The Lost Origins of the Essay


An expansive and exhilarating world tour of innovative nonfiction writing

I think the reason we’ve never pinpointed the real beginning to this genre is because we’ve never agreed on what the genre even is. Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. This, then, is a book that tries to offer a clear objective: I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins ...

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An expansive and exhilarating world tour of innovative nonfiction writing

I think the reason we’ve never pinpointed the real beginning to this genre is because we’ve never agreed on what the genre even is. Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. This, then, is a book that tries to offer a clear objective: I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.

John D’Agata leaves no tablet unturned in his exploration of the roots of the essay. The Lost Origins of the Essay takes the reader from ancient Mesopotamia to classical Greece and Rome, from fifth-century Japan to nineteenth-century France, to modern Brazil, Germany, Barbados, and beyond. With brief and brilliant introductions to seminal works by Heraclitus, Sei Sho-nagon, Michel de Montaigne, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Octavio Paz, and more than forty other luminaries, D’Agata reexamines the international forebears of today’s American nonfiction. This idiosyncratic collection makes a perfect historical companion to D’Agata’s The Next American Essay, a touchstone among students and practitioners of the lyric essay.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From Ziusudra of Sumer to Antonin Artaud and beyond, the essay in all its glory is on full display in this ingenious anthology. The title doesn't convey the volume's range—the spirit of factual expression, worked on by the imagination, transplanted into many times and in many cultures. This is a book to dip into or read through, certainly to savor for its diversity. The essay tent is wide, and under D'Agata's (Halls of Fame) editorship and astute eye it includes hybrid forms, from William Blake's “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” through the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire and Mallarmé to a “performative essay” on Bob Marley by Kamau Brathwaite. Readers will be familiar with the aphorisms of Francis Bacon, somewhat less familiar with the eccentric virtuosity of Sir Thomas Browne and much more so with Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” But readers are perhaps most likely to be turned on for the first time by the prose artistry of Matsuo Basho, the avant-garde musings of Clarice Lispector on the (not-so) simple egg and the obsessive documentarylike musings of Marguerite Duras. Overall, this imaginative international collection showcases the art of short nonfiction at its best. (Aug.)
Library Journal
In this second of a three-volume series on the genre, following The Next American Essay and preceding The Foundations of the American Essay, editor D'Agata (English, Univ. of Iowa) studies the essay as a form. Short and well-reasoned introductions accompany selected essays from the ancient world through the present that explore the international roots of contemporary nonfiction. D'Agata believes that the best of writers—over 40 luminaries are included—are willing to use significant details from anywhere and everywhere to create essays that are imaginative, memorable, and true. By returning to the original concept of the form, he encourages readers to question the ways in which the essay has or has not been encumbered by an obligation to expound facts. VERDICT This should be of particular interest to English teachers and writers of creative nonfiction. Nonfiction readers will enjoy D'Agata's intellectual approach and will appreciate the varieties of the essays included.—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence
The Barnes & Noble Review
What do you call literary works that defy the conventions of ordinary prose or poetry? John D'Agata, in this hefty anthology, prefers to call them "essays" rather than the more popular "creative nonfiction." And his global selections, spanning centuries, establish an alternate tradition of genre-bending art that transgresses our sense of the essay as a source of information or argument. So don't expect to find the great English stylists of the 18th and 19th centuries -- D'Agata's playful introductions pooh-pooh the reason and clarity of Johnson, Addison, or Hazlitt. He favors writers who wander, and freely associate, and, most of all, avoid any rhetoric. His survey includes the origins of writing in ancient Sumeria (Ziusudra's "List"), stops in for a some classical eccentrics (Heraclitus, Theophrastus, Plutarch, and Seneca), and plunders the East for some true wonders of expression, including Sei Shonagon's unique Pillow Book and Li Shang-yin's odd collection of observations ("Miscellany"). A few warhorses survive D'Agata's argumentative history: Montaigne's quotation-heavy "On Some Verses of Virgil"; Thomas Browne's meditation on death, "Urn Burial"; and Swift's exercise in irony, "A Modest Proposal." But D'Agata's postmodern agenda finds its best support among his later choices, from the manic visionary poetry of Smart and Blake to the drunken revelries of Baudelaire and Rimbaud to the lunatic rants of Artaud and Pessoa. It's hard to disagree with D'Agata's notion that we've too readily counted many modern masters as writers of fiction. The dazzling and lyrical prose of Borges, Cortázar, Butor, Lispector, and Duras -- all included here -- challenge our sense of factual reality. In short, D'Agata's counter-anthology won't show up in too many composition classes. But readers looking for a real aesthetic challenge will find much to puzzle over, and enjoy. --Thomas DiPietro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555975326
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 986,402
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.05 (d)

Meet the Author

John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame and the editor of The Next American Essay. He teaches in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa and is the editor of lyric essays for Seneca Review.

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