The Next American Essay

Overview

In The Next American Essay, John D'Agata takes a literary tour of lyric essays written by the masters of the craft. Beginning with 1975 and John McPhee's ingenious piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," D'Agata selects an example of creative nonfiction for each subsequent year. These essays are unrestrained, elusive, explosive, mysterious—a personal lingual playground. They encompass and illuminate culture, myth, history, romance, and sex. Each essay is a world of its own, a ...

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Overview

In The Next American Essay, John D'Agata takes a literary tour of lyric essays written by the masters of the craft. Beginning with 1975 and John McPhee's ingenious piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," D'Agata selects an example of creative nonfiction for each subsequent year. These essays are unrestrained, elusive, explosive, mysterious—a personal lingual playground. They encompass and illuminate culture, myth, history, romance, and sex. Each essay is a world of its own, a world so distinctive it resists definition.

Contributors include:

Sherman Alexie

David Antin

Jenny Boully

Anne Carson

Guy Davenport

Lydia Davis

Joan Didion

Annie Dillard

Thalia Field

Albert Goldbarth

Susan Griffin

Theresa Hak Kung Cha

Jamaica Kincaid

Wayne Koestenbaum

Barry Lopez

John McPhee

Carole Maso

Harry Mathews

Susan Mitchell

Fabio Morabito

Mary Ruefle

David Shields

Dennis Silk

Susan Sontag

Alexander Theroux

George W. S. Trow

David Foster Wallace

Eliot Weinberger

Joe Wenderoth

James Wright

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"From the living Monopoly game (in an essay by John McPhee) to a set of unattended ghostly footnotes, from the Joan Didion elegy to the Anne Carson fantasia, this book shows what the essay is and what, with any luck, it will be. The collection is full of pleasures and surprises, the most stunning of which is the ongoing essay by D'Agata himself—he transforms a mere anthology into the living biography of an art form."Michael Silverblatt, creator, producer, and host of public radio's "Bookworm"

"D'Agata avows love of the diversity of the essay form, and it is palpable on every page of this unique, esoteric, beautiful book. He tells the reader that he first became enamored of essays when his mother read him the news of the day while he was still in her womb. It is this kind of fantastic, myth-making perspective that runs through each entry of this anthology, whose contributors include such master essayists as John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. Hopping from one genre to another—biography, poetry, philosophy, travel writing, memoir—D'Agata makes the point that the essay is not just one form of writing but can be every form of writing . . . [Many of D'Agata's] choices convey the wondrously infinite possibilities of the essay form. Standouts include 'Unguided Tour,' Sontag's cranky philosophical dialogue with her inner self; 'Life Story,' David Shields's string of aphorisms composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans; 'Ticket to the Fair,' David Foster Wallace's colorful, compassionate tour of the Illinois State Fair; and 'The Body,' Jenny Boully's postmodern pastiche of autobiographical (or not) footnotes. D'Agata's idea of an essay—or lyric essay, as he comes to call these writings—conflates both art and fact, blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The lyric essay, he says, has a 'kind of logic that wants to sing.' Readers, listen up, then: here is a book that makes some beautiful music."—Publishers Weekly

From the Publisher

"From the living Monopoly game (in an essay by John McPhee) to a set of unattended ghostly footnotes, from the Joan Didion elegy to the Anne Carson fantasia, this book shows what the essay is and what, with any luck, it will be. The collection is full of pleasures and surprises, the most stunning of which is the ongoing essay by D'Agata himself—he transforms a mere anthology into the living biography of an art form."Michael Silverblatt, creator, producer, and host of public radio's "Bookworm"

"D'Agata avows love of the diversity of the essay form, and it is palpable on every page of this unique, esoteric, beautiful book. He tells the reader that he first became enamored of essays when his mother read him the news of the day while he was still in her womb. It is this kind of fantastic, myth-making perspective that runs through each entry of this anthology, whose contributors include such master essayists as John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. Hopping from one genre to another—biography, poetry, philosophy, travel writing, memoir—D'Agata makes the point that the essay is not just one form of writing but can be every form of writing . . . [Many of D'Agata's] choices convey the wondrously infinite possibilities of the essay form. Standouts include 'Unguided Tour,' Sontag's cranky philosophical dialogue with her inner self; 'Life Story,' David Shields's string of aphorisms composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans; 'Ticket to the Fair,' David Foster Wallace's colorful, compassionate tour of the Illinois State Fair; and 'The Body,' Jenny Boully's postmodern pastiche of autobiographical (or not) footnotes. D'Agata's idea of an essay—or lyric essay, as he comes to call these writings—conflates both art and fact, blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The lyric essay, he says, has a 'kind of logic that wants to sing.' Readers, listen up, then: here is a book that makes some beautiful music."—Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
D'Agata (Halls of Fame) avows love of the diversity of the essay form, and it is palpable on every page of this unique, esoteric, beautiful book. He tells the reader that he first became enamored of essays when his mother read him the news of the day while he was still in her womb. It is this kind of fantastic, myth-making perspective that runs through each entry of this anthology, whose contributors include such master essayists as John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. Hopping from one genre to another-biography, poetry, philosophy, travel writing, memoir-D'Agata makes the point that the essay is not just one form of writing but can be every form of writing. Although it may occasionally seem that D'Agata has chosen a selection to illustrate how erudite he is-such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's "Erato Love Poetry," a set of bewildering fragments and (literally) blank white space-many other choices convey the wondrously infinite possibilities of the essay form. Standouts include "Unguided Tour," Sontag's cranky philosophical dialogue with her inner self; "Life Story," David Shields's string of aphorisms composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans; "Ticket to the Fair," David Foster Wallace's colorful, compassionate tour of the Illinois State Fair; and "The Body," Jenny Boully's postmodern pastiche of autobiographical (or not) footnotes. D'Agata's idea of an essay-or lyric essay, as he comes to call these writings- conflates both art and fact, blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The lyric essay, he says, has a "kind of logic that wants to sing." Readers, listen up, then: here is a book that makes some beautiful music. (Feb. 28) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
D'Agata, a poet, journalist, and writer of creative nonfiction, has selected 32 pieces from such authors as Joan Didion, John McPhee, Albert Goldbarth, Lydia Davis, Annie Dillard, and Sherman Alexie for inclusion in this competent but unremarkable collection. For each year (1975-2003), he has chosen and introduced an essay, commenting on world events that year and how the essay in question developed. In the introduction to the 2003 essay entry (Jenny Boully's "The Body"), for instance, he describes lyric essays as hybrid forms of the personal and public essay, which "seek answers, yet seldom seem to find them." D'Agata's essay choices are thoughtful and his commentary interesting but hardly definitive-and seemingly not intended to be. This collection will be of interest primarily to academic libraries or large public libraries that collect modern American literature extensively or support creative writing programs.-Nancy P. Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sometimes challenging anthology that expands the usual definition of essay.

Iowa Workshop grad D’Agata, who collected his own unconventional essays in Halls of Fame (2001), here selects one per year starting in 1975, when he was born, bookending them with Guy Davenport’s prologue and Joe Wenderoth’s epilogue. D’Agata’s choice for 1975, John McPhee’s "The Search for Marvin Gardens," is a relatively conventional essay by a widely read author; other choices falling into this category are Joan Didion’s "The White Album," Susan Sontag’s "Unguided Tour," Barry Lopez’s "The Raven," Annie Dillard’s "Total Eclipse," Alexander Theroux’s "Black," and David Foster Wallace’s "Ticket to the Fair." Some selections are fragmentary, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s "Erato Love Poetry," or stream-of-consciousness, such as Albert Goldbarth’s "Delft." Goldbarth and Anne Carson are among several writers here who are known for their poetry at least as much as for their essays. D’Agata’s interjections between each piece sometimes comment on the year represented, sometimes discuss the author presented, sometimes appear to have nothing to do with the piece that follows. The editor is partial to making lists. He is also partial to wordplay, as when he mentions that his mother read to him while he was in the womb: "And as we now know, but did not know then, a fetus at eight weeks has developed its ears but not yet the ability to hear. What this means is that anything you read to a fetus will go in one ear, but not come out."

In a note about the title, D'Agata says that by "next" he means "the essays that might be inspired by these." Based on this anthology, that could mean pretty much anything.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555973759
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2003
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 202,768
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 1.43 (d)

Meet the Author

John D'Agata is the author Halls of Fame. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he holds M.F.A.s in both nonfiction and poetry and is currently editor of lyric essays for Seneca Review.

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Read an Excerpt

THE Next American Essay


Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2003 John D'Agata
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1555973752


Chapter One

Go. I roll the dice-a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.

The dogs are moving (some are limping) through ruins, rubble, fire damage, open garbage. Doorways are gone. Lath is visible in the crumbling walls of the buildings. The street sparkles with shattered glass. I have never seen, anywhere, so many broken windows. A sign-"Slow, Children at Play"-has been bent backward by an automobile. At the lighthouse, the dogs turn up Pacific and disappear. George Meade, Army engineer, built the lighthouse-brick upon brick, six hundred thousand bricks, to reach up high enough to throw a beam twenty miles over the sea. Meade, seven years later, saved the Union at Gettysburg.

I buy Vermont Avenue for $100. My opponent is a tall, shadowy figure, across from me, but I know him well, and I know his game like a favorite tune. If he can, he will always go for the quick kill. And when it is foolish to go for the quick kill he will be foolish. On the whole, though, he is a master assessor of percentages. It is a mistake to underestimate him. His eleven carries his top hat to St. Charles Place, which he buys for $140.

The sidewalks of St. Charles Place have been cracked to shards by through-growing weeds. There are no buildings. Mansions, hotels once stood here. A few street lamps now drop cones of light on broken glass and vacant space behind a chain-link fence that some great machine has in places bent to the ground. Five plane trees-in full summer leaf, flecking the light-are all that live on St. Charles Place.

Block upon block, gradually, we are cancelling each other out-in the blues, the lavenders, the oranges, the greens. My opponent follows a plan of his own devising. I use the Hornblower & Weeks opening and the Zuricher defense. The first game draws tight, will soon finish. In 1971, a group of people in Racine, Wisconsin, played for seven hundred and sixty-eight hours. A game begun a month later in Danville, California, lasted eight hundred and twenty hours. These are official records, and they stun us. We have been playing for eight minutes. It amazes us that Monopoly is thought of as a long game. It is possible to play to a complete, absolute, and final conclusion in less than fifteen minutes, all within the rules as written. My opponent and I have done so thousands of times. No wonder we are sitting across from each other now in this best-of-seven series for the international singles championship of the world.

On Illinois Avenue, three men lean out from second-story windows. A girl is coming down the street. She wears dungarees and a bright-red shirt, has ample breasts and a Hadendoan Afro, a black halo, two feet in diameter. Ice rattles in the glasses in the hands of the men.

"Hey, sister!"

"Come on up!"

She looks up, looks from one to another to the other, looks them flat in the eye.

"What for?" she says, and she walks on.

I buy Illinois for $240. It solidifies my chances, for I already own Kentucky and Indiana. My opponent pales. If he had landed first on Illinois, the game would have been over then and there, for he has houses built on Boardwalk and Park Place, we share the railroads equally, and we have cancelled each other everywhere else. We never trade.

In 1852, R. B. Osborne, an immigrant Englishman, civil engineer, surveyed the route of a railroad line that would run from Camden to Absecon Island, in New Jersey, traversing the state from the Delaware River to the barrier beaches of the sea. He then sketched in the plan of a "bathing village" that would surround the eastern terminus of the line. His pen flew glibly, framing and naming spacious avenues parallel to the shore-Mediterranean, Baltic, Oriental, Ventnor-and narrower transsecting avenues: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut, States, Virginia, Tennessee, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois. The place as a whole had no name, so when he had completed the plan Osborne wrote in large letters over the ocean, "Atlantic City." No one ever challenged the name, or the names of Osborne's streets. Monopoly was invented in the early nineteen-thirties by Charles B. Darrow, but Darrow was only transliterating what Osborne had created. The railroads, crucial to any player, were the making of Atlantic City. After the rails were down, houses and hotels burgeoned from Mediterranean and Baltic to New York and Kentucky. Properties-building lots-sold for as little as six dollars apiece and as much as a thousand dollars. The original investors in the railroads and the real estate called themselves the Camden & Atlantic Land Company. Reverently, I repeat their names: Dwight Bell, William Coffin, John DaCosta, Daniel Deal, William Fleming, Andrew Hay, Joseph Porter, Jonathan Pitney, Samuel Richards-founders, fathers, forerunners, archetypical masters of the quick kill.

My opponent and I are now in a deep situation of classical Monopoly. The torsion is almost perfect-Boardwalk and Park Place versus the brilliant reds. His cash position is weak, though, and if I escape him now he may fade. I land on Luxury Tax, contiguous to but in sanctuary from his power. I have four houses on Indiana. He lands there. He concedes.

Indiana Avenue was the address of the Brighton Hotel, gone now. The Brighton was exclusive-a word that no longer has retail value in the city. If you arrived by automobile and tried to register at the Brighton, you were sent away. Brighton-class people came in private railroad cars. Brighton-class people had other private railroad cars for their horses-dawn rides on the firm sand at water's edge, skirts flying. Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddle-the sort of name that would constrict throats in Philadelphia-lived, much of the year, in the Brighton.

Colonel Sanders' fried chicken is on Kentucky Avenue. So is Clifton's Club Harlem, with the Sepia Revue and the Sepia Follies, featuring the Honey Bees, the Fashions, and the Lords.

My opponent and I, many years ago, played 2,428 games of Monopoly in a single season. He was then a recent graduate of the Harvard Law School, and he was working for a downtown firm, looking up law. Two people we knew-one from Chase Manhattan, the other from Morgan, Stanley-tried to get into the game, but after a few rounds we found that they were not in the conversation and we sent them home. Monopoly should always be mano a mano anyway. My opponent won 1,199 games, and so did I. Thirty were ties. He was called into the Army, and we stopped just there. Now, in Game 2 of the series, I go immediately to jail, and again to jail while my opponent seines property. He is dumbfoundingly lucky. He wins in twelve minutes.

Visiting hours are daily, eleven to two; Sunday, eleven to one; evenings, six to nine. "NO MINORS, NO FOOD, Immediate Family Only Allowed in Jail." All this above a blue steel door in a blue cement wall in the windowless interior of the basement of the city hall. The desk sergeant sits opposite the door to the jail. In a cigar box in front of him are pills in every color, a banquet of fruit salad an inch and a half deep-leapers, co-pilots, footballs, truck drivers, peanuts, blue angels, yellow jackets, redbirds, rainbows. Near the desk are two soldiers, waiting to go through the blue door. They are about eighteen years old. One of them is trying hard to light a cigarette. His wrists are in steel cuffs. A military policeman waits, too. He is a year or so older than the soldiers, taller, studious in appearance, gentle, fat. On a bench against a wall sits a good-looking girl in slacks. The blue door rattles, swings heavily open. A turnkey stands in the doorway. "Don't you guys kill yourselves back there now," says the sergeant to the soldiers.

"One kid, he overdosed himself about ten and a half hours ago," says the M.P.

The M.P., the soldiers, the turnkey, and the girl on the bench are white. The sergeant is black. "If you take off the handcuffs, take off the belts," says the sergeant to the M.P. "I don't want them hanging themselves back there." The door shuts and its tumblers move. When it opens again, five minutes later, a young white man in sandals and dungarees and a blue polo shirt emerges. His hair is in a ponytail. He has no beard. He grins at the good-looking girl. She rises, joins him. The sergeant hands him a manila envelope. From it he removes his belt and a small notebook. He borrows a pencil, makes an entry in the notebook. He is out of jail, free. What did he do? He offended Atlantic City in some way. He spent a night in the jail. In the nineteen-thirties, men visiting Atlantic City went to jail, directly to jail, did not pass Go, for appearing in topless bathing suits on the beach. A city statute requiring all men to wear full-length bathing suits was not seriously challenged until 1937, and the first year in which a man could legally go bare-chested on the beach was 1940.

Game 3. After seventeen minutes, I am ready to begin construction on overpriced and sluggish Pacific, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Nothing else being open, opponent concedes.

The physical profile of streets perpendicular to the shore is something like a playground slide. It begins in the high skyline of Boardwalk hotels, plummets into warrens of "side-avenue" motels, crosses Pacific, slopes through church missions, convalescent homes, burlesque houses, rooming houses, and liquor stores, crosses Atlantic, and runs level through the bombed-out ghetto as far-Baltic, Mediterranean-as the eye can see. North Carolina Avenue, for example, is flanked at its beach end by the Chalfonte and the Haddon Hall (908 rooms, air-conditioned), where, according to one biographer, John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) first played when he was twenty-two, insisting, even then, that everyone call him by his entire name. Behind these big hotels, motels-Barbizon, Catalina-crouch. Between Pacific and Atlantic is an occasional house from 1910-wooden porch, wooden mullions, old yellow paint-and two churches, a package store, a strip show, a dealer in fruits and vegetables. Then, beyond Atlantic Avenue, North Carolina moves on into the vast ghetto, the bulk of the city, and it looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street. People sit on porches, six deep, at nine on a Monday morning. When they go off to wait in unemployment lines, they wait sometimes two hours. Between Mediterranean and Baltic runs a chain-link fence, enclosing rubble. A patrol car sits idling by the curb. In the back seat is a German shepherd. A sign on the fence says, "Beware of Bad Dogs."

Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack of seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick row houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not. "HOOKED AND NEED HELP? CONTACT N.A.R.C.O." "REVIVAL NOW GOING ON, CONDUCTED BY REVEREND H. HENDERSON OF TEXAS." These are signboards on Mediterranean and Baltic. The second one is upside down and leans against a boarded-up window of the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. There is an old peeling poster on a warehouse wall showing a figure in an electric chair. "The Black Panther Manifesto" is the title of the poster, and its message is, or was, that "the fascists have already decided in advance to murder Chairman Bobby Seale in the electric chair." I pass an old woman who carries a bucket. She wears blue sneakers, worn through. Her feet spill out. She wears red socks, rolled at the knees. A white handkerchief, spread over her head, is knotted at the corners. Does she know where Marvin Gardens is? "I sure don't know," she says, setting down the bucket. "I sure don't know. I've heard of it somewhere, but I just can't say where." I walk on, through a block of shattered glass. The glass crunches underfoot like coarse sand. I remember when I first came here-a long train ride from Trenton, long ago, games of poker in the train-to play basketball against Atlantic City. We were half black, they were all black. We scored forty points, they scored eighty, or something like it. What I remember most is that they had glass backboards-glittering, pendent, expensive glass backboards, a rarity then in high schools, even in colleges, the only ones we played on all year.

I turn on Pennsylvania, and start back toward the sea. The windows of the Hotel Astoria, on Pennsylvania near Baltic, are boarded up. A sheet of unpainted plywood is the door, and in it is a triangular peephole that now frames an eye. The plywood door opens. A man answers my question. Rooms there are six, seven, and ten dollars a week. I thank him for the information and move on, emerging from the ghetto at the Catholic Daughters of America Women's Guest House, between Atlantic and Pacific. Between Pacific and the Boardwalk are the blinking vacancy signs of the Aristocrat and Colton Manor motels. Pennsylvania terminates at the Sheraton-Seaside thirty-two dollars a day, ocean corner. I take a walk on the Boardwalk and into the Holiday Inn (twenty-three stories). A guest is registering. "You reserved for Wednesday, and this is Monday," the clerk tells him. "But that's all right. We have plenty of rooms." The clerk is very young, female, and has soft brown hair that hangs below her waist. Her superior kicks her.

He is a middle-aged man with red spiderwebs in his face. He is jacketed and tied. He takes her aside. "Don't say `plenty,'" he says. "Say `You are fortunate, sir. We have rooms available.'"

The face of the young woman turns sour. "We have all the rooms you need," she says to the customer, and, to her superior, "How's that?"

Game 4. My opponent's luck has become abrasive. He has Boardwalk and Park Place, and has sealed the board.
Continues...


Excerpted from THE Next American Essay Copyright © 2003 by John D'Agata
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

To the Reader

Prologue

Guy Davenport

And

1975

John McPhee

The Search for Marvin Gardens

1976

Barry Lopez

The Raven

1977

Susan Sontag

Unguided Tour

1978

Jamaica Kincaid

Girl

1979

Joan Didion

The White Album

1980

James Wright

May Morning

1981

Harry Matthews

Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)

0

1982

Annie Dillard

Total Eclipse

1983

David Antin

The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto

1984

Eliot Weinberger

The Dream of India

1985

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Erato Love Poetry

1986

Dennis Silk

The Marionette Theater

1987

Anne Carson

Kinds of Water

1988

Fabio Morabito

Oil

1989

George W. S. Trow

Needs

1990

Susan Mitchell

Notes Toward a History of Scaffolding

1991

Albert Goldbarth

Delft

1992

Paul Metcalf

" . . . and nobody objected"

October 1992

Sherman Alexie

Captivity

1993

Susan Griffin

Red Shoes

1994

Alexander Theroux

Black

1995

Lydia Davis

Foucault and Pencil

1996

David Shields

Life Story

1997

David Foster Wallace

Ticket to the Fair

1998

i0Wayne Koestenbaum

Darling's Prick

1999

Carole Maso

The Intercession of the Saints

2000

Mary Ruefle

Monument

2001

Thalia Field

A : I

2002

Brian Lennon

Sleep

2003

Jenny Boully

The Body

Epilogue

Joe Wenderoth

Things To Do Today

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