Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

This tome (well over 500 pages) materialized on my bookshelf after a visit from my younger son, who, having lived in small spaces for 10 years, often sheds belongings when he leaves. I've been slogging my way through it for a year (or is it two?).

The hardest-working-woman in the lit biz, Joyce Carol Oates, along with co-editor Robert Atwan, took on the ridiculous task of choosing the "best" essays from what must have been a nearly insurmountable supply of fine 20th-century essays. They chose 55, written by well-known novelists (e.g., Saul Bellow, John Updike, Alice Walker, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain), poets (e.g., T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost), scientists/naturalists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould. Rachel Carson, John Muir), and thinkers/essayists/provocateurs/humorists (e.g., Richard Rodriguez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan Sontag, W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Adams, James Thurber).

These writers' topics are highly varied. John Muir described a treacherous journey across an Alaskan glacier with a little dog named Stickeen. Jane Addams examined the attitudes of poor men and women through their reactions to an "urban legend" about a devil baby at Hull House. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his own breakdown, while E.B. White recounted his return as an adult to the lake where his family rented a camp many years before. Annie Dillard described experiencing a total solar eclipse, while Gerald Early recalled watching an African-American woman win the Miss America Pageant.

Among my favorites:
  • Richard Wright on "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"
  • Mary McCarthy's story of an encounter with an anti-Semitic Army man, home from World War II ("Artists in Uniform")
  • James Baldwin's reflections on his father's death (and his own life), in "Notes of a Native Son"
  • Tom Wolfe's "Putting Daddy On," in which he details an expeditin to the Lower East Side to help a friend "retrieve his son from the hemp-smoking flipniks."
  • Richard Rodriguez on the role of language in defining self, connecting with family, and being in the world ("Area: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood")
  • Gretel Ehrlich on "The Solace of Open Spaces"
Some of the essays are challenging. Gertrude Stein's "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them" makes virtually no sense to me. And I can't help wondering why Susan Sontag thought it was worth her time to develop 58 numbered notes on the "camp" aesthetic.

Notable to me as an educator is how few of these essays resemble the form that we teach young people as the "essay." While we teach students to use a logical sequential form (thesis statement, supporting evidence, conclusion) with few, if any, personal references, a majority of these essays are personal narratives or reflections. While the essay form taught in schools may still have functions, it appears unlikely to get our young authors in any "best of" essay collections.

Favorite passages:
There are many wonderful passages in these essays. Here are just a couple:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion, "The White Album" (it's such a great sentence, she used it as the title for a collection of all her essays)

"Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. . . .We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and lonelienss. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there." Gretel Ehrlich, "The Solace of Open Spaces"


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