The Best American Essays of the Century

The Best American Essays of the Century


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This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America’s tumultuous modern age, as experienced by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. Joyce Carol Oates has collected a group of works that are both intimate and important, essays that move from personal experience to larger significance without severing the connection between speaker and audience.
From Ernest Hemingway covering bullfights in Pamplona to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” these essays fit, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “into a kind of mobile mosaic suggest[ing] where we’ve come from, and who we are, and where we are going.” Among those whose work is included are Mark Twain, John Muir, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618155873
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 10/10/2001
Series: Best American Essays Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 174,092
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

JOYCE CAROL OATES is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls.  

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.


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

June 16, 1938

Place of Birth:

Lockport, New York


B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt


By Joyce Carol Oates Robert Atwan


Copyright © 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0618155872


The Art of the (American) Essay

HERE IS a history of America told in many voices.

It's an elliptical tale, or a compendium of tales, of the American twentieth century by way of individual essays that, fitting together into a kind of mobile mosaic, suggest where we've come from, and who we are, and where we are going. In his probing, provocative "The Creation Myth of Cooperstown," Stephen Jay Gould asks: "Why do we prefer creation myths to evolutionary stories?" The more we know of history, of both the natural and the civilized worlds, the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever evolving, and that our culture, far from being timeless, is a living expression of Time.

The essay, in its directness and intimacy, in its first-person authority, is the ideal literary form to convey such a vision. By tradition essays have been categorized as formal or informal; yet it can be argued that all essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity. Even the most artfully composed essay suggests a naturalness of discourse. As our precursor Montaigne advised, "We must remove the mask."

The essays in thisvolume have all been written by writers who have published at least one collection of essays or nonfiction. Not only did this principle allow the editors a reasonable means of limiting selections, it is an acknowledgment that writing is a vocation, not merely an avocation. In a historical overview of a century virtually teeming with talent, I wanted to honor those writers who have made writing their life's work. I didn't see my role as one to reward the lucky amateur who writes a single good essay, then disappears forever. Better to search for little-known but excellent essays by, for instance, writers of historical significance like John Jay Chapman, Jane Addams, Edmund Wilson. Most of the essays are "informal"; but this isn't to suggest that they are innocent, unmediated utterances lacking the stratagems of art. Even Mark Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions," delivered in the author's characteristic forthright voice, is driven by a passionate intellectual conviction regarding the gullibility of mankind and the tragic consequences of this gullibility.

My general theme in the assemblage of this volume has been a search for the expression of personal experience within the historical, the individual talent within the tradition (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot). My preference was always to essays that, springing from intense personal experience, are nonetheless significantly linked to larger issues, even if, as in the case of James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, these issues are viewed playfully. The emotion I felt when beginning to read most of the essays gathered here was one of great excitement and anticipation; even, at times, a distinct visceral thrill. As an editor, I am primarily a reader. I could not countenance including essays out of duty's sake that, in fact, I found deadly dull. For the many essays considered for this volume, the majority of which ultimately had to be excluded, I was the ideal reader: I wanted to like what I read, and I was committed to reading the entire essay with sympathy. If you will substitute "literature" for "poetry" in this famous remark in a letter of Emily Dickinson's, you have my basic criterion for the work included in The Best American Essays of the Century: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

And what powerful openings in certain of these exemplary essays:

We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most terrible crimes in history-not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent of our share in it.

-John Jay Chapman, "Coatesville" (1912)

The knowledge of the existence of Devil Baby burst upon the residents of Hull House one day when three Italian women, with an excited rush through the door, demanded that he be shown to them.

-Jane Addams, "The Devil Baby at Hull-House" (1916)

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work-the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside-the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within-that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up" (1936)

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

-Vladimir Nabokov, "Perfect Past" (1950)

On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century.

-James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (1955)

The decaying, downtown shopping section of Memphis-still another Main Street-lay, the weekend before Martin Luther King's funeral, under a siege.

-Elizabeth Hardwick, "The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King" (1968)

We were all strapped into the seats of the Chinook, fifty of us, and something, someone was hitting it from the outside with an enormous hammer. How do they do that? I thought, we're a thousand feet in the air!

-Michael Herr, "Illumination Rounds" (1977)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

-Joan Didion, "The White Album" (1978)

Of course there are crucial distinctions between the art of the essay and the art of prose fiction, yet to the reader the immediate experience in reading is an engagement with that mysterious presence we call voice. Reading, we "hear" another's speech replicated in our heads as if by magic. Where in life we sometimes (allegedly infrequently) fall in love at first sight, in reading we may fall in love with the special, singular qualities of another's voice; we may become mesmerized, haunted; we may be provoked, shocked, illuminated; we may be galvanized into action; we may be enraged, revulsed, and yet!-drawn irresistibly to experience this voice again, and again. It's a writer's unique employment of language to which we, as readers, are drawn, though we assume we admire the writer primarily for what he or she "has to say" For consider: how many intelligent, earnest, right-minded commentators published essays on such important subjects as racial conflict in twentieth-century America, social and personal disintegration in the thirties, morality, democracy, nostalgia-for-a-vanishing-America; class struggle, Civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, the mystical experience of nature, ethnic diversity, various American "myths"-and how few of these are worth rereading, let alone enshrining, in this new century. To be an editor in so massive an undertaking, committed to reading with sympathy countless essays of high worth and distinction published in the most prestigious journals of their era, beginning in about 1900 and sweeping through the decades, is to experience firsthand that quickening of dread, which Nabokov calls mere "common sense," in the realization of human mortality. So many meritorious voices, so much evidence of American good will and wisdom, and so many fallen by the wayside! There were times when I felt as if I were indeed standing at the edge of an abyss, entrusted with rescuing pages of impeccable prose being blown past me into oblivion, preserving what I could, surrendering all the rest. (Those excellent essayists of a bygone time John Muir, Randolph Bourne, and John Jay Chapman are preserved here; surrendered to the exigencies of space limitations are John Burroughs, George Santayana, Joseph Wood Krutch, Ellen Glasgow, and others listed in the Appendix.)

My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment, and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish. Art should certainly aspire to beauty, but there are myriad sorts of beauty: the presentation of a subject in the most economical way, for instance; a precise choice of language, of detail. There is beauty in the calibrated ugliness of the opening of William Gass's meditation on suicide and art, "The Doomed in Their Sinking," because it is so finely calibrated; there is beauty in the eloquent, elegiac expression of hurt, rage, and despair in James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," because it is eloquent and elegiac, in the service of art. That staple of traditional essay collections, the unhurried musings of a disembodied (Caucasian, male, privileged) consciousness, is missing here, except for its highest, most lyric expression in E. B. White's classic "Once More to the Lake" and its total transmogrification in Edward Hoagland's powerful "Heaven and Nature"-which is about neither heaven nor nature. (Hoagland, one of the few American writers who has forged a brilliant career out of essays, is our Chopin of the genre. Though best known for such nature essays as "The Courage of Turtles," "Red Wolves and Black Bears" and "Earth's Eye," in the tradition of Thoreau, Hoagland is equally memorable as a recorder of startling, confessional utterances of a kind the very private Thoreau would not have dared.) Though there are deeply moving essays in the nostalgic/ musing mode by such fine writers as White, James Agee, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, I have given more space to what might be called a radical expansion of this familiar genre, essays that have the power of personal nostalgia yet are not sentimental, and in which private contemplation touches on crucial public issues, as Zora Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps," N. Scott Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Richard Rodriguez's "Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood," and others. If you begin Edmund Wilson's "The Old Stone House" presuming it to be another nostalgic lament for a vanishing America, you will be shocked by the author's conclusion:

And what about me? As I come back in the train, I find that-other causes contributing-my depression of Talcottville deepens. I did not find the river and the forest of my dream-I did not find the magic of the past ... I would not go back to that old life if I could: the civilization of northern New York- why should I idealize it?-was too lonely, too poor, too provincial.

Similarly, Donald Hall's "A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails" is both a sympathetic portrait of an older relative of the writer's and a devastating critique of the romance of American rural eccentricity, the stock material of how many homespun reminiscences in the Norman Rockwell mode:

[Washington Woodward] worked hard all his life at being himself, but there were no principles to examine when his life was over... The life that he could recall totally was not worth recalling; it was a box of string too short to be saved.

Apart from being first-rate reportage, Joan Didion's "The White Album" can be seen as a radical variant of the genre of nostalgia as well, in which the essayist positions her intimate, interior life ("an attack of vertigo and nausea does not seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968") within the larger, wayward, and "poorly comprehended" life of our culture circa 1966-1978, with the defiant conclusion "writing [this] has not yet helped me to see what it means": the antithesis of the traditional essay, which was organized around a principle, or epiphany, toward which it confidently moved. So too Michael Herr's "Illumination Rounds," from Dispatches, is appropriately ironically titled, for little is finally illuminated in this account of a young American journalist's visit to Vietnam in the mid-seventies, at the height of that protracted and tragic war; the techniques of vividly cinematic fiction writing are here employed in the service of the author's vision, but there is, conspicuously, no "moral"-no "moralizing." This is the art of the contemporary essay, or memoir: a heightened, trompe l'oeil attention to detail that allows the reader to see, hear, witness, as if at first hand, what the essayist has witnessed. Though this is "informal" writing, there is no lack of form. Postmodernist strategies of fragmentation and collage have replaced that of exposition, summary, and argument.

For all their diversity, essays tend to fall into three general types: those that present opinions primarily, and have been written to "instruct"; those that impart information and knowledge; and those that record personal impressionistic experiences, especially memories. These categories often overlap, of course, as in the outstanding essays named above, and in recent years, judging from the annual series The Best American Essays, from which essays in this volume published since 1985 have been taken, the genre has evolved into a form closely akin to prose fiction and prose poetry, employing dialogue, dramatic scenes, withheld information, suspense.

The essay of opinion, of which Montaigne (1533-1592) was an early, highly influential master, was for centuries the quintessential essay. Here, you find no dialogue or dramatic scenes, only a rational, reasoning voice. Such an essay is an argument, often couched in conversational terms; its intention is to instruct, to illuminate, to influence. Except for editorial and op-ed pages of newspapers, in which they appear in miniature form, and in a very few general-interest magazines like Harper's and the Atlantic, such essays are not much favored today.


Excerpted from The BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates Robert Atwan Copyright © 2000 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.

Table of Contents

Contents Foreword by Robert Atwan : x Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates : xvii 1901 : Mark Twain Corn-pone Opinions : 1 1903 : W.E.B. Du Bois Of the Coming of John : 6 1906 : Henry Adams A Law of Acceleration : 20 1909 : John Muir Stickeen : 28 1910 : William James The Moral Equivalent of War : 45 1911 : Randolph Bourne The Handicapped : 57 1912 : John Jay Chapman Coatesville : 71 1916 : Jane Addams The Devil Baby at Hull-House : 75 1919 : T. S. Eliot Tradition and the Individual Talent : 90 1923 : Ernest Hemingway Pamplona in July : 98 1925 : H. L. mencken The Hills of Zion : 107 1928 : Zora Neale Hurston How It Feels to Be Colored Me : 114 1933 : Edmund Wilson The Old Stone House : 118 1935 : Gertrude Stein What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them : 131 1936 : F. Scott Fitzgerald The Crack-Up : 139 1937 : James Thurber Sex Ex Machina : 153 1937 : Richard Wright The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch : 159 1938 : James Agee Knoxville: Summer of 1915 : 171 1939 : Robert Frost The Figure a Poem Makes : 176 1941 : E. B. White Once More to the Lake : 179 1944 : S. J. Perelman Insert Flap “A” and Throw Away : 186 1949 : Langston Hughes Bop : 190 1950 : Katherine Anne Porter The Future Is Now : 193 1953 : Mary Mccarthy Artists in Uniform : 199 1955 : Rachel Carson The Marginal World : 214 1955 : James Baldwin Notes of a Native Son : 220 1956 : Loren Eiseley The Brown Wasps : 239 1957 : Eudora Welty A Sweet Devouring : 246 1961 : Donald Hall A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails : 252 1963 : Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail : 263 1964 : Tom Wolfe Putting Daddy On : 280 1964 : Susan Sontag Notes on “Camp” : 288 1966 : Vladimir Nabokov Perfect Past : 303 1967 : N. Scott Momaday The Way to Rainy Mountain : 313 1968 : Elizabeth Hardwick The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King : 319 1969 : Michael Herr Illumination Rounds : 327 1970 : Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : 342 1971 : Lewis Thomas The Lives of a Cell : 358 1972 : John Mcphee The Search for Marvin Gardens : 361 1972 : William H. Gass The Doomed in Their Sinking : 373 1975 : Maxine Hong Kingston No Name Woman : 383 1975 : Alice Walker Looking for Zora : 395 1977 : Adrienne Rich Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying : 412 1979 : Joan Didion The White Album : 421 1980 : Richard Rodriguez Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood : 447 1981 : Gretel Ehrlich The Solace of Open Spaces : 467 1982 : Annie Dillard Total Eclipse : 477 1982 : Cynthia Ozick A Drugstore in Winter : 490 1987 : William Manchester Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All : 497 1988 : Edward Hoagland Heaven and Nature : 507 1989 : Stephen Jay Gould The Creation Myths of Cooperstown : 520 1990 : Gerald Early Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant : 532 1993 : John Updike The Disposable Rocket : 549 1995 : Joyce Carol Oates They All Just Went Away : 553 1997 : Saul Bellow Graven Images : 564 Biographical Notes : 569 Appendix: Notable Twentieth-Century American Literary Nonfiction : 591

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