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The essay is a literary form dating back to ancient times, with a long and glorious history. As the record par excellence of a mind tracking its thoughts, it can be considered the intellectual bellwether of any modern society. The great promise of essays is the freedom they offer to explore, digress, acknowledge uncertainty; to evade dogmatism and embrace ambivalence and contradiction; to engage in intimate conversation with one’s readers and literary forebears; and to uncover some unexpected truth, preferably via a sparkling literary style. Flexible, shape-shifting, experimental, as befits its name derived from the French (essai = “attempt”), it is nothing if not versatile.
In the United States, the essay has had a particularly illustrious if underexamined career. In fact, it is possible to see the dual histories of the country and the literary form as running on parallel tracks, the essay mulling current issues and thereby reflecting the story of the United States in each succeeding period. And just as American democracy has been an ongoing experiment, with no guarantees of perfection, so has the essay been, as William Dean Howells argued, an innately democratic form inviting all comers to say their piece, however imperfectly.
The Puritans, some of our earliest settlers, chose the essay over fiction and poetry as their preferred mode of expression. In both sermons and texts explicitly labeled “essays,” men like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards articulated their religious and ethical values. Many later American commentators would take them to task for being sexually prudish, intolerant, and repressive. H. L. Mencken, in a scathing extended essay entitled “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” blamed that heritage for holding back American literature by overstressing behavioral proprieties while understressing aesthetics. Edmund Wilson wittily noted that Mencken himself was something of a Puritan. The bohemian wing of American literature, from Walt Whitman to the present, has engaged in protracted guerrilla warfare with Puritanism and offered itself as an alternative. On the other hand, Marilynne Robinson defends the Puritans from what she regards as a caricature of their positions. Say what you will about their rigid morality: these Puritan thinkers were highly learned, with sophisticated prose styles, and we are fortunate in having them set so high an intellectual standard for later American essayists to follow.
Skip ahead to the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine, all of whom seem to have been superb writers. In their treatises, pamphlets, speeches, letters, and broadsides, they tested their tentative views on politics and governance, hoping to move from conviction to certainty. Theirs was a self-conscious rhetoric influenced by the French Enlightenment authors and the orators of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the polished eighteenth-century nonfiction prose writers of their opponent, Great Britain.
In the decades following independence, United States authors labored to free themselves from subservience to English parental literary influence and to establish a national culture that would sound somehow unmistakably American. Washington Irving, perhaps the first freelance American author to support himself by his pen, was ridiculed by British critics such as William Hazlitt for imitating the English periodical essayists. He, in turn, wrote an essay entitled “English Writers in America,” which began: “It is with feelings of deep regret that I observe the literary animosity daily growing up between England and America.” He went on to analyze the condescending travel accounts of English authors in America, which were then all the rage in Great Britain: “That such men should give prejudiced accounts of America is not a matter of surprize. The themes it offers for contemplation are too vast and elevated for their capacities. The national character is yet in a state of fermentation: it may have its frothings and sediment, but its ingredients are sound and wholesome; it has already given proofs of powerful and generous qualities, and the whole promises to settle down into something substantially excellent.” Edgar Allan Poe bristled at the canard that Americans were too materialistic and engineering-minded to produce literature: “Our necessities have been mistaken for our propensities. Having been forced to make rail-roads, it has been deemed impossible that we should make verse. . . . But this is the purest insanity. The principles of the poetic sentiment lie deep within the immortal nature of man, and have little necessary reference to the worldly circumstances which surround him . . . nor can any social, or political, or moral, or physical conditions do more than momentarily repress the impulses which glow in our own bosoms as fervently as in those of our progenitors.”
But it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, our greatest nineteenth-century essayist, who sounded the alarm most famously in his speech “The American Scholar.” Acknowledging that up to then the Americans were “a people too busy to give to letters more,” he nevertheless prophesied that the time was coming “when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectations of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” He concluded by saying: “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. . . . We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak with our own minds.” It’s worthwhile remembering that this author who called for independence from foreign culture was probably the best-read person of his time and had imbibed not only most of British, French, and German literature but Eastern religious classics as well.
Emerson developed a kind of essay that was quirky, densely complex, speculative, digressive, and epigrammatic. He was part of that extraordinary flowering of literary culture in the mid-nineteenth century, the so-called American Renaissance, which included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Emily Dickinson. By the time it had run its course, there was no longer any doubt that America had itself a national culture. But there was more at stake than just the development of literary talent. The nation was facing enormous political and moral challenges from the twin oppressions of blacks and women. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which called for runaway slaves to be captured by northerners and returned as property to their southern slave owners, converted many of these writers to the abolitionist cause. Some of the most eloquent essays attacking slavery were penned by African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delany. They engendered an essayistic discourse on race that would be taken up by a distinguished lineage of black authors, including W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, continuing into our present day.
Meanwhile, women of the nineteenth century, still denied the vote and other rights, were barred from many professions, patronized, physically abused, and oppressed. It is remarkable how far back in America feminist voices were heard, from Judith Sargent Murray’s 1790 “On the Equality of the Sexes” to Margaret Fuller to Sarah Moore Grimké and Fanny Fern, reaching a high point in the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great essay, “The Solitude of Self,” and sweeping forward to the twentieth century. The essay, once considered a male province, has been nourished by the mental toughness and emotional honesty of so many bold, brilliant women in the last hundred years: think of Mary McCarthy, Hannah
Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Zadie Smith. . . .
Even when suffrage was extended to blacks and women, there was still the problem of completing democracy by transforming it from a merely legal form to an everyday reality for all classes and groups. So John Dewey argued for students and teachers to have more of a voice in determining educational policy; Jane Addams addressed in her settlement house movement the problems of young people thrown together as strangers in big cities; and Randolph Bourne put forward his vision of a “trans-national America” that would embrace the diversity of immigrants from other than Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.
Whenever the American essay has been unhitched from the urgent political and moral issues of the day, it has had to battle to stay commercially relevant. A specialty of the personal or familiar essay, in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne, Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Robert Louis Stevenson, is to focus on some seemingly small, trivial curiosity or annoyance of daily life, and to coax a larger significance from it. Some of the essayists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Agnes Repplier and Katharine Fullerton Gerould, excelled at this miniaturist belletristic form and found a home in magazines, but they also had to defend their work from charges that it was “genteel” or old-fashioned. The death of the essay was frequently if prematurely predicted. In 1919 Robert Cortes Holliday wrote good-humoredly: “It is said that essays are coming in again. Every once in a while someone says that. It is like prophecies concerning the immediate end of the world. However, it (either one of these prophecies) may be so this time.” (How pertinent those remarks are may be seen by examining our own recent history. Publishers twenty-five years ago treated essay collections as pariahs and would not touch the stuff. Since then, essays have come roaring back, and today there are dozens of collections exciting popular interest. But that could easily change, in which case essayists would again have to package their wares in some other disguise.)
One of the ways that the American essay kept alive in the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s was to gravitate to the newspaper or magazine column, often in the guise of humor pieces. A fraternal order of such practitioners, which included Christopher Morley, Don Marquis, and Heywood Broun, called themselves facetiously the “colyumnists.” Masters of the six-hundred-word essay, they were very popular, especially in metropolitan settings, and set the agenda for the talk of the town. Their seemingly casual throwaway tone, “typical Joe” persona, and modest claims as literary artists belied the fact that they were all highly educated in the traditions of the English periodical essay.
At the opposite end of the journalistic spectrum, as far from the average Joe as possible, was H. L. Mencken, who employed an elevated, at times comically baroque, diction and took every opportunity to sneer at the provincial ignorance of the average American. In the Age of Mencken, roughly the 1920s, many writers felt alienated from American mass culture: some went abroad to Europe, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, to absorb a more sophisticated, worldly ambience, while others stayed home and tried to raise the cultural level. (The critic Alfred Kazin spoke of “our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.”) This lovers’ quarrel between America and its writers initially took the form of a mistrust of the masses and, later on, a wary suspicion about how consumerist mass culture would shape the people’s mentalities. It was also a protest against the shortcomings of the American dream, or at least its bland, self-satisfied complacencies. The discordant note struck by many native essayists regarding the mythologies of American exceptionalism may have sprung from the artists’ felt obligation to question received opinion.
Many of the essays chosen for this anthology address themselves specifically—sometimes lovingly, sometimes critically—to American values. (See, for instance, the pieces by George Santayana, Mary McCarthy, and Wallace Stegner, each taking America’s temperature.) But even those that do not do so have a secondary, if inadvertent, subtext about being American. E. B. White was an influential example of an essayist who conveyed, in a down-to-earth American tone, the average citizen’s preoccupations at home, while remaining aware of the larger challenges facing society.
In a United States where various groups have felt marginalized because of their ethnicity, national origin, gender, geographical location, or disability, members of these groups have increasingly turned to the essay as a means of asserting identity (or complicating it). Gerald Early, in his anthology Speech and Power, wrote: “Since black writing came of age in this country in the 1920s, the essay seems to be the informing genre behind it. . . . It is not surprising that many black writers have been attracted to the essay as a literary form since the essay is the most exploitable mode of the confession and the polemic, the two variants of the essay that black writers have mostly used.” The same could be said for other minority groups in American society, who have benefited the essay form immeasurably by adapting it to their purposes, enriching the American language with their dialect-flavored speech. They have contributed to the “cultural unity within diversity” ideal that Ralph Ellison envisioned for this country. At the same time, the American essay has taken a turn toward greater autobiographical frankness, thanks in part to their efforts.
Another skein of essay writing, of unarguable importance now that the planet finds itself endangered by climate change, is nature writing. In America, that tradition goes back at least as far as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and extends to John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, John Burroughs, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, among others. We see in it an attempt to balance the factual and descriptive elements of flora and fauna with a fresh emotional access to wonder and awe. However alarmed these essayists may sound in their warnings of the threats to nature, there is still looming underneath an appeal to the original myth of America as the New World, a second Garden of Eden where humankind could finally get it right.
But wait: What is an essay? Many definitions have been proffered, none conclusive. Samuel Johnson called it “a loose sally of the mind.” Marilynne Robinson said it was “thought in the pure enjoyment of itself.” Chris Arthur wrote that “an essay is a literary electrocardiogram that traces out in words the pulse of thoughts” and “an essay arranges words with one eye on sense, one eye on style, and a third eye on wisdom.” R. P. Blackmur called it a form of “unindoctrinated thinking,” making it especially well suited to doubt, inconclusiveness, skepticism, and contrarian views. Not that it necessarily has to be inconclusive. We deduce from all this that it has something to do with tracking thought. Some have maintained that the essay must have an argument, must instruct; others, that essays must not do either. According to Agnes Repplier, “It offers no instruction, save through the medium of enjoyment, and one saunters lazily along with a charming unconsciousness of effort.” That is one kind of essay, the informal essay, which depends less on reasoning than on authorial voice, what Elizabeth Hardwick called “the soloist’s personal signature flowing through the text.” But what about the formal essay? Doesn’t it too need personal style of a sort?
Many have tried to limit the field. William Dean Howells drew a strict border between the essay and the article. William H. Gass forbade the scholarly paper from consideration as an essay. Cynthia Ozick wrote: “A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play. . . . A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ and Emile Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ are heroic landmark writings, but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”
Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree. We are just as privy to Thomas Paine’s mind working through reasons to rebel as we are to his contemporary Hazlitt on the pleasures of hating, and why should a piece of writing be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning? Even the lightest of familiar essays usually has an implicit armature of argumentation, just as essays that may not be overtly political invariably reflect an underlying politics. There are those who would seek to exclude criticism as a form of essay; but in my own experience, having taught and written a good deal of the stuff, I came to see that the best critics were all cobbling together a highly specific voice or persona through which their evaluations and insights could resound.
So, for this anthology I have taken the position of opening it to every type of the beast: the familiar essay, the personal essay, the critical essay, the biographical essay, the dialogue-essay, the humor essay, the philosophical essay, the academic essay, and the polemic. I have included essays that occurred in the form of speeches (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.), letters (Frederick Douglass), sermons (Jonathan Edwards), papers (Jane Addams), dialogue-essays (Finley Peter Dunne, Oliver Wendell Holmes), newspaper columns (Fanny Fern). While belletrists would like to exclude journalists, I don’t see how I could have left out such remarkable prose stylists from any compendium of the American essay.
More, I have sought out essays from every walk of life, not just the ostensibly literary, based on my conviction that every discipline has exceptionally gifted writers who have tried to work out their thoughts on the page: in science (Albert Einstein, Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas), geography (John Brinckerhoff Jackson), social work (Jane Addams), education (John Dewey), theology (Paul Tillich), food (M. F. K. Fisher), art criticism (Clement Greenberg), and so on.
In the main I have given preference to pieces of writing that began as stand-alone essays, but I have not hesitated to take a chapter from a book if I thought it functioned perfectly as an autonomous essay (Thomas Paine, W. E. B. Du Bois). Another criterion for selection was that the author needed to be American either by birth or emigration.
Lest you infer that I have become utterly promiscuous in my embrace of any piece of writing that may lay claim to being an essay, out of some imperialistic land grab, let me reassure you that that is not the case. I have resisted fiction, including pieces that invent the facts or that attempt a hybrid form of fiction and nonfiction. On the other hand, there is room for speculation and imaginative flights of fancy in an essay, as witness James Thurber’s “The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism.”
It is no accident that some of our greatest fiction writers and poets have also tried their hand at essays with excellent results: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Howells, Twain, James, Dreiser, Cather, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Welty, Mailer, et cetera. A shorter list might be composed of those major American novelists and poets who did not excel at essay writing.
Many of the choices here are no-brainers, the names one might expect: Thoreau, Baldwin, Mencken, White, Didion. (I have made it a rule not to repeat selections from my Art of the Personal Essay anthology when dealing with the same author.) But it has also been my special delight to try to rescue from oblivion such estimable figures as John Jay Chapman, Randolph Bourne, and Mary Austin, who seem in danger of sinking into that American night of historical amnesia. In general, blessed or cursed as I am with a historical sense, I have given the nod here to the past over the present—not just out of filial loyalty to the dead, but in the interests of creating “a usable past,” to quote Van Wyck Brooks’s apt phrase. There is another reason: many of these essays not only are in conversation with one another but speak vividly to our present moment by showing how often the same conflicts, over, say, immigration, minority rights, land use, or degree of cultural maturity, keep recurring on the national stage.
Consider this anthologizing effort, then, not so much the assertion of a canon as a smorgasbord of treats, a place to begin to sample the endless riches of the American essay. I have tried to include representatives from different ethnicities, genders, regions, and aesthetic camps—not just to be politically correct, but simply because they deserve a place at the table for the quality of their prose. Still, editing an anthology is a chump’s game: no matter how inclusive you may try to be, you will be criticized for various omissions, and some critics may even go through the table of contents with a calculator and total up the statistics, finding, say, too many dead white males. It can’t be helped. Yes, there are regrettable omissions, given the stark reality of page limits: a binding can only hold so much. Where’s Gore Vidal? Oliver Sacks? Philip Roth? (Phillip Lopate, for that matter?) The lyric essay? Fear not, reader: this is only the first of three volumes; the other two are forthcoming and should correct many of the worst omissions. Volume 2, The Golden Age of the American Essay, will focus more intensively on the postwar era, 1945–1970. Volume 3 will be dedicated to the contemporary essay, that is, the twenty-first century.