The Best American Essays 1999

Overview

This year's wonderfully diverse collection, which features such respected writers as Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Mary Gordon, and Arthur Miller. These essays range widely across the American landscape—from a California monastery to a Manhattan apartment—and along the way introduce us to a fine array of talented new voices. Called by John Updike "the best essayist of my generation," Hoagland has assembled a powerful volume that vividly showcases the art and craft of the contemporary essay. IN SEARCH ...

See more details below
Available through our Marketplace sellers.
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (9) from $1.99   
  • Used (9) from $1.99   
Close
Sort by
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Note: Marketplace items are not eligible for any BN.com coupons and promotions
$1.99
Seller since 2006

Feedback rating:

(60435)

Condition:

New — never opened or used in original packaging.

Like New — packaging may have been opened. A "Like New" item is suitable to give as a gift.

Very Good — may have minor signs of wear on packaging but item works perfectly and has no damage.

Good — item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Acceptable — item is in working order but may show signs of wear such as scratches or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Used — An item that has been opened and may show signs of wear. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Refurbished — A used item that has been renewed or updated and verified to be in proper working condition. Not necessarily completed by the original manufacturer.

Good
Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. 100% Money Back Guarantee. Shipped to over one million happy customers. Your purchase benefits world literacy!

Ships from: Mishawaka, IN

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$1.99
Seller since 2009

Feedback rating:

(25646)

Condition: Good
Giving great service since 2004: Buy from the Best! 4,000,000 items shipped to delighted customers. We have 1,000,000 unique items ready to ship! Find your Great Buy today!

Ships from: Toledo, OH

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$1.99
Seller since 2009

Feedback rating:

(7298)

Condition: Good
Book shows a small amount of wear to cover and binding. Some pages show signs of use. Sail the Seas of Value

Ships from: Windsor Locks, CT

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$10.50
Seller since 2008

Feedback rating:

(205)

Condition: Good
Many 1999 Hard Cover 1st Very Good in Very Good jacket Hard Back. 8vo-over 7?"-9?" tall. X-Library with normal flaws.....The hard cover and the jacket has light shelf ... wear...............We are very careful when we list our books, but sometimes something minor may get by. Read more Show Less

Ships from: Danville, VA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$10.99
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(56)

Condition: Good
Buy with Confidence. Excellent Customer Support. We ship from multiple US locations. No CD, DVD or Access Code Included.

Ships from: Fort Mill, SC

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
$14.89
Seller since 2009

Feedback rating:

(103)

Condition: Very Good
Book has been read with clean unmarked pages but the dust jacket/cover is slightly worn.

Ships from: Bellerose Village, NY

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$14.95
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(18)

Condition: Good
New York, NY 1999 Hard cover 1999 ed. Good. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 297 p. Contains: Illustrations. Best American Essays.

Ships from: Pueblo West, CO

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$30.49
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(298)

Condition: Good
Possible retired library copy, some have markings or writing. May or may not include accessories such as CD or access codes.

Ships from: Chatham, NJ

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$50.00
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(298)

Condition: Very Good
Very good.

Ships from: Chatham, NJ

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Close
Sort by
Sending request ...

Overview

This year's wonderfully diverse collection, which features such respected writers as Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Mary Gordon, and Arthur Miller. These essays range widely across the American landscape—from a California monastery to a Manhattan apartment—and along the way introduce us to a fine array of talented new voices. Called by John Updike "the best essayist of my generation," Hoagland has assembled a powerful volume that vividly showcases the art and craft of the contemporary essay. IN SEARCH OF PROUST by Andre Aciman, TORCH SONG by Charles Bowden, COMPRESSION WOOD by Franklin Burroughs, VISITOR by Michael W. Cox, LAST WORDS by Joan Didion, FOR THE TIME BEING by Annie Dillard, THE METEORITES by Brian Doyle, A LOVELY SORT OF LOWER PURPOSE by Ian Frazier, VICTORIA by Dagoberto Gilb, STILL LIFE by Mary Gordon, A WEEK IN THE WORD by Patricia Hampl, THE COUNTRY BELOW by Barbara Hurd, THE LION AND ME by John Lahr, MAKING IT UP by Hilary Masters, ON THE FEDALA ROAD by John McNeel, AMERICAN HEARTWORM by Ben Metcalf, BEFORE AIR CONDITIONING by Arthur Miller, AFTER AMNESIA by Joyce Carol Oates, THE IMPIOUS IMPATIENCE OF JOB by Cynthia Ozick, PLANET OF WEEDS by David Quammen, ON SILENCE by Daisy Eunyoung Rhau, BEAUTY by Scott Russell Sanders, HITLER'S COUCH by Mark Slouka, WHAT'S INSIDE YOU, BROTHER? by Toure, FOLDING THE TIMES by W. S. Trow.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Thinking Out Loud

The bestial gluttony of human sexual urges. The future of our weed-infested planet. The essence of beauty. No matter what you have been thinking about lately, you will surely find some complementary thinking in The Best American Essays 1999. While the writings herein probably won't make you cry, jump gleefully about, or jab your finger in the air in protest, they are guaranteed to shake the dust off your brain. Edward Hoagland, author extraordinaire in his own right, has culled from more than 100 of the year's best short nonfiction writings to create this scintillating and thoughtful collection. To a piece, these essays are written with precision and power, and each has the ring of truth and time.

Hoagland opens by introducing us to "the essayist," writing: "[He] should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing our silverware and debauching the children, and after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do." Each of the writings included in the anthology reflect this belief that the essayist seem reflective, reliable, and balanced.

Yet, in contrast to the written temperament of the authors, the topics they have selected are often tempestuous and fraught with conflict. Charles Bowden writes about sex crimes and of losing the distinction between criminal and reasonable desire. Joyce Carol Oates describes her humiliation on a tour through a New Jersey correctional facility. Mary Gordon looks at her mother's 90-year-old life and at the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, wondering how the two can fit together. John Lahr tells of his mentally ill father, the beloved Cowardly Lion. Cynthia Ozick offers her reflections on the story of Job, while Annie Dillard and Patricia Hampl ponder other religious questions. Ian Frazier laments the kind of development that paves over the free-form aimlessness of playing in the woods. David Quammen maps out global patterns of extinction and addresses the question of our own. Mark Slouka recounts seeing a spot of the dying Adolf Hitler's blood, and Joan Didion questions the wisdom of publishing the works and letters of Ernest Hemingway posthumously against his wishes.

Some of the essays stand out for the precision of their language and the vividness of their imagery. John McNeel describes with devastating detail a wartime experience outside Casablanca. Michael Cox's childhood memories lay out his unfolding realization of his father's brutal perversions. Hilary Masters explains the impact Robinson Crusoe had on her as a child of immigrants, and Dagoberto Gilb remembers one sweltering afternoon in a hard hat when he happened to share a bench with Victoria Principal.

While most of the essays are serious and hard-hitting -- such as Toure's exploration of himself as an African-American boxer, Scott Russell Sanders's ponderings on beauty, and Barbara Hurd's exploration of our need to go ever deeper into the world -- Ben Metcalf offers a humorous yet biting critique of our relationship with the Mississippi River, and George S. W. Trow offers a lighter essay, a sort of genealogy of America's newspapers.

Some readers will enjoy the nostalgic tone of Andre Aciman's essay on visiting Proust's childhood home, or Arthur Miller's essay that takes us back in time to a New York City summer day before air conditioning. Others will be more in tune with Brian Doyle's reminiscence of a summer camp with a tone full of acne and the ache of love, or Daisy Eunyoung Rhau's painful account of the dislocation and freedom in the silence of giving up her life as a child pianist.

Whether you agree with the authors' perspectives, the writing in The Best American Essays 1999 will set you talking. Taken together, this collection offers thinking from varying viewpoints on several linked themes: the cleaving of words and silences, and of divinity and base humanity. Even the most tired mind will enjoy bending around the ideas in it and finding the words to talk back. "Essays are how we speak to one another in print," writes Hoagland in the introduction, and this collection bristles with the beginnings of conversation.

—Kate Montgomery

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his foreword to this 14th volume in the Best American Essays series, editor Atwan quotes Ezra Pound's axiom that "literature is news that stays news." At their best, these 25 essays exhibit style and content that may endure for a time. There are few salient themes, although family relationships and religious longing run through a handful of the works. Mary Gordon's "Still Life," a meditation on how the work of Pierre Bonnard provided her with "solace and refreshment" in dealing with her mother's painful senility, is a delicate but hard-headed examination of loss and fear. In "The Lion and Me," John Lahr recounts with bittersweet ambivalence the uneasy relationship his father, Bert Lahr, had with his most famous role, as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Brian Doyle's "The Meteorites" is a moving and unsettling rumination on the nature of love through the eyes of a camp counselor to young boys. Cynthia Ozick's "The Impious Impatience of Job" and Annie Dillard's "For the Time Being" both deal with the quest for spiritual experience and attendant paradox. Some of the works--such as Dagoberto Gilb's "Victoria" and Joan Didion's "Last Words"--seem lightweight for a collection like this. In his introduction, Edward Hoagland notes that "essays are reappearing in unexpected places," although most of these pieces come from mainstream publications such as Harpers and the New Yorker. Perhaps if Hoagland had gone further afield, the collection would have offered more surprises. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Atwan's annual series unfailingly delivers the highest quality writing, essays that display "literary [and] ruminative characteristics," work that shows the "mind in process." This year's editor, Edward Hoagland—a fine essayist in his own right—has collected essays by some of the best writers in the country: Joyce Carol Oates, Ian Frazier, Scott Russell Sanders, Mary Gordon, Dagoberto Gilb, David Quammen, and others. Hoagland echoes Atwan in noting that essays "simulate the mind's own process." He connects the current revival of the essay to that of the rage for personal memoir. (And he never once uses the phrase "creative nonfiction.") Sanders's marvelous piece tackles a traditional essay theme, as Hubble photographs and his daughter's wedding spur musings on the origin of the cosmos and an examination of the concept of beauty. He is "certain that genuine beauty is not in my eye alone but out in the world." In a startlingly revealing essay, "After Amnesia," Joyce Carol Oates recalls a "humiliating experience" that occurred while she was touring a New Jersey detention center. Gordon's personal essay relates the opening of a Bonnard exhibit at MOMA at the same time that her mother, in a nursing home, turns 90: "1 wonder if Bonnard could do anything with this lightless room." John Lahr revisits his youth with his famous father, Bert, on the re-release of The Wizard of Oz and finds the ubiquitous commercialization of the Cowardly Lion "the enduring monument to Dad's comic genius." There's also Joan Didion's brilliant argument against the release of Hemingway's unpublished work, Annie Dillard's examination of religious belief, Gilb's chance encounter with actress VictoriaPrincipal, Toure's boxing days at the Body and Soul Gym and Frazier's delightful recollection of the "hundred pointless things we did in the woods" as 10-year-olds. A feast of fine, important writing.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395860540
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/29/1999
  • Series: Best American Essays Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 297
  • Product dimensions: 5.85 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT 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.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Writers Afoot

Essays are how we speak to one another in print - caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter. You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them. Classic essay subjects, like the flux of friendship, "On Greed," "On Religion," "On Vanity," or solitude, lying, self-sacrifice, can be major-league yet not require Bertrand Russell to handle them. A layman who has diligently looked into something, walking in the mosses of regret after the death of a parent, for instance, may acquire an intangible authority, even without being memorably angry or funny or possessing a beguiling equanimity. He cares; therefore, if he has tinkered enough with his words, we do too.
An essay is not a scientific document. It can be serendipitous or domestic, satire or testimony, tongue-in-cheek or a wail of grief. Mulched perhaps in its own contradictions, it promises no sure objectivity, just the condiment of opinion on a base of observation, and sometimes such leaps of illogic or superlogic that they may work a bit like magic realism in a novel: namely, to simulate the mind's own processes in a murky and incongruous world. More than being instructive, as a magazine article is, an essay has a slant, a seasoned personality behind it that ought to weather well. Even if we think the author is telling us the earth is flat, we might want to listen to him elaborate upon the fringes of his premise because the bristle of his narrative and what he's seen intrigues us. He has a cutting edge, yet balance too. A given body of information is going to be eclipsed, but what lives in art is spirit, not factuality, and we respond to Montaigne's human touch despite four centuries of technological and social change.
Montaigne's Essais predated by a quarter-century Cervantes's Don Quixote, which was probably the first novel. And the form of composition Montaigne gave a name to would not have lasted so long if it were not succinct, diverse, and supple, able to welcome ideas that are ahead of or behind the blurring spokes of their own time. But whereas a novelist is often a trapezist, vaulting from book to book, an essayist is afoot. Not a puppetmaster or ventriloquist, he will sound recognizable in his next appearance in print. There is a value to this, though Don Quixote as a figure outshines any essay. Imperishably appealing, he is an embodiment, not speculation, and we can simply call him to mind, much as we remember Conrad's Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, and Dickens's Oliver Twist, although the regimes up the Congo River and in London aren't now the same.
An essayist's materials are drawn primarily from his or her own life, and he knits a skein of thoughts and impressions, not a made-up tale. An epic drama such as King Lear is thus not his province even to dream about. His work is humbler, and our expectations of him are less elastic than of novelists or poets and their creations. They can flame out in a flash fire, surreal or villainous, if the story is compelling or the language smacks a bit of genius. We accept different behavior from Céline or Genet, Christopher Smart or Ezra Pound, than from Dr. Johnson. Norman Mailer can stab his wife and William Burroughs can shoot his, and somehow we don't blanch. They "needed to," one hears it said. Their imaginations must have got the better of them. But if an essayist had done the same it would have queered his legacy. He is supposed to be the voice of reason. Though modestly chameleon as a monologuist (and however much he wants to recalibrate it), he is an advocate for civilization. He doesn't murder a foe in the street, like the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, or get himself slain in a tavern brawl, like the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or gut-shot, like John Ruskin, in a duel. A murderer or madwoman quarantined in a book on the bedside table can provide excitation and cautionary reading, but an essayist, being his own protagonist, should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing the silverware and debauching the children, and, after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do. Or, at the outside, if - like the master essayist Charles Lamb - his sister has slaughtered his mother, he will devote the next thirty-odd years to piecing together a productive existence for himself and her, not despairing like an afficionado of the Absurd.
Essayists are not Dadaists, and in the endgame that may be in progress - with our splintering attention span, our hiccccccuping religions, staccato science, and spinning solipsism - they may prove useful. Do we human beings have a special spark of divinity? And if so, as we mince our habitat and compress ourselves into ever tighter spaces, having always claimed that there couldn't be too much of a good thing, how many of us are finally going to constitute a glut of divinity? Judeo-Christianity hasn't said. Nor did "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," which Thomas Jefferson invoked at the beginning of our Declaration of Independence. Or Emerson's rapturous prescription in Nature in 1836 (Emerson being the other founding father of essay writing in America) that an intelligent observer should become "a transparent eye-ball . . . part or particle of God," amid nature's ramifying glory. Now, man threatens to become a divinity doubled, redoubled, and berserk ad nauseam. However, the essay's brevity, transparency, and versatility should suit this age of reconsideration.
Essays are a limited genre because the writer will suggest that life is more than money, for example, without inventing Scrooge; that brownnosing demeans everybody, without the specter of Uriah Heep. Candide, Starbuck, Injun Joe, Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp led lives more far-fetched than an essayist's, whose medium is mostly what he can testify to having seen or read. Working in the present tense, with common sense his currency, "This is what I think," he tells the rest of us. And even if he speaks about alarming omens, we feel he'll be around tomorrow, not leap headlong into life and burn to a crisp at thirty-two or twenty-eight, like Hart Crane or Stephen Crane, or wind up forlorn in a railroad station fleeing his wife, as Tolstoy did when dying. The limitations are reassuring as well as tethering.
James Baldwin didn't metamorphose into an arsonist or a rifleman when he warned against race war in The Fire Next Time. And George Orwell deconstructed colonialism in essays considerably more nuanced than Heart of Darkness - supplementing though not supplanting Kurtz's immortal line "The horror! The horror!" In a way, it's easier to visit a headwaters area of the Nile or Congo and find conditions not substantially improved since independence when you've read Orwell as well as Conrad on human nature, because these nuances prepare you better for disillusion. Conrad's picture was so stark, surely never again would the world see comparable scenes!
Ripples sway us - traffic tie-ups on a cloverleaf, on-line stock swings, revenge-of-the-rain-forest viral escapees - at the same time that our proud provincialism is called upon to bend the mind around Islam's surging claims, Latino vigor and disorder, chaos in Africa, and a Chinese-puzzle future. In a famine belt along the upper Nile, I've seen child-sized raw-dirt graves scattered everywhere beside a poignant web of paths of the sort that starving people pace. A scrap of shirt or broken toy was laid on top of each small mound to personalize the spot; and hundreds of bony, wobbling children who had survived so far ran toward me (a white-haired white man) to touch my hands in hopes that I might somehow be powerful enough to bring in shipments of food to save their lives. Their urgent smiles were giddy or delirious in skulls already outlined under tightened skin - though they were fatalistic, almost docile, too, because so many adults had told them for so many weeks that there was nothing to eat and so many people whom they knew had died. I interviewed the Sudanese guerrilla general who was in charge of protecting them about what could be done, but he was delayed a little that afternoon because (I found out later from an Amnesty International report) he had been torturing a colleague by pounding a nail through his foot.
Now, essayists in dealing with the present tense are stuck with the nuts and bolts of what's going on. And what do you say about that endgame on the Nile, which I believe was a forerunner, not an anomaly? I expect an epidemic of endgames and disintegration in other forms. Essayists will become "journeymen," in a new definition for that hackneyed term: out on the rim, seeing what's in store. The cataract of memoirs being published currently may be a prelude to this - memoirs of a cascading endgame. Yet essayists are not nihilists as a rule. They look for context. They feel out traction. They have a stake in society's survival, breaking into the plot line of an anecdote to register a reservation about somebody's behavior, for instance, in a manner that most fiction writers would eschew, because an essayist's opinions are central, part of the very protein that he gives us. Not omniscient like a novelist, who can create a world he wants to work with, he has the job of finding coherence in the world that we already have. This isn't harder, just a different task. And he usually comes to it in middle age, having acquired some ballast of experience and tested views - may indeed have written several novels, because of the higher glamour and freedom of that calling. (For what it's worth, I sold my first novel at twenty-one and wrote my first essay at thirty-five.) "Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," as Picasso said; and to capture within an imagined story some petal of human longing and defeat is an achievement irresistibly appealing. Essayists, by denying themselves that license to extravagantly fudge the facts of firsthand observation, relegate themselves to the Belles Lettres section of the bookstore, neither fiction nor journalism, because they do partly fudge their reportage, adding the spice of temperament and a lifetime's favorite reading. And if an enigma seems a jigsaw, they will tend to see a picture in it: that life therefore is not an oubliette. The fracases they get into are on behalf of democracy, as they see it (Montaigne, Orwell, and Baldwin again are examples), and their iconoclasm commonly leans toward the ideal of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," which journalists used to aspire to. Like a short-story writer, an essayist is after the gist of life, not Balzacian documentation. And, like a soothsayer with a chicken's entrails, he will spread his innards out before us to discern a pattern. Not just confessional, however, a good essay is driven by the momentum of an inquiry, searching out a point, such as are we divine? - an awfully big one for a lowly essayist, but it may be the question of the coming century.
Essayists also go to the fights, or rub shoulders on the waterfront, get divorced ("Ouch," says the reader, "that was like mine"), nibble canapés, playing off their preconceptions of a celebrity or a politician against reality. They will examine a prejudice (is this piquant or ignoble, educated or soggy?) or dare a pie in the face for advancing an out-of-fashion idea. Or they may simply saunter, in Thoreau's famous reading of the word: r la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, or sans terre, at home everywhere - maybe only to the public library to browse among dead friends. Although a novelist can blaze along on impetuous obsessions and we will follow if Scheherazade has set her cap to catch us (and then what happened?), an essay is a current of thoughts corduroyed with sensory impressions, an author afoot, solo, with no movie sale in the offing or hefty hope of fame. Speaking his mind is likely to be a labor of love, and risky because if a work of fiction flops, at least it's nominally somebody else's persona that has been boring the reader.
A solo voice welling up from self-generating sources, or what Thoreau once called an "artesian" life, has not been the dominant mode of expression for the past half-century, so most of the best essays have had to find a home in magazines of lesser circulation, like Harper's, the Village Voice, the American Scholar, Outside, Yale Review, or the Hungry Mind Review. The first-tier publications had corporate styles and personalities, each one insisting upon its editorial "we." But recently publishing has met with such a swirl of confusion that even flagship magazines have been losing money or grandiosity and wondering what tack to take. Essays are reappearing in unexpected places, in National Geographic as well as The New Yorker, and on the airwaves and in newspapers, as corrective colloquy or amusing "occasionals." Paralleling the flood of memoirs that are coming out, the essay form is in revival. And the two genres do overlap, though for essays a narrative is not an end in itself, as it can be in a memoir.
A sense of emergency, I suspect, is powering the popularity of memoirs, the urge for quicker answers than we get from reading novels: What's happening? How shall we live? Nature, which Jefferson and Emerson regarded as central to the health of society, is lately treated as a kind of dewclaw on our collective consciousness. This will, I think, begin to change in the face of ecological catastrophes, and essayists will be in on the action again - as they have attacked so many problems before, from slavery to political tyranny, in the struggle to preserve civilization from itself. (War is a "human disease," Montaigne said.) The most civil of the literary arts, yet also a "book of the self," "spying on the self from close up," essays are versatile enough that in the same piece, "Of Experience," in which Montaigne says that "death mingles and fuses with our life throughout," he tells us that he can't make love standing up and speaks considerably about his kidneys, urination, and bodily "wind." Wholehearted, supple, an essayist over time may tell you everything you might want to know about him and stretch that measurement a bit, the way a friend or spouse or partner gradually does, until nothing about the living package of that person turns you off. If you know the anguish, joy, and bravery somebody has experienced, you can also share their episodes of shame and indigestion.
Like you, an essayist struggles with the here and now, the world we have, with sore and smelly feet and humiliation, a freethinker but not especially rich or pretty, and quite earthbound, though at his post. Like Thoreau later on (according to Emerson's report), Montaigne says that at a dinner party, "I make little choice at table, and attack the first and nearest thing." He is not much for show and affectation, but nonetheless he eats so zestfully he sometimes bites his own fingers. In a nutshell, maybe that is how to live. Eat of life with such brio that you're not afraid to bite your fingers.

Edward Hoagland

Copyright © 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 1999 by Edward Hoagland

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Foreword by Robert Atwan ix

Introduction: Writers Afoot by Edward Hoagland xiii

André Aciman. In Search of Proust 1

from The New Yorker

Charles Bbowden. Torch Song 12

from Harper's Magazine

Franklin Burroughs. Compression Wood 36

from The American Scholar

Michael w. Cox. Visitor 55

from New Letters

Joan Didion. Last Words 63

from The New Yorker

Annie Dillard. For the Time Being 74

from Notre Dame Magazine

Brian Doyle. The Meteorites 90

from The American Scholar

Ian Frazier. A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose 99

from Outside

Dagoberto Gilb. Victoria 105

from The Washington Post Magazine

Mary Gordon. Still Life 111

from Harper's Magazine

Patricia Hampl. A Week in the Word 123

from Image

Barbara Hurd. The Country Below 134

from The Yale Review

John Lahr. The Lion and Me 147

from The New Yorker

Hilary Masters. Making It Up 157

from The Ohio Review

John Mcneel. On the Fedala Road 165

from The Virginia Quarterly Review

Ben Metcalf. American Heartworm 173

from The Baffler

Arthur Miller. Before Air Conditioning 185

from The New Yorker

Joyce Carol Oates. After Amnesia 188

from Granta

Cynthia Ozick. The Impious Impatience of Job 201

from The American Scholar

David Quammen. Planet of Weeds 212

from Harper's Magazine

Daisy Eunyoung Rhau. On Silence 234

from The Kenyon Review

Scott Russell sanders. Beauty 244

from Orion

Mark Slouka. Hitler's Couch 254

from Harper's Magazine

Touré. What's Inside You, Brother? 265

from High Plains Literary Review George W. S. Trow. Folding the Times 274

from The New Yorker

Biographical Notes 287

Notable Essays of 1998 292

Read More Show Less

Introduction

Introduction: Writers Afoot

Essays are how we speak to one another in print - caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter. You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them. Classic essay subjects, like the flux of friendship, "On Greed," "On Religion," "On Vanity," or solitude, lying, self-sacrifice, can be major-league yet not require Bertrand Russell to handle them. A layman who has diligently looked into something, walking in the mosses of regret after the death of a parent, for instance, may acquire an intangible authority, even without being memorably angry or funny or possessing a beguiling equanimity. He cares; therefore, if he has tinkered enough with his words, we do too.
An essay is not a scientific document. It can be serendipitous or domestic, satire or testimony, tongue-in-cheek or a wail of grief. Mulched perhaps in its own contradictions, it promises no sure objectivity, just the condiment of opinion on a base of observation, and sometimes such leaps of illogic or superlogic that they may work a bit like magic realism in a novel: namely, to simulate the mind's own processes in a murky and incongruous world. More than being instructive, as a magazine article is, an essay has a slant, a seasoned personality behind it that ought to weather well. Even if we think the author is telling us the earth is flat, we might want to listen to him elaborate upon the fringes of his premise because the bristle of his narrative and what he's seen intrigues us. He has a cutting edge, yet balance too. A given body of information is going to be eclipsed, but what lives in art is spirit, not factuality, and we respond to Montaigne's human touch despite four centuries of technological and social change.
Montaigne's Essais predated by a quarter-century Cervantes's Don Quixote, which was probably the first novel. And the form of composition Montaigne gave a name to would not have lasted so long if it were not succinct, diverse, and supple, able to welcome ideas that are ahead of or behind the blurring spokes of their own time. But whereas a novelist is often a trapezist, vaulting from book to book, an essayist is afoot. Not a puppetmaster or ventriloquist, he will sound recognizable in his next appearance in print. There is a value to this, though Don Quixote as a figure outshines any essay. Imperishably appealing, he is an embodiment, not speculation, and we can simply call him to mind, much as we remember Conrad's Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, and Dickens's Oliver Twist, although the regimes up the Congo River and in London aren't now the same.
An essayist's materials are drawn primarily from his or her own life, and he knits a skein of thoughts and impressions, not a made-up tale. An epic drama such as King Lear is thus not his province even to dream about. His work is humbler, and our expectations of him are less elastic than of novelists or poets and their creations. They can flame out in a flash fire, surreal or villainous, if the story is compelling or the language smacks a bit of genius. We accept different behavior from Céline or Genet, Christopher Smart or Ezra Pound, than from Dr. Johnson. Norman Mailer can stab his wife and William Burroughs can shoot his, and somehow we don't blanch. They "needed to," one hears it said. Their imaginations must have got the better of them. But if an essayist had done the same it would have queered his legacy. He is supposed to be the voice of reason. Though modestly chameleon as a monologuist (and however much he wants to recalibrate it), he is an advocate for civilization. He doesn't murder a foe in the street, like the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, or get himself slain in a tavern brawl, like the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or gut-shot, like John Ruskin, in a duel. A murderer or madwoman quarantined in a book on the bedside table can provide excitation and cautionary reading, but an essayist, being his own protagonist, should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing the silverware and debauching the children, and, after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do. Or, at the outside, if - like the master essayist Charles Lamb - his sister has slaughtered his mother, he will devote the next thirty-odd years to piecing together a productive existence for himself and her, not despairing like an aficionado of the Absurd.
Essayists are not Dadaists, and in the endgame that may be in progress - with our splintering attention span, our hiccuping religions, staccato science, and spinning solipsism - they may prove useful. Do we human beings have a special spark of divinity? And if so, as we mince our habitat and compress ourselves into ever tighter spaces, having always claimed that there couldn't be too much of a good thing, how many of us are finally going to constitute a glut of divinity? Judeo-Christianity hasn't said. Nor did "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," which Thomas Jefferson invoked at the beginning of our Declaration of Independence. Or Emerson's rapturous prescription in Nature in 1836 (Emerson being the other founding father of essay writing in America) that an intelligent observer should become "a transparent eye-ball . . . part or particle of God," amid nature's ramifying glory. Now, man threatens to become a divinity doubled, redoubled, and berserk ad nauseam. However, the essay's brevity, transparency, and versatility should suit this age of reconsideration.
Essays are a limited genre because the writer will suggest that life is more than money, for example, without inventing Scrooge; that brownnosing demeans everybody, without the specter of Uriah Heep. Candide, Starbuck, Injun Joe, Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp led lives more far-fetched than an essayist's, whose medium is mostly what he can testify to having seen or read. Working in the present tense, with common sense his currency, "This is what I think," he tells the rest of us. And even if he speaks about alarming omens, we feel he'll be around tomorrow, not leap headlong into life and burn to a crisp at thirty-two or twenty-eight, like Hart Crane or Stephen Crane, or wind up forlorn in a railroad station fleeing his wife, as Tolstoy did when dying. The limitations are reassuring as well as tethering.
James Baldwin didn't metamorphose into an arsonist or a rifleman when he warned against race war in The Fire Next Time. And George Orwell deconstructed colonialism in essays considerably more nuanced than Heart of Darkness - supplementing though not supplanting Kurtz's immortal line "The horror! The horror!" In a way, it's easier to visit a headwaters area of the Nile or Congo and find conditions not substantially improved since independence when you've read Orwell as well as Conrad on human nature, because these nuances prepare you better for disillusion. Conrad's picture was so stark, surely never again would the world see comparable scenes!
Ripples sway us - traffic tie-ups on a cloverleaf, on-line stock swings, revenge-of-the-rain-forest viral escapees - at the same time that our proud provincialism is called upon to bend the mind around Islam's surging claims, Latino vigor and disorder, chaos in Africa, and a Chinese-puzzle future. In a famine belt along the upper Nile, I've seen child-sized raw-dirt graves scattered everywhere beside a poignant web of paths of the sort that starving people pace. A scrap of shirt or broken toy was laid on top of each small mound to personalize the spot; and hundreds of bony, wobbling children who had survived so far ran toward me (a white-haired white man) to touch my hands in hopes that I might somehow be powerful enough to bring in shipments of food to save their lives. Their urgent smiles were giddy or delirious in skulls already outlined under tightened skin - though they were fatalistic, almost docile, too, because so many adults had told them for so many weeks that there was nothing to eat and so many people whom they knew had died. I interviewed the Sudanese guerrilla general who was in charge of protecting them about what could be done, but he was delayed a little that afternoon because (I found out later from an Amnesty International report) he had been torturing a colleague by pounding a nail through his foot.
Now, essayists in dealing with the present tense are stuck with the nuts and bolts of what's going on. And what do you say about that endgame on the Nile, which I believe was a forerunner, not an anomaly? I expect an epidemic of endgames and disintegration in other forms. Essayists will become "journeymen," in a new definition for that hackneyed term: out on the rim, seeing what's in store. The cataract of memoirs being published currently may be a prelude to this - memoirs of a cascading endgame. Yet essayists are not nihilists as a rule. They look for context. They feel out traction. They have a stake in society's survival, breaking into the plot line of an anecdote to register a reservation about somebody's behavior, for instance, in a manner that most fiction writers would eschew, because an essayist's opinions are central, part of the very protein that he gives us. Not omniscient like a novelist, who can create a world he wants to work with, he has the job of finding coherence in the world that we already have. This isn't harder, just a different task. And he usually comes to it in middle age, having acquired some ballast of experience and tested views - may indeed have written several novels, because of the higher glamour and freedom of that calling. (For what it's worth, I sold my first novel at twenty-one and wrote my first essay at thirty-five.)
"Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," as Picasso said; and to capture within an imagined story some petal of human longing and defeat is an achievement irresistibly appealing. Essayists, by denying themselves that license to extravagantly fudge the facts of firsthand observation, relegate themselves to the Belles Lettres section of the bookstore, neither fiction nor journalism, because they do partly fudge their reportage, adding the spice of temperament and a lifetime's favorite reading. And if an enigma seems a jigsaw, they will tend to see a picture in it: that life therefore is not an oubliette. The fracases they get into are on behalf of democracy, as they see it (Montaigne, Orwell, and Baldwin again are examples), and their iconoclasm commonly leans toward the ideal of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," which journalists used to aspire to. Like a short-story writer, an essayist is after the gist of life, not Balzacian documentation. And, like a soothsayer with a chicken's entrails, he will spread his innards out before us to discern a pattern. Not just confessional, however, a good essay is driven by the momentum of an inquiry, searching out a point, such as are we divine? - an awfully big one for a lowly essayist, but it may be the question of the coming century.
Essayists also go to the fights, or rub shoulders on the waterfront, get divorced ("Ouch," says the reader, "that was like mine"), nibble canapés, playing off their preconceptions of a celebrity or a politician against reality. They will examine a prejudice (is this piquant or ignoble, educated or soggy?) or dare a pie in the face for advancing an out-of-fashion idea. Or they may simply saunter, in Thoreau's famous reading of the word: à la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, or sans terre, at home everywhere - maybe only to the public library to browse among dead friends. Although a novelist can blaze along on impetuous obsessions and we will follow if Scheherazade has set her cap to catch us (and then what happened?), an essay is a current of thoughts corduroyed with sensory impressions, an author afoot, solo, with no movie sale in the offing or hefty hope of fame. Speaking his mind is likely to be a labor of love, and risky because if a work of fiction flops, at least it's nominally somebody else's persona that has been boring the reader.
A solo voice welling up from self-generating sources, or what Thoreau once called an "artesian" life, has not been the dominant mode of expression for the past half-century, so most of the best essays have had to find a home in magazines of lesser circulation, like Harper's, the Village Voice, the American Scholar, Outside, Yale Review, or the Hungry Mind Review. The first-tier publications had corporate styles and personalities, each one insisting upon its editorial "we." But recently publishing has met with such a swirl of confusion that even flagship magazines have been losing money or grandiosity and wondering what tack to take. Essays are reappearing in unexpected places, in National Geographic as well as The New Yorker, and on the airwaves and in newspapers, as corrective colloquy or amusing "occasionals." Paralleling the flood of memoirs that are coming out, the essay form is in revival. And the two genres do overlap, though for essays a narrative is not an end in itself, as it can be in a memoir.
A sense of emergency, I suspect, is powering the popularity of memoirs, the urge for quicker answers than we get from reading novels: What's happening? How shall we live? Nature, which Jefferson and Emerson regarded as central to the health of society, is lately treated as a kind of dewclaw on our collective consciousness. This will, I think, begin to change in the face of ecological catastrophes, and essayists will be in on the action again - as they have attacked so many problems before, from slavery to political tyranny, in the struggle to preserve civilization from itself. (War is a "human disease," Montaigne said.)
The most civil of the literary arts, yet also a "book of the self," "spying on the self from close up," essays are versatile enough that in the same piece, "Of Experience," in which Montaigne says that "death mingles and fuses with our life throughout," he tells us that he can't make love standing up and speaks considerably about his kidneys, urination, and bodily "wind." Wholehearted, supple, an essayist over time may tell you everything you might want to know about him and stretch that measurement a bit, the way a friend or spouse or partner gradually does, until nothing about the living package of that person turns you off. If you know the anguish, joy, and bravery somebody has experienced, you can also share their episodes of shame and indigestion.
Like you, an essayist struggles with the here and now, the world we have, with sore and smelly feet and humiliation, a freethinker but not especially rich or pretty, and quite earthbound, though at his post. Like Thoreau later on (according to Emerson's report), Montaigne says that at a dinner party, "I make little choice at table, and attack the first and nearest thing." He is not much for show and affectation, but nonetheless he eats so zestfully he sometimes bites his own fingers. In a nutshell, maybe that is how to live. Eat of life with such brio that you're not afraid to bite your fingers.

Edward Hoagland

Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)