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The Best American Essays of the Century


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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


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 includedin 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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Bitter Aftertaste, August 24, 2008 (view all comments by Bitter Aftertaste)
The Best American Essays of the Century was assigned for AP English IV Summerwork, and although I admit I wasn't exactly thrilled at first, I soon came to enjoy reading it. It truly holds some of the best essays I've ever read.
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Product Details

Oates, Joyce Carol
Atwan, Robert
Oates, Joyce Carol
Norris, Kathleen
Dillard, Annie
Henry Louis "Gates, Jr."
Plimpton, George
Keillor, Garrison
Oates, Joyce Carol
Krakauer, Jon
Naylor, Gloria
Gates, Jr. Henry Louis
Atwan, Robert
Gibbons, Kaye
Oates, Joyce Carol
Mariner Books
Boston, MA :
20th century
American essays
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Best American
Series Volume:
no. 196
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 9
9.0 x 6.0 in 2.14 lb
Age Level:
from 14

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Product details 624 pages HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT - English 9780618043705 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,
For this singular collection, Joyce Carol Oates selected fifty-five unforgettable essays by the finest American writers of the twentieth century. Here is a sampling — twelve unabridged essays — featuring a wide variety of contemporary writers reading classics of the genre, along with authors reading their own work. Nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America's tumultuous modern age, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS OF THE CENTURY is "an outstanding, galvanic collection" (Entertainment Weekly).
"Synopsis" by ,
This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America's tumultuous modern age by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. In her introduction to this volume, Joyce Carol Oates describes her project as "a search for the expression of personal experience within the historical, the individual talent within the tradition." Along with Robert Atwan, who has overseen the acclaimed BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS series since its inception in 1986, Oates has chosen a list of works that are both intimate and important, essays that take on subjects of profound and universal significance while retaining the power and spirit of a personal address.

This collection honors some of the twentieth century's best-known and best-loved writers on a breathtaking variety of topics. In a journalistic mode, Ernest Hemingway covers the bullfights in Pamplona, H. L. Mencken reacts to the Scopes trial, and Michael Herr dodges bullets in a helicopter over Vietnam. Nowhere is the intersection of our personal and political histories more meaningful than when the subject is Americas enduring legacy of racial strife, as shown by Richard Wrights "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," James Baldwins "Notes of a Native Son," Zora Neale Hurstons "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," and others. The wonders and horrors of science, nature, and the cosmos are explored with eloquence, bravery, and beauty when Lewis Thomas writes about "The Lives of a Cell," Rachel Carson mulls "The Marginal World," and Stephen Jay Gould preaches evolution and baseball in "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown." Taken together, 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."

Mark Twain • W.E.B. Du Bois • Henry Adams • John Muir • William James • Randolph Bourne • John Jay Chapman • Jane Addams • T. S. Eliot • Ernest Hemingway • H. L. Mencken • Zora Neale Hurston • Edmund Wilson • Gertrude Stein • F. Scott Fitzgerald • James Thurber • Richard Wright • James Agee • Robert Frost • E. B. White • S. J. Perelman • Langston Hughes • Katherine Anne Porter • Mary McCarthy • Rachel Carson • James Baldwin • Loren Eiseley • Eudora Welty • Donald Hall • Martin Luther King, Jr. • Tom Wolfe • Susan Sontag • Vladimir Nabokov • N. Scott Momaday • Elizabeth Hardwick • Michael Herr • Maya Angelou • Lewis Thomas • John McPhee • William H. Gass • Maxine Hong Kingston • Alice Walker • Adrienne Rich • Joan Didion • Richard Rodriguez • Gretel Ehrlich • Annie Dillard • Cynthia Ozick • William Manchester • Edward Hoagland • Stephen Jay Gould • Gerald Early • John Updike • Joyce Carol Oates • Saul Bellow

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