Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“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.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).
There’s nothing more engaging than a personal story told with insight, humor or candor. That explains the acclaim of bestselling anthologies like The Bitch in the House, edited by Cathi Hanauer, provocative first-person forums like The New York Times “Modern Love” and Newsweek’s “My Turn” columns, and NPR’s popular “This American Life.” Unfortunately, not all intimate narratives are as compelling for the audience as they are for the author. Here’s how to turn your private experiences into wise, eloquent prose.
1. read top essayists. Don’t start in a vacuum, mimic poetry or copy novelistic techniques. Study the specific format you want to emulate. For an overview, check out Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Linger over 50 lovelorn stories in Modern Love, edited by Daniel Jones. Memorize Daphne Merkin.
2. Write about your obsessions. Pick a subject that you find enthralling, that you have expertise on, or that’s breaking news. No student I know has penned a good piece on the Iraq war—because the students haven’t fought in Iraq. Conversely, pupils have aced essays on being addicted to buying make-up at an all-night drugstore, getting tested for HIV and firing a nanny after reading that nanny’s X-rated blog. Don’t worry if the subject’s small compared to world events. You’ll bring a theatrical freshness to what fascinates you.
3. Focus on drama, conflict and tension. Don’t write an appreciation of your spouse, parents or children. Love letters and light slices of life rarely engender profundity. Instead, think in extremes: the night that changed your life, the lover who shattered your heart, the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you. Tackle unresolved emotional issues. You’ll get a meaty subject and maybe a cathartic release.
4. Identify with cultural stereotypes. You know your background, who you are, what you look like. But your photo, résumé or bio may not accompany your pages. So describe yourself. My student Sabi Ali began her New York Times piece: “Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, I came to the United States at age 6, settling with my family in upstate New York, growing up Muslim in suburban America …” Share specific religious, ethnic, cultural and class conflicts.
5. Be timely. In a 900-word essay, there’s no time to build up to brilliance. Your beginning should grab readers by the throat. Start with an upcoming holiday, hot book, movie, TV show or cultural phenomenon on a similar topic. To chronicle your hospitalization with a gall bladder attack, instead of starting, “Sixteen years ago, when I felt sick,” try, “On a recent ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Dr. McDreamy took out a gall bladder. Unfortunately my doctor wasn’t as adorable …”
6. Forget easy opinions. We know terrorism is bad, public schools need money, breakups hurt. Just because something happened is never enough reason to write it. Find idiosyncratic angles, play devil’s advocate, twist clichés. When my student Rainbow Kirby explored her 30-year-old boyfriend’s living at home, she smartly began with the film Failure to Launch, which had just opened, and sold the flip side—the perks of dating a man residing with his folks—to Newsday.
7. Show and tell. In fiction and poetry we “show, don’t tell.” Essays are like mini-memoirs, so be didactic, sum up, flash forward, cut to the chase.
8. End with emotional insight. Personal essays must get personal. But even if you bravely revisit your worst struggles, playing victim and reciting a litany of injustices inflicted upon you is boring and cliché. Question, challenge, reveal and trash yourself more than others. One colleague wrote about her ex-husband of 20 years, an abusive alcoholic, listing all his evils. When she admitted she knew he was a problem drinker after a year, I suggested refocusing on why she’d stayed for 19 more. Turned out her father was a drinker and her mother helped him give up the sauce—at age 60. So that was her model for marriage. Now that piece was a standout.
1. Describe your story in a succinct, engaging line—a Hollywood movie pitch—like this:
During my difficult divorce, I decided it was OK to let my two daughters see me cry.
At 37, I moved back in with my parents, becoming the rebellious teenager I never was.
Ever since my car accident, I’ve done more immoral, illegal things.
Studying in Africa made this white girl appreciate her big behind.
2. Find an exciting, revealing start to grab attention. Don’t save the good stuff for later. There won’t be a later if you don’t nail the lead. Start in the middle, with the drama. Here are gripping,
idiosyncratic first lines:
• My name is Arpard Herschel Fazakas—or at least it was until last year, when, at age 51, I changed it.
• I loved a guy who’d been dismissed from Harvard over accusations of raping another student.
• I last saw my brother at a Dairy Queen in Tennessee right before he left for prison.
3. Describe Your Cultural Background in a few sentences packed with colorful personal details. For example, I’m a 46-year-old dark-haired, nice, Jewish, Manhattan journalist who never lost my Michigan accent. Here are more ways to slip in who you are—encouraging readers to know and like you:
As a first-generation Chinese-American woman who wears a size 36D bra, I can testify to the power of the American fast-food diet.
“I was a 40-year-old Greek-American girl who was a bridesmaid seven times, watching two sisters take the plunge, so I was relieved it was finally my turn.”
My older brother Mike and I are “Irish twins,” born 10 months apart in a blue-collar, Catholic suburb near Boston.
4. Underline newspaper and magazine news on your theme. Here’s how to transition from a topical reference to you, making your story more universal:
Brangelina may have the most popular baby in the world, but I had my taste of celebrity when I took my son to the Philippines.
When I arrived in the performing arts Mecca of Manhattan, there was no Simon Cowell to send me back to Illinois, even though this 22-year-old actress was neither talented nor beautiful.
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