The Making of the American Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 656pp, $25.00.
We seem to be in a time of relatively active literary reconsideration. If the canon has never been as stable as some have believed, that instability only continues to be more evident and embraced. But it’s not just authors and particular works that are being reconsidered—it’s also genres. New writing is described as “hybrid,” “lyric essays,” “autofiction.” These terms do not so much reflect new ways of writing as they do changing ways of thinking about past writing and its influence on contemporary work.
The terms themselves may not be altogether without critical merit, but they are often used in arguments that betray conveniently reductive thinking, a common response to the ultimate difficulty, if not impossibility, of maintaining consistent genre distinctions. When we read a piece of writing that doesn’t fundamentally resemble other works in its nominal genre, we are rarely able to justify our objections with anything more cogent than, “This is not an essay, it’s more like a story,” or, “this is not a story, it’s an essay.” To hear debates about what constitutes genre, and why something is conventional or transgressive, is to develop the suspicion that genre is little, if anything, more than the poorly-articulated, loosely-organized formal expectations, culturally and historically shaped, that we bring to a text. And yet, the closer we look at many works, the more it becomes clear that our habits of reading reinforce these expectations without our realizing it. Montaigne wrote essays, but they include anecdotes as poetic, as vivid in image and memorable in utterance, as we’ll find in many stories labeled “short fiction.” Virginia Woolf could have published “Death of a Moth” as fiction and “The Mark on the Wall” as an essay, and neither work would cease to be poetry.
The insufficiency of our genre distinctions is a preoccupation of one of the more interesting editorial projects published in the last several years, John D’Agata’s three-volume, 2,000-page anthology A New History of the Essay. D’Agata is the author of three books, an editor at Seneca Review, and the director of the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His book The Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored with former fact-checker Jim Fingal, was the subject of controversy years ago because of what some considered to be his flippancy about facts when writing nonfiction. Perhaps some of the people who objected to that book will find a similar presumption and flippancy in this anthology’s challenge to previous generic classifications, as works traditionally known as fiction and poetry are included here as “essays” alongside classic examples of the genre. As you might expect of such an ambitiously proposed reconsideration, the anthology is a vibrant mess.
It is an unusual collection by most measures. To begin with, there’s the amusing inconsistency between the sequence of publication and the order of volumes: the first book to be published, in 2003, was the third volume in the series, The Next American Essay; the second book published, in 2009, was the first volume in the series, The Lost Origins of the Essay; the third and final book published, this past March, was the second volume in the series, The Making of the American Essay. But even more so, this project is unusual for stating plainly the little-regarded fact that the essay has long been considered second-class among the more prestigious categories of fiction and poetry. It has been thought of as a bastard form of writing, the kind of work we call “occasional” or minor and view as an author’s break from more substantial projects (see Annie Dillard’s admonitory note at the beginning of her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, that the essays in that book are not meant “to supplement [her] real work,” but instead are her “real work, such as it is”). In his various endeavors, D’Agata has tirelessly challenged this perception. James Wood, in his digitally-published foreword to the anthology, calls D’Agata the “renovator-in-chief of the American essay.”
And this is an essentially American project: defiant, reckless, invigorating, excessive, dubious in its conceits, and America-centric. To get a sense of its charismatic fallibility, we need go no further than the discrepancies between titles and contents. The anthology is called A New History of the Essay, though two of its three volumes are dedicated to American essays. That can’t be meant to suggest that American essay-writing forms a pre-eminent part of the genre’s history, even though the nation’s length of existence amounts to a small share of literary historical time—or can it? Is this lack of proportion not merely an oversight but the result of a peculiarly American mix of brazenness and enthusiasm? For that matter, The Lost Origins of the Essay may begin, persuasively, in 2700 B.C.E. with the Sumerian “List of Ziusudra,” but it proceeds all the way into the 1980s, with an epilogue by John Berger. This means that the first volume and the second—The Making of the American Essay—overlap for much of their chronology: once we arrive at the seventeenth century in Origins, the volumes become contemporaneous; no longer sequential, the main difference between them as we move through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is less and less a matter of influence than geography and nationality. Until the sixteenth century, Origins does an admirable job of living up to the encompassing History of the Essay title: it features an impressive breadth of work from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. But beginning with Montaigne in 1580, Origins shifts to an almost exclusively European focus. There are still several selections to come from South America, one from Japan, one from Russia, one from the Caribbean, one from Canada, and one from the Egyptian exile in Paris, Edmond Jabès, but for the most part the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries are represented as a record of modern European writing. This makes the grand “history of” title harder to justify. It is also difficult, at that point in the timeline, to maintain anymore that we are tracing “origins.” And so, with all this in mind, it doesn’t seem right to call the series A New History of Essay, rather than something like An Alternate History or An Unconsidered History.
If I seem to carp about relatively unimportant misnomers, it’s because this carelessness is not restricted to titles. Many of the arguments D’Agata advances in his “introductions” are directed at non-existent schools of thought. He frequently puts forth notions of the essay as an agnostic, experimental form—e.g., “a safety zone for longing, wonder, and doubt: a refuge we can inhabit when we do not know, but want to; when we cannot feel, but must”—in opposition to various straw men: the essay is “a genre that is merely a dispensary of data,” it privileges “easily digestible meanings,” it is governed by “the rhetoric of . . . the five-paragraph form.” But what serious reader or writer has ever thought that the essay is first and foremost about conveying information? The forms reserved for the communication of information—shareholder reports, how-to manuals, warranty booklets, elementary mathematics primers, many encyclopedia entries—cannot be called “essays” by any standards. And it’s bizarre that D’Agata even mentions the five-paragraph essay, much less more than once—when has it been taken seriously as a literary form beyond high school English class? What we do tend to encounter, at least traditionally, is an inclination to think of the essay as a form for argument, analysis, persuasion—but not necessarily aimed toward “easily digestible meanings.” These days, however, we hear a lot more about looking back to Montaigne: the dogma now is that the essay is not a form for argument so much as unfettered, discursive meditation, a form for registering doubts, uncertainties, and ambivalence.
I’ve put the word “introduction” above in quotes because the paragraphs D’Agata writes between texts usually don’t tell us much about the work.. He is fond of citing historical details, but they are often the stuff of trivia, not context, e.g., “In this year, documentary photographer Ansel Adams dies. There is famine in Ethiopia. A song called ‘Like a Virgin’ is on the radio in America”; “This is the year that the Frisbee is introduced to America.” He sometimes recounts historical events with the glib manner that you might expect from an overly-genial middle school history book: “Thanks to the explorations of the Spanish in the New World, this is the year that Europeans are first tasting the pineapple. This is the first year that they are tasting nutmeg. And this is the first time that Europeans try chocolate, something that Mesoamericans have been enjoying for two millennia.” His introduction to a piece by Tom Wolfe reads in its entirety, “So: Say you are a writer, and you are writing about the world. How do you reach out from your own imagination to grasp the edges of a legitimate world?” To a piece by N. Scott Momaday, again in its entirety: “Here, says one writer. Let me build a bridge between the selves that we have lost and the ones that we’ve become.” To a piece by Donald Barthelme: “Let me make something fabulous, fragile, and flawed enough to remind us that the things that are made by human beings are as flawed as human beings.”
And yet, there is something irreplaceable about this anthology, and I think this has to do with the argument it makes against the term “nonfiction”. As D’Agata writes: “if fiction comes from fictio, the Latin word for ‘make,’ then doesn’t that mean that non-fiction can only mean ‘not art,’ prohibiting the genre from being able to do what every art medium does: make?” Not only does “nonfiction” as a category relegate disparate forms of writing to the common inferiority of being “not” something else, it also implies that the defining element of such work is that it isn’t made up. D’Agata rightfully emphasizes that literary essays are made things, that imagination and keenness of observation are just as essential to their composition as when an author elaborates fictional characters and fictional scenarios. An essay can be either “words in their best order,” as Coleridge defined prose, or “the best words in their best order,” as he defined poetry.
I am not foolish enough to propose genre definitions and believe them wholeheartedly. That disclaimer made, I’ll say that for me what distinguishes an essay is that the primary formal impulse is a meditative rhythm, a rhythm of thought; fiction’s primary formal impulse is a rhythm of occurrence, of action, things happening in time (even when that “happening” is entirely inward); poetry’s is a rhythm of saying. When D’Agata successfully claims works of poetry and fiction to be also essays, it is most convincing to me if the texts feature something like a primary rhythm that is dual, a formal impulse that makes them hyphenates, as in Octavio Paz’s prose poem–essay “Before Sleep.” This is an important critical task because we tend to associate essay-writing with a certain type of sobriety and intimacy, a confessional first-person presence that identifies the author with the “I” of the text—we forget that we are actually encountering personae, even when these created voices are closely connected to the individuals behind their creation. This tension is in the classic writers—Montaigne, Browne, De Quincey, Emerson, et al.—whose writing reminds us that we engage with selective constructions of personality, not with the full person directly. And when we keep this in mind and acknowledge the role of imagination, of making, in essays, then it becomes harder to doubt whether they can have the same first-person capacity—and complex relation to authors—that we grant to poetry’s lyric “I.” When Rimbaud writes of the poet, “I is an other,” is it so different from Woolf writing of the essayist, “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem,” or Browne writing of likeness, “There was never any thing so like another, as in all points to concurre, there will ever some reserved difference slip in, to prevent the Identity, without which, two severall things would not be alike, but the same, which is impossible”? As Pessoa writes, “To live is to be other.” Why should we expect it to be different when writing?
D’Agata’s emphasis on multiplicity is not exactly novel. I think of Alan Ziegler’s 2014 anthology Short, which successfully demonstrates affinities among prose works from many genres, sources, and languages. To take another example, a volume called The Great English Essayists, published in 1909, is divided into sections that include “The Classic Essay,” “The Letter Essay,” “The Short-Story Essay,” “The Biographical and Critical Essay,” and “The Familiar Essay.” But D’Agata’s project stands out for the combination of formidable quality and aesthetic variety in the work he’s gathered. From fiction he includes “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter from Moby Dick, Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties,” Clarice Lispector’s “The Egg and the Chicken,” “Brownstone” from Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” and Lydia Davis’s “Foucault and Pencil.” His selections from poetry include Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Bertrand’s “Ondine,” Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk,” Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, Beckett’s “Afar a Bird,” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Erato Love Poetry,” and Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water.” It is good to have this writing in the same anthology with the more expected company of Heraclitus’s fragments, Plutarch, Seneca, Petrarch, Montaigne, Bacon, Browne, De Quincey, Emerson, and Thoreau.
At the same time, I found—and you probably will too—plenty to disagree with. “Of the Coming of John” by W.E.B. Du Bois is a fairly conventional short story, not “subtle,” as D’Agata calls it, and I don’t recognize anything about its prose as essayistic. In its place I think nearly any other section from The Souls of Black Folk would have done, though I would argue in particular for “Of the Black Belt.” Likewise with Jean Toomer: “Blood-Burning Moon” is also a conventional short story, and I think other pieces from Cane, such as “Fern” or “Seventh Street” or “Calling Jesus,” would have more to say in this context. Borges shows up with the fabulist story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” but again, several of his other works—“Everything and Nothing,” “Borges and I,” and “Paradiso XXXI, 108”—come to mind as demonstrating more powerfully how formal elements of fiction, poetry, and essay may converge in one piece.
I could go on quibbling: why are Plato, Ecclesiastes, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Rousseau, and Hazlitt not part of Lost Origins? And if only Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is man,” or a sermon from Donne, or Dorothy Wordsworth, or Simone Weil, were in that volume, or if Loren Eiseley and Lester Bangs were in The Making of the American Essay! Such alternative list-making can be tiresome, but it’s also a salutary part of reading and writing. And this, the energetic back-and-forth of thinking over critical connections, imagined additions, surprising omissions, is the welcome result of D’Agata’s anthology. On the one hand, he includes predictable work—Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Emerson’s “Nature”—and on the other, he leaves out much of the English essay canon: absent are Defoe, Addison, Steele, Johnson, Goldsmith, Lamb, Stevenson, and Chesterton (some of these more tolerable absences than others). For a comprehensive account of the essay in English, its history and lines of influence, consult other anthologies; here, instead, is an expansive florilegium, more provocative than prescriptive. It makes a sweeping proposal while avoiding militant canon-revision. This is not to say that D’Agata doesn’t want to actively change things; I’m just not convinced that he wants to change them in any particular way beyond fostering a more dynamic understanding of the essay. As he writes in one introduction, “It’s been almost fifteen years since I first started trying to write a new history of the essay. And all I’m really sure of now is that I still require question marks.”
We can reasonably adapt Rauschenberg’s “This is a portrait if I say so” formula when calling something that sounds like fiction or poetry an essay. But we can’t just leave it at that—it’s up to the writing itself to convince us. Whatever else, as Virginia Woolf wrote, our one uncompromised expectation should be that it will bring us into its world and keep us there under a spell of attention that won’t be disrupted: “Vague as all definitions are, a good essay . . . must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”
Previous writing by Adam Kosan has appeared in Prelude online.
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