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From The New Yorker to the Missouri Review, from Esquire to the American Scholar, the editors of The Best American Essays have scoured hundreds of the country's best periodicals in search of the most artful and powerful writing around. This thoughtful, provocative collection is the result of their search.
Editor Gould, who died in May, was himself an accomplished essayist whose columns in Natural History have earned him a place just below Thomas Huxley's in the ranks of scientific prose masters. Oddly, he did not select many scientifically oriented pieces for this collection, though there are three particularly strong essays on medical topics. Atul Gawande's "Final Cut," which reports on the modern disregard of autopsies as well as describing in grim detail how autopsies are carried out, will provoke thought—and perhaps some reader's stomachs as well. Jonathan Franzen’s "My Father's Brain," a beautifully written memoir of Ed Franzen's lapse into Alzheimer's, presages the author's fictional The Corrections (2001). Finally, Barbara Ehrenreich smashes through the pieties of "survivorhood and sisterhood" that surround breast cancer in "Welcome to Cancerland" (also in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002, edited by Natalie Angier, above). Reporting on the oddly infantalizing and upbeat culture enforced on breast cancer sufferers, Ehrenreich views the pink ribbons and teddy bears handed out in cancer support groups as "amulets and talismans, comforting the survivor"; she prefers anger and investigation of the environmental causes of breast cancer, an area of research not encouraged by the corporate-funded American Cancer Society. Gould’s introduction remarks with some understated dismay on the confessional tone prevalent among essayists today, which may lead readers to wonder what prompted him to include Bernard Cooper’s whiny memoir, "Winner Take Nothing." The editor remarks more happilyon the high quality of the 9/11 essays, of which the best is "Turning Point," by Rudolph Chelminski. Taking an oblique angle to the attack, Chelminski profiles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who walked across a cable between the Twin Towers in 1974.
Compares favorably, piece by piece, to its cousins in poetry and short story.
According to calendrical conventions, the third millennium of our era began on January 1, 2000, or on January 1, 2001, by equally defendable modes of reckoning. Either way, we all acknowledge that our favored decimal mode of numeration reflects nothing more than a convention, however sensible, based on our evolutionary complement of digits. Thus, although we count time by decades and centuries, the beginnings of such units cannot transcend the arbitrary and often bear no interesting relationship to the press of actual history.
Many commentators have stated - quite correctly in my view - that the twentieth century did not truly begin in 1900 or 1901, by any standard of historical continuity, but rather at the end of World War I, the great shatterer of illusions about progress and human betterment. We now face a similar problem for the inception of this millennium, one that must be addressed before proceeding with any collection of essays to honor a year for its inception. Forget the old argument about January 1, 2000 or 2001 (and I even devoted an entire book, albeit short, to this subject). To our great misfortune (that is, provided we can assure that events of similar magnitude do not dog the rest of our days), I suspect that future chroniclers will date the inception of the thirdmillennium from September 11, 2001. Any collector of essays for this fateful year must therefore, up front and first of all, address this issue.
I was tempted to make a collection solely of 9/11 pieces (so many good ones already, and so many more yet to come), but neither decency nor common morality permitted such a course. We simply cannot allow evil madmen to define history in this way. Moreover, the event occurred late enough in the year to preclude the kind of pervasiveness that might summon such a temptation. But 9/11 stories must be here, and you will find some of the first of the best.
As another point about the need to focus on 9/11, no other event of my life so immediately became part of everyone's experience. (I think we may finally be able to retire that old question, Where were you the moment JFK was shot?) So we all have personal stories as well, and we need to share them, if only to keep the mantra of "never again" as active as we possibly can. For myself, and in briefest epitome, I live less than a mile from Ground Zero, and if the towers had fallen due north instead of downward, my home would have been flattened. I spent my sixtieth birthday in Italy, on September 10, the day before the attack. Flying back to New York on the day itself, I ended up spending an unplanned five days in Halifax, where my plane was diverted, among some of the kindest people I have ever encountered. Finally, in the weirdest coincidence of my life (the kind of event that makes the religious believe, although I remain a confirmed skeptic), I remembered that the history of my family in America had begun with the arrival of my grandfather. I own the grammar book that he purchased for a nickel soon after his immigration at age thirteen, and I have affirmed the correct date (for I have a copy of the ship's manifest for his arrival at Ellis Island) of the minimally elegant inscription that he wrote on the title page: "I have landed. September 12, 1901."
One truly final point and then I promise to move on. History's verdict remains to be assigned, but we tend to designate our important days by the events they commemorate, not simply by the date itself. Only one exception to this pattern now exists, the one date that must stand by and for itself: July 4. I can't help wondering (as seems to be the case so far, but we cannot yet tell) if this beginning of our millennium will enter American history as the second example, known either as September 11 or 9/12. I don't know how to root about this matter, for or against. As a devoted baseball fan, I do believe in the necessity of rooting. Several years ago, I promised Bob Atwan that I would take on one of the yearly "best" volumes as soon as I finished my magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (published in March 2002 by Harvard University Press, 1,433 pages, at the unbeatable hardback price of $39.95). I cringed when he sent me about one hundred essays for my selection, and exploded in premonitory fear for an odd reason that I rarely confess: I am a committed intellectual, and I like to read, but in a funny sense the last book that truly inspired me was probably The Little Engine That Could, first encountered more than half a century ago. Still, a promise is a promise, and so I proceeded. And, thank goodness for affirmations of prior hope, I actually enjoyed the task.
My overall impressions are scarcely worth the length of the following sentence, and I will surely not detail the reasons for most of my individual choices herein. But - and I guess because I primarily write, rather than read, essays - I was astonished by the single most salient character of the choices considered together. I knew that "confessional writing" now enjoys quite a vogue, but I had no idea how pervasive the practice of personal storytelling has become among our finest writers. I can't help asking myself (although all lives are, by definition, interesting, for what else do we have?): why in heaven's name should I care about the travails of X or Y unless some clear generality about human life and nature emerges thereby? I'm glad that trout fishing defined someone's boyhood, and I'm sad that parental dementia now dominates someone's midlife, but what can we do in life but play the hand we have been dealt? (And if I may be confessional for a moment, the line that most moved me in all these essays came from the pen of an author who stated, so truly, for I live this life every day, that nothing can be harder than the undesired responsibility for raising a child with severe handicaps). Still, I hope that the current popularity of confessional writing soon begins to abate.
I have made no attempt to gather my choices into subgroupings, but I offer a few comments in three categories to close this introduction. First, among the confessional writings, the number of medical pieces rather stunned me - as if we have come to the point where everyone with a serious illness (meaning all of us, at some point in our lives) feels some compunction to share the load. I particularly appreciated Barbara Ehrenreich's cancer tale for its wonderfully appropriate cynicism and honesty in the face of what nonprofessionals can and cannot do - for, contrary to hope and wishes turning into horses, we cannot will ourselves into betterment, and dreams of such mental control ultimately do not help. I also loved Atul Gawande's essay on the decline of autopsies (a truly scholarly piece within the more confessional genre) and the number of mistakes made by doctors that autopsies reveal.
In a second, political category, I did not know of Gore Vidal's odd relationship with the late Mr. McVeigh, and I found the tale fascinating. I struggled with John Sack's account of his contacts with Holocaust deniers and finally included it because, while I disagree with his decision to speak at their meetings, the deniers do remain (unlike the actual perpetrators) within the category of human beings, and I supposed that we therefore need to understand them as well as we can. Amy Kolen's essay on the Triangle fire, although entirely meritorious in se, did get a nod for personal reasons too. My grandmother was a shirtwaist worker, on the job at a different sweatshop on the day of the fire. My current office, in the very same building now owned by NYU, occupies a corner of one of the floors that burned on that fateful day. And - how can one possibly avoid so saying - the horrific image of young women jumping to their deaths resonated with every sentient person on 9/11, as history repeated itself when many trapped people decided (consciously or not, we can never know) to make their end with the same final gesture of freedom.
The 9/11 essays, of course, also fail into this political category. Rudolph Chelminski may win no literary prizes, but no New Yorker can forget the day that the Blondin of our times walked between the towers. Adam Mayblum may not be a professional writer, but his on-the-scene account touched me, as did Richard Price and Anne Hudson-Price's record of street voices in the aftermath of the tragedy. I loved the juxtaposition of David Halberstam's and Christopher Hitchens's essays, the first from a longtime New Yorker who used 9/11 to make some kind of peace that he had not found with his life, the second from an Englishman who used the same event to come to terms after decades of struggle.
In a third, more scholarly category, I struggled with Andrew Levy's "The Anti-Jefferson," for it runs longer, and more seriously, than the conventional essay. But in the end I decided that it had to win entry for a primary historical principle too rarely stated. It tells the story of the most extensive voluntary manumission of slaves ever achieved in Virginia, and few people have heard of the hero, nor do we really know why he acted as he did. We need to define and understand the unasked questions if we ever hope to grasp the pains and realities of our past. A reader would have to be tone deaf not to be fascinated by Nicholas Delbanco's detailed story of the renovation of one of the world's great Strad cellos. Among the more academic pieces, Louis Menand's reminder that liberal arts colleges never really enjoyed a Golden Age strikes home, for Golden Age myths exist for everything we like, and hardly anything can be more pernicious. I appreciated Mario Vargas Llosa on the continuity of books, and I sure hope he's right. Jacques Barzun has never been one of my heroes, but anyone still writing so well in his mid-nineties deserves a place here, and someone has to stick up for the three R's, hickory stick or no.
Stephen Jay Gould
Excerpted from The Best AMERICAN ESSAYS 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: To Open a Millennium||xiii|
|The Tenth Muse from Harper's Magazine||1|
|Turning Point from Smithsonian||13|
|Winner Take Nothing from GQ||22|
|The Countess of Stanlein Restored from Harper's Magazine||35|
|Welcome to Cancerland from Harper's Magazine||66|
|My Father's Brain from The New Yorker||88|
|Final Cut from The New Yorker||111|
|Who We Are from Vanity Fair||124|
|For Patriot Dreams from Vanity Fair||137|
|The Lion in Winter from National Geographic Adventure||144|
|Fire from The Massachusetts Review||165|
|The Anti-Jefferson from The American Scholar||188|
|The Price We Pay from DoubleTake||213|
|College: The End of the Golden Age from The New York Review of Books||219|
|Out of the Ordinary from The Atlantic Monthly||232|
|Merced from The Missouri Review||237|
|Busted in New York from The New Yorker||253|
|Word on the Street from The New York Times Magazine||267|
|Matriculation Fixation from The New York Times Education Life||276|
|Inside the Bunker from Esquire||280|
|Why Literature? from The New Republic||295|
|The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh from Vanity Fair||309|
|The Dramaturgy of Death from The New York Review of Books||331|
|Moonrise from The Atlantic Monthly||344|
|Notable Essays of 2001||372|