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 this volume 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 is 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 first-hand 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 Hoadland’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 will, 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 a 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. In our egalitarian culture we tend to feel, rightly or wrongly, that an essayist’s opinion is only as good as his or her expertise, and in such uncharted areas as ethics, morals, and general wisdom, whose opinion should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s? In the past, however, the gentlemanly art of opinion-offering was commonplace; Ralph Waldo Emerson is the North American master of this form. With the publication of “Nature” in 1836, Emerson’s prestige and influence through the whole of the nineteenth century was incalculable. Here was a brilliant aphoristic-philosophical mind expressed in an elegantly idiosyncratic language. Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s younger contemporary, combines strong opinions with a wealth of observed information and firsthand experience in a crystalline, poetic prose, and for this reason seems to us more modern, and far more accessible, than Emerson. There is a rich such subcategory of American essays, the confrontation of nature by a refined, fastidiously observing consciousness, that has descended to us from Thoreau; I would have dearly liked to include more practitioners of this sort but had room for only John Muir, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, and Gretel Ehrlich. (But all these essays are gems.) In general, our patience tends to wear thin when we’re confronted with sermonizing in its many forms; I most often encountered such essays among those published in the first four or five decades of the century, when magazines seemed to have unlimited space for rambling, genial prose by men with nothing especially urgent on their minds apart from platitudes of nature and morality. Who were the readers of these essays, I wondered. The more elusive the subject, the more verbose the style, as in two fascinating masterpieces of ellipsis, indirection, and irresolution by Henry James at his most baroque, “Is There a Life after Death?” (1910) and “Within the Rim” (1915). (“Is There a Life after Death?” was initially included in this volume, and then reluctantly excluded; then included again, and finally excluded. A longtime admirer of Henry James, I wanted badly for him to be represented, but the essay is, one might say, “Jamesian,” and long, and could hardly be justified as among the best of the century. And “Within the Rim,” on the apparent theme of war, is even more abstruse.)
Yet for all their unfashionableness, the opinion essays included here are, I think, excellent, and will repay the sort of close, sympathetic reading required for prose that isn’t immediately gripping and specific. Henry Adams’s “A Law of Acceleration,” from the classic The Education of Henry Adams, is a bravura work of astonishing intellectual abstraction; written nearly one hundred years ago, it strikes a disturbingly contemporary note in its somber contemplation of a mechanistic universe reduced to a series of “relations” and mankind itself reduced to “Motion in a universe of Motions, with an acceleration… of vertiginous violence.” With the authority of science, Adams says, history has no right to meddle, since science “now lay in a plane where scarcely one or two hundred minds in the world could follow its mathematical processes.” Fittingly, William James’s famous “The Moral Equivalent of War” was written in the same year, 1910, as Henry James’s “Is There a Life after Death?” Though William James is a far more lucid prose stylist than his younger brother, both brothers are concerned with profound questions of life and death; William James broods upon the future of civilization itself in a prophetic work that looks ahead to Freud’s late, melancholic Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). What is history but a bloodbath? “The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war-taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.” John Jay Chapman, once considered an essayist of nearly Emerson’s stature, is not much read today, yet his passionate meditation upon a notorious lynching that took place in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 1911 transcends its time and tragic circumstances.
The two most influential literary essays of the twentieth century are perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (“The emotion of art is impersonal”) and Robert Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes” (“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”); each gains from being read in conjunction with the other. Sui generis is Gertrude Stein’s “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” itself a masterpiece of polemics, an argument that convinces by sheer repetition:
… One has not identity [when] one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, is what destroys creation.
H.L. Mencken’s “The Hills of Zion” is, like many of Mencken’s essays and columns, a passionate repudiation of evangelical Christianity and anti-intellectualism. This is sermonizing disguised as social satire, zestful in its accumulation of damning details; one can see why the young Negro Richard Wright was so impressed by Mencken’s example, seeing the older white man as “fighting, fighting with words… using words as a weapon… as one would use a club.” Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Future Is Now” is an almost purely cerebral opinion piece, less compelling perhaps than Porter’s elegantly composed short stories, but gracefully argued nonetheless, while “Artists in Uniform,” one of Mary Mc-Carthy’s most anthologized essays, smoothly combines her satirical gifts with her passion for intellectual discourse. Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” is both opinion essay and cultural criticism of a high order; Adrienne Rich’s dramatically fragmented “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” might be defined as an essay of opinion in a unique, poetic form. Essays by Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, N. Scott Momaday, and Cynthia Ozick advance arguments by means of an accumulation of memoirist detail, and each presents us with the wonder of how, in Ozick’s words, “a writer is dreamed and transfigured into being.” And essays that seem to be primarily concerned with the imparting of information and description, like Loren Eiseley’s “The Brown Wasps,” Tom Wolfe’s “Putting Daddy On,” Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King,” Lewis Thomas’s “The Lives of a Cell,” Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” among others, contain arguments of subtlety and insight. Saul Bellow’s “Graven Images” is a meditation in the author’s characteristic ironic mode on photography as a violation of personal dignity and privacy and the “revolutionary transformation” of a world that no longer honors such values. John McPhee’s wonderfully original “The Search for Marvin Gardens” makes of the popular American board game an allegory of capitalist adventure, and rewards us with the unexpected discovery of the secluded middle-class bastion Marvin Gardens, the security-patrolled “suburb within a suburb” that is one’s reward for winning the game.
The earliest essay in the anthology, Mark Twain’s “Corn-pone Opinions,” is a superbly modulated argument that begins with an engaging portrait of a young black slave (this is the Missouri of Twain’s childhood, in the 1850s) and proceeds to a ringing denunciation of cultural chauvinism that is as relevant to our time as it was to Twain’s:
Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity.
By which Twain means that deathly conformity that leads to an acceptance of slavery, lynchings, white bigotry, and injustice in a nation constituted as a democracy.
Twain’s essay strikes a chord that resounds through the anthology: the ever-shifting, ever-evolving issue of race in America. It can’t be an accident that the essays in this volume by men and women of ethnic minority backgrounds are outstanding; to paraphrase Melville, to write a “mighty” work of prose you must have a “mighty” theme. And what mightier, what more challenging and passionate theme for both writer and reader than how it feels to be of minority status in America, from the time of W.E.B. Du Bois in the first decade of the century to our contemporaries Maya Angelou, N. Scott Momaday, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, and Gerald Early? For historical reasons obviously having to do with slavery, the experience of blacks in America has been significantly different from that of other minorities, and this fact is reflected in the essays included here.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John,” from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), is a chillingly prophetic work that traces the intellectual and spiritual evolution of a seemingly ordinary black boy from southeastern Georgia who is sent north to be educated in a Negro school, returns after seven years to his hometown so thoroughly changed that he seems more foreign to his former relatives and neighbors than a Georgian white man would be, and is given advice by the kindly white Judge:
“… You and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, you people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature… by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”
Zora Neale Hurston in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928) defines herself very differently from Du Bois’s tragic protagonist, partly because she has been raised in a “colored town” in Florida, Eatonville. Her defiance strikes us as courageous, and touching:
At certain times I have no race, I am me… Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.
Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch,” the preface to Wright’s 1938 collection of novellas, Uncle Tom’s Children, would become a section of his heralded Black Boy (1945). Wright’s education in Jim Crow “wisdom” begins ironically with a beating his mother gives him for having dared to fight with white boys, and carries him into a prematurely cynical adolescence; it’s a vision of the American South contiguous with that of New York City in the 1940s experienced by Langston Hughes.
Perhaps the preeminent essayist of the American twentieth century is James Baldwin, and it seems fitting that Baldwin wrote his most powerful and influential nonfiction works, Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time, at about mid-century. Baldwin was a natural master of a kind of nonfiction narration we associate with the most engaging fiction, in which personal, familial experience is linked with a larger social and political context that enhances it as myth. Like his mentor Richard Wright, James Baldwin was a poet of irony; his bitterness and rage at social injustice was so finely distilled, his use of language so impassioned and fluent, he made of the most tragically debased materials a world of startling beauty. Baldwin’s is a secular mystical vision that seems to us quintessentially American:
All of my [newly deceased] father’s texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped… The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this man was an immutable law.
This is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed in his historic 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly… and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
Robert Atwan, who has been an invaluable series editor for the highly regarded The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986, assisted me tirelessly and with inspiration in our months-long effort of sifting through any and all essays that were possibilities for this anthology. We have been limited, or, one might say, assisted, in our selections only since 1986, being obliged to choose essays from the series anthology after that date; before 1986, we had no restrictions. Our decision to reprint essays only by writers who have published nonfiction books helped to limit our search, as did our exclusion of journalism, excepting unique reportage like Hemingway’s “Pamplona in July” and Michael Herr’s “Illumination Rounds.” We hoped to avoid prose fiction in essay form, though such prose pieces as W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John” and Langston Hughes’s “Bop” certainly employ fictional techniques; we excluded literary criticism – though some of our finest writers, like Randall Jarrell, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling, have excelled in it – and footnote-laden academic essays for a limited readership, even by Hannah Arendt. Much as I wanted to include Henry James, as I’ve noted above, I could not justify reprinting a long, convoluted skein of words that few readers would read. Nor could I include another major twentieth-century writer, Willa Cather, whose available essays were simply inappropriate, and lengthy. Of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction work, “The Fight” would have been my choice for this volume, but it’s book length (and has already appeared in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century); other essays of Mailer’s, like “The White Negro,” controversial in their time, are badly dated today. Gay Talese, a brilliant practitioner of what has come to be known as New Journalism, has written no “essays” per se. William Carlos Willams, Ralph Ellison, John Hersey, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, Gore Vidal, most painfully William Faulkner: these important writers had no single appropriate essay. Faulkner in particular seems to have had little aptitude, or perhaps inspiration, for the essay form.
Of contemporary essayists there are so many – so very many! – Who might well be included here, it isn’t possible to list their names except in the Appendix. Quite apart from the numerous memoirs of high quality being written today, and published to much acclaim, this is a remarkably fruitful era for the personal essay. The triumph, one might say, of the mysterious pronoun “I.”
It was the aim of the editors to tell a more or less chronological story of America as the century unfolded, with representative essays from each decade, as we have done; yet, the reader will note, the traumatic experiences of World War II, vividly described by William Manchester in “Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All,” does not appear in the forties but decades later, in 1987; and numerous other essays, stimulated by memory and meditation, have been written years after the occasion of their subjects. The ideal essay, in any case, is as timeless as any work of art, transcending the circumstances of its inception. It moves, as Robert Frost says of the ideal poem, from delight to wisdom, and “rides on its own melting,” like ice on a hot stove.