier, what more challenging and passionate theme
for both writer and reader than how it feels to be of minority status
in America, from the time of W.E.B. Du Bois in the first decade of
the century to our contemporaries Maya Angelou, N. Scott Momaday,
Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, and Gerald
Early? For historical reasons obviously having to do with slavery,
the experience of blacks in America has been significantly different
from that of other minorities, and this fact is reflected in the
essays included here.
W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John," from The Souls of
Black Folk (1903), is a chillingly prophetic work that traces the
intellectual and spiritual evolution of a seemingly ordinary black
boy from southeastern Georgia who is sent north to be educated in a
Negro school, returns after seven years to his hometown so thoroughly
changed that he seems more foreign to his former relatives and
neighbors than a Georgian white man would be, and is given advice by
the kindly white Judge:
". . . You and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must
remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white
men. In their place, you people can be honest and respectful; and God
knows, I'll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse
nature . . . by God! we'll hold them under if we have to lynch every
Nigger in the land."
Zora Neale Hurston in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928) defines
herself very differently from Du Bois's tragic protagonist, partly
because she has been raised in a "colored town" in Florida,
Eatonville. Her defiance strikes us as courageous, and touching:
At certain times I have no race, I am me . . . Sometimes, I feel
discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely
astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my
company! It's beyond me.
Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical
Sketch," the preface to Wright's 1938 collection of novellas, Uncle
Tom's Children, would become a section of his heralded Black Boy
(1945). Wright's education in Jim Crow "wisdom" begins ironically
with a beating his mother gives him for having dared to fight with
white boys, and carries him into a prematurely cynical adolescence;
it's a vision of the American South contiguous with that of New York
City in the 1940s experienced by Langston Hughes.
Perhaps the preeminent essayist of the American twentieth
century is James Baldwin, and it seems fitting that Baldwin wrote his
most powerful and influential nonfiction works, Notes of a Native
Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time, at about
midcentury. Baldwin was a natural master of a kind of nonfiction
narration we associate with the most engaging fiction, in which
personal, familial experience is linked with a larger social and
political context that enhances it as myth. Like his mentor Richard
Wright, James Baldwin was a poet of irony; his bitterness and rage at
social injustice was so finely distilled, his use of language so
impassioned and fluent, he made of the most tragically debased
materials a world of startling beauty. Baldwin's is a secular
mystical vision that seems to us quintessentially American:
All of my [newly deceased] father's texts and songs, which I had
decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like
empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them
for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped . . . The dead
man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not
matter; to believe they did was to acquiesce in one's own
destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to
destroy the man who hated and this man was an immutable law.
This is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed in
his historic 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "One who breaks an
unjust law must do it openly, lovingly . . . and with a willingness
to accept the penalty."

Robert Atwan, who has been an invaluable series editor for the highly
regarded The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986,
assisted me tirelessly and with inspiration in our months-long effort
of sifting through any and all essays that were possibilities for
this anthology. We have been limited, or, one might say, assisted, in
our selections only since 1986, being obliged to choose essays from
the series anthology after that date; before 1986, we had no
restrictions. Our decision to reprint essays only by writers who have
published nonfiction books helped to limit our search, as did our
exclusion of journalism, excepting unique reportage like
Hemingway's "Pamplona in July" and Michael Herr's "Illumination
Rounds." We hoped to avoid prose fiction in essay form, though such
prose pieces as W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John" and Langston
Hughes's "Bop" certainly employ fictional techniques; we excluded
literary criticism - though some of our finest writers, like Randall
Jarrell, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling, have excelled in it -
and footnote-laden academic essays for a limited readership, even by
Hannah Arendt. Much as I wanted to include Henry James, as I've noted
above, I could not justify reprinting a long, convoluted skein of
words that few readers would read. Nor could I include another major
twentieth-century writer, Willa Cather, whose available essays were
simply inappropriate, and lengthy. Of Norman Mailer's nonfiction
work, "The Fight" would have been my choice for this volume, but it's
book length (and has already appeared in The Best American Sports
Writing of the Century); other essays of Mailer's, like "The White
Negro," controversial in their time, are badly dated today. Gay
Talese, a brilliant practitioner of what has come to be known as New
Journalism, has written no "essays" per se. William Carlos Williams,
Ralph Ellison, John Hersey, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, Gore
Vidal, most painfully William Faulkner: these important writers had
no single appropriate essay. Faulkner in particular seems to have had
little aptitude, or perhaps inspiration, for the essay form.
Of contemporary essayists there are so many - so very many! -
who might well be included here, it isn't possible to list their
names except in the Appendix. Quite apart from the numerous memoirs
of high quality being written today, and published to much acclaim,
this is a remarkably fruitful era for the personal essay. The
triumph, one might say, of the mysterious pronoun "I."
It was the aim of the editors to tell a more or less
chronological story of America as the century unfolded, with
representative essays from each decade, as we have done; yet, the
reader will note, the traumatic experiences of World War II, vividly
described by William Manchester in "Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of
All," does not appear in the forties but decades later, in 1987; and
numerous other essays, stimulated by memory and meditation, have been
written years after the occasion of their subjects. The ideal essay,
in any case, is as timeless as any work of art, transcending the
circumstances of its inception. It moves, as Robert Frost says of the
ideal poem, from delight to wisdom, and "rides on its own melting,"
like ice on a hot stove.
Joyce Carol Oates

Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Introduction copyright © 2000 by The Ontario Review Inc.
All rights reserved

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