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).
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I write essays to clear my mind.
– Taiye Selasi
Certainly, Ms. Selasi did not speak about academic essay writer’s block in particular, but essay writers block in general. Have you ever thought how essay writers could influence other people, and how important they could be for events’ coverage in history?
Thanks to these people we have a chance to learn interesting facts and understand the world around us better, and thanks to their works we perfectly know what sources to use as references when we write our academic papers.
A writer’s profession is among the most ancient ones. Great essay writers have been working since the early days of American history, and we can be proud of this fact for sure. Each period of our history has its own famous essay writers, and their works are a great example of what a power words have and how beautiful our speech can be when we express our thoughts consistently and concisely.
Let’s take a look at the brightest representatives of American essayists from the different historical periods and check their most famous essays to understand their originality and importance better.
Early American and Colonial Period: to 1776
A revolutionary spirit was in the air then. So, it is not surprising that this theme is perfectly displayed in all works of famous essay authors of that time. They wrote about laws they considered unjust, they described slavery and were against of it, they criticized authorities and their policy, they disagreed with aristocrats, and they warned what the circumstances of such a situation could be.
It was the period of colonial and revolutionary literature, and the greatest representatives of American essayists there were:
- Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and his work Of Youth and Age, Of Truth, Of Studies, Of Revenge, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Discourse
- Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) and his work The Selling of Joseph (1700)
- John Woolman (1720-1772) and his two essays Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754 and 1762)
Democratic Origins and Revolutionary Writers: 1776-1820
The triumph of American independence influenced the moods and literature of those times. It was a period of early national literature, when essays by famous authors described antislavery, democratic sensibility, American exceptionalism, support of the Constitution, American generations, and relations between England and America.
Moreover, this is the time when essay writers pay publishers to see their works live. Writers perfectly know what hooks to use for their essays, and they have no doubts as for their works’ topicality, informational content, utility, and uniqueness. The best and well-known essayists of that period are:
- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and his works Advice on the Choice of a Mistress, The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams, The Temple of Learning, The Whistle
- Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and his two works: Common Sense (1776), The American Crisis (1783)
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and his The Declaration of Independence
- Washington Irving (1783-1859) and his The Mutability of Literature (1820)
Romantic Period : 1820–1860
This very period is called the American Renaissance, as it was inspired by the Romantic movement originated in Germany but spread to other European countries, such as England and France. The writing representatives here were both poets and essayists, as well as fiction authors, and their ideas centered around spirit, organic growth, inspiration, and the importance of art for society in general and individual in particular.
The major theme for every essayist of romantic age was self-development. A man should express himself and find ways for self-awareness and self-expression. The development of society is impossible to imagine without arts. Self and nature are one. Every essayist of romantic period found himself obligatory to describe similar moods in his works.
The names of famous essayists of that period are well-known today:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): Gifts, Self-Reliance, The Poet
- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894): The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
- Margaret Fuller (1810-1850): Papers on Literature and Art
- Joseph Dennie (1768-1812): Jack and Gill: A Mock Criticism
- Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): On Women’s Right to Vote
- Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): The Philosophy of Furniture
- Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): The Destiny of Colored Americans
The Rise of Realism: 1860-1914
As far as you understand, all those romantic moods could not last forever. 1860 was a year when realism had come back home and started to flourish in full. Famous essay writers of those times were inspired by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), and the period of innocent optimism gave its way to a period of total exhaustion.
This is a period of America’s transformation into a huge and strong industrial nation. All these themes (a war, a person’s and nation’s strength, industrialization, urbanization, and alienation) find their output in many books, articles, and essays. Every famous essayist quotes were known by heart and cited, as they perfectly knew how to write an essay that would really work. The greatest works of that time were:
- Mark Twain (1835-1910): Advice to Youth, The Danger of Lying in Bed, On the Decay of the Art of Lying
- W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963): Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
- Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): Death of a Soldier (1863)
- Henry Adams (1838-1918): A Law of Acceleration (1907)
- A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888): “Exercise” essay collection Table-Talk (1877)
- Mary Austin (1868-1934): The Land of Little Rain (1903)
Modernism and Experimentation: 1914-1945
Gertrude Stein, a well-known literary portraitist, has called young people of that time “the lost generation”; and we all know and remember writers of that time on this definition. This period between two world wars had been quite traumatic for American youths, as they were disillusioned with wars, did not like aristocrats, wanted to achieve something special in their lives… Such moods found the output in fiction works and essays of that time.
Writers and essayists were influenced by the Depression as well. They experimented with their writing forms, trying to express their points of view in quite unusual but still catchy and meaningful ways. The names of notional authors and essayists of this time are known by everyone today, and their works can be a great example for those people who want to become successful writers:
- Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): The Snows of Kilimanjaro
- William Faulkner (1897-1962): The Sound and the Fury
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): What I Think and Feel at 25
- George Ade (1866-1944): Luxuries 1922
American Essay Writers of Postwar Period
Essay writers of 1945-1990 were very reflexive. They observed everything that happened around them, described it and commented on it. Essays of that time have a really big value for us, as they help understand the nature, moods and development of Americans in the postwar period.
As oral genres become more popular and influential now, essayists use speeches, movies, songs to understand situation and people’s moods better and do their best to express them in writings. The literature of that time was extremely multifaceted, as it was influenced by Latin American realism and European existentialism. Such strong personalities as Nelson Mandela with his writings also gave American essay writers food for their works:
- Norman Mailer (1923-2007): The White Negro
- John McPhee (1931-present): The Search for Marvin Gardens
- Joan Didion (1934-present): The White Album
- Edward Hoagland (1932-present): Heaven and Nature
More names of the most famous essays’ authors of that time can be found here.
Contemporary American Essayists
Modern essayists are brave enough to challenge old ideas and adapt them to suit today’s quickly changing world. The fact Americans are one of the most diverse nations influences the writing moods much. Such themes as religion, feminism and post-feminism, various social issues, etc. get their new life now.
The Internet gives a way to a short story’s development. This genre becomes more and more popular: people do not want (and do not have) to spend much time on reading and analyzing long manuscripts, and most of them prefer quick reading online. Such a tendency helped many novice writers declare themselves by simple sharing of their short stories with online audience.
The best representatives of modern essayists are (all they can be found in the list of top 10 contemporary essayists to check):
- Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books
- John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead
- Stephen King: Great Hookers I Have Known
- Sarah Vowell: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
- David Shields: Reality Hunger
As we can see, the term “essay writing” does not come to college application essay writer’s block only. The best essay writers of all time try to share their thoughts and views for us, readers, to learn the world around us better. Taking a look throughout American history, each of us can understand the importance of these people’s work and their influence on general moods in society.
Keep reading and examining American essay writers, and who knows… Maybe you will have a chance to join them and become an influential and popular essayist one day.
By Lesley Vos, a staff blogger and essay proofreader, who is a big fan of reading as well. You are welcome to join her on Facebook or Google+.