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.
Joyce Carol Oates -- novelist, essayist, critic, poet, playwright, and teacher -- is one of our preeminent literary figures and social critics. She has written more than forty novels and novellas, among them the 1970 National Book Award winner Them, as well as several volumes of poetry, many plays, and five books of literary criticism. She has been a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters since 1978 Robery Atwan has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide. He has recently edited Chapters into Verse, a collection of poetry inspired by the Bible, and Divine Inspiration, a volume of world poetry on the Gospels
Foreword 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 heirs invented 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 collection. 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 exposs, 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. Acknowledgments 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 Massachusetts. 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, Hlne 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 Introduction 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 essays: 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 darkness. - 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 air! - 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 conformity. 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
Excerpted from The Best American Essays of the Century
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