Here is a history of America told in many voices.
It’s an elliptical tale, or a compendium of tales, of the American twentieth century by way of individual essays that, fitting together into a kind of mobile mosaic, suggest where we’ve come from, and who we are, and where we are going. In his probing, provocative “The Creation Myth of Cooperstown,” Stephen Jay Gould asks: “Why do we prefer creation myths to evolutionary stories?” The more we know of history, of both the natural and the civilized worlds, the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever evolving, and that our culture, far from being timeless, is a living expression of Time.
The essay, in its directness and intimacy, in its first-person authority, is the ideal literary form to convey such a vision. By tradition essays have been categorized as formal or informal; yet it can be argued that all essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity. Even the most artfully composed essay suggests a naturalness of discourse. As our precursor Montaigne advised, “We must remove the mask.”
The essays in this volume have all been written by writers who have published at least one collection of essays or nonfiction. Not only did this principle allow the editors a reasonable means of limiting selections, it is an acknowledgment that writing is a vocation, not merely an avocation. In a historical overview of a century virtually teeming with talent, I wanted to honor those writers who have made writing their life’s work. I didn’t see my role as one to reward the lucky amateur who writes a single good essay, then disappears forever. Better to search for little-known but excellent essays by, for instance, writers of historical significance like John Jay Chapman, Jane Addams, Edmund Wilson. Most of the essays are “informal”; but this isn’t to suggest that they are innocent, unmediated utterances lacking the stratagems of art. Even Mark Twain’s “Corn-pone Opinions,” delivered in the author’s characteristic forthright voice, is driven by a passionate intellectual conviction regarding the gullibility of mankind and the tragic consequences of this gullibility.
My general theme in the assemblage of this volume has been a search for the expression of personal experience within the historical, the individual talent within the tradition (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot). My preference was always to essays that, springing from intense personal experience, are nonetheless significantly linked to larger issues, even if, as in the case of James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, these issues are viewed playfully. The emotion I felt when beginning to read most of the essays gathered here was one of great excitement and anticipation; even, at times, a distinct visceral thrill. As an editor, I am primarily a reader. I could not countenance including essays out of duty’s sake that, in fact, I found deadly dull. For the many essays considered for this volume, the majority of which ultimately had to be excluded, I was the ideal reader: I wanted to like what I read, and I was committed to reading the entire essay with sympathy. If you will substitute “literature” for “poetry” in this famous remark in a letter of Emily Dickinson’s, you have my basic criterion for the work included in The Best American Essays of the Century: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
And what powerful openings in certain of these exemplary essays:
We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most terrible crimes in history—not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent of our share in it.
--John Jay Chapman, “Coatesville”(1912)
The knowledge of the existence of Devil Baby burst upon the residents of Hull House one day when three Italian women, with an excited rush through the door, demanded that he be shown to them.
--Jane Addams, “The Devil Baby at Hull-House”(1916)
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”(1936)
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
--Vladimir Nabokov, “Perfect Past”(1950)
On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century.
--James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”(1955)
The decaying, downtown shopping section of Memphis—still another Main Street—lay, the weekend before Martin Luther King’s funeral, under a siege.
--Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King”(1968)
We were all strapped into the seats of the Chinook, fifty of us, and something, someone was hitting it from the outside with an enormous hammer. How do they do that? I thought, we’re a thousand feet in the air!
--Michael Herr, “Illumination Rounds”(1977)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
--Joan Didion, “The White Album”(1978)
Of course there are crucial distinctions between the art of the essay and the art of prose fiction, yet to the reader the immediate experience in reading is an engagement with that mysterious presence we call voice. Reading, we “hear” another’s speech replicated in our heads as if by magic. Where in life we sometimes (allegedly infrequently) fall in love at first sight, in reading we may fall in love with the special, singular qualities of another’s voice; we may become mesmerized, haunted; we may be provoked, shocked, illuminated; we may be galvanized into action; we may be enraged, revulsed, and yet! – drawn irresistibly to experience this voice again, and again. It’s a writer’s unique employment of language to which we, as readers, are drawn, though we assume we admire the writer primarily for what he or she “has to say.” For consider: how many intelligent, earnest, right-minded commentators published essays on such important subjects as racial conflict in twentieth-century America, social and personal disintegration in the thirties, morality, democracy, nostalgia-for-a-vanishing-America; class struggle, civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, the mystical experience of nature, ethnic diversity, various American “myths” – and how few of these are worth rereading, let alone enshrining, in this new century. To be an editor is so massive an undertaking, committed to reading with sympathy countless essays of high worth and distinction published in the most prestigious journals of their era, beginning in about 1900 and sweeping through the decades, is to experience first-hand that quickening of dread, which Nabokov calls mere “common sense,” in the realization of human mortality. So many meritorious voices, so much evidence of American good will and wisdom, and so many fallen by the wayside! There were times when I felt as if I were indeed standing at the edge of an abyss, entrusted with rescuing pages of impeccable prose being blown past me into oblivion, preserving what I could, surrendering all the rest. (Those excellent essayists of a bygone time John Muir, Randolph Bourne, and John Jay Chapman are preserved here; surrendered to the exigencies of space limitations are John Burroughs, George Santayana, Joseph Wood Krutch, Ellen Glasgow, and others listed in the Appendix.)
My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment, and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish. Art should certainly aspire to beauty, but there are myriad sorts of beauty: the presentation of a subject in the most economical way, for instance; a precise choice of language, of detail. There is beauty in the calibrated ugliness of the opening of William Gass’s meditation on suicide and art, “The Doomed in Their Sinking,” because it is so finely calibrated; there is beauty in the eloquent, elegiac expression of hurt, rage, and despair in James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” because it is eloquent and elegiac, in the service of art. That staple of traditional essay collections, the unhurried musings of a disembodied (Caucasian, male, privileged) consciousness, is missing here, except for its highest, most lyric expression in E. B. White’s classic “Once More to the Lake” and its total transmogrification in Edward Hoadland’s powerful “Heaven and Nature”—which is about neither heaven nor nature. (Hoagland, one of the few American writers who has forged a brilliant career out of essays, is our Chopin of the genre. Though best known for such nature essays as “The Courage of Turtles,” “Red Wolves and Black Bears,” and “Earth’s Eye,” in the tradition of Thoreau, Hoagland is equally memorable as a recorder of startling, confessional utterances of a kind the very private Thoreau would not have dared.) Though there are deeply moving essays in the nostalgic/musing mode by such fine writers as White, James Agee, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, I have given more space to what might be called a radical expansion of this familiar genre, essays that have the power of personal nostalgia yet are not sentimental, and in which private contemplation touches on crucial public issues, as Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” Loren Eiseley’s “The Brown Wasps,” N. Scott Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood,” and others. If you begin Edmund Wilson’s “The Old Stone House” presuming it to be another nostalgic lament for a vanishing America, you will be shocked by the author’s conclusion:
And what about me? As I come back in the train, I find that –other causes contributing –my depression of Talcottville deepens. I did not find the river and the forest of my dream – I did not find the magic of the past… I would not go back to that old life if I could: the civilization of northern New York – why should I idealize it? – was too lonely, too poor, too provincial.