No sane person will read this book the way a reviewer has been conditioned to read books: straight through. And that’s just fine, because “The Glorious American Essay,” though it does contain glories, gets off to a starchy start. The book is organized chronologically, which means it begins with an extended browse through the powdered wig section. Even among dead white men, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Paine are particularly dead and particularly white.
But push through — or save for later — the textbooklike feel of the first 100 pages or so, which also include one of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers; that still leaves about 800 pages of mostly delight and edification to go. This anthology, which presents 100 exemplary essays from colonial times onward, really gets into gear with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Experience,” from 1844. It’s a remarkably extended fusillade of aphoristic provocation and insight, inspired in part by the death of his son. “There are moods in which we court suffering,” he wrote, “in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”
Phillip Lopate, the book’s editor, writes in his introduction that the essay form has been valued for the freedom it offers to “explore, digress, acknowledge uncertainty.” He quotes Cynthia Ozick judging that “a genuine essay has no educational, polemical or sociopolitical use.” But Lopate isn’t so strict. “Why should a piece of writing,” he asks, “be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning?” Lopate, especially before he gets to the 20th century, relies heavily on such works of reasoning, pieces of public rhetoric and persuasion, like those by Margaret Fuller, Sarah Moore Grimké and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the standing and treatment of women in America.
For long stretches this book seems intended as a kind of essay-built history of America, as opposed to a history of American essays — though Lopate points out that those histories are naturally intertwined. And naturally echoing. Many of these essays “speak vividly to our present moment,” he writes, about issues that “keep recurring on the national stage.”
It takes no straining to see his point, repeatedly.
“The moral purity of the white woman is deeply contaminated,” Grimké wrote in 1837, because she looks “without horror” upon the crimes committed against her “enslaved sister.”
An essay from 1890 by Sui Sin Far is, as Lopate describes it, a “pioneering effort by a biracial Asian-American woman to examine the enigma of identity, and the conflict between a minority member’s racial pride and her ability to pass, however inadvertently, as part of the white majority.”
Among the most bracing entries is a speech, barely three pages long, given by John Jay Chapman in 1912, in a small Pennsylvania town, one year after a Black man had been murdered by a mob there. No one had been punished for the crime. Chapman rented a hall for the event but delivered his speech, Lopate writes, “to the two people who bothered to show up.” “The whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt,” Chapman said. “The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.” (In one of the anthology’s most pleasing internal rhymes, a long biographical sketch of Chapman by the literary critic Edmund Wilson pops up later.)
Some of the writers mentioned so far are no longer well known, but the great majority of the essays have august bylines: Douglass, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Du Bois, Twain, Wharton, Mencken, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Sontag, Didion.
Only occasionally do we freshly re-encounter a neglected author like Mary Austin. “Maybe it is not too late to celebrate her,” Lopate writes, “as one of the pioneering American nature writers and environmentalists,” alongside Thoreau and company. (Thoreau is here, of course; as are John James Audubon, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, among others.)
Few people are more qualified than Lopate to assemble this lineup. He has written in nearly every form known to humankind but is perhaps most highly acclaimed for his own collections of personal essays and as a curator of top-shelf anthologies, including “The Art of the Personal Essay” (1994) and “American Movie Critics” (2006).
Lopate tells us in the introduction that he plans two more volumes in this project: one that will focus on the years 1945-70 and another devoted to works from the 21st century. It’s not exactly clear, then, why this book stretches as far as it does. Two-thirds of its essays predate the war’s end and, at nearly 600 pages, would make a substantial volume of their own. And only five of its selections are from after 2000. Why not end this book at 1945 and save the later essays for the subsequent volumes?
Then again, those extra years allow Lopate to include Ralph Ellison, Vivian Gornick and Zadie Smith, to name just three. It’s hard to begrudge him that. What does rankle is his decision to order the essays rigidly by year, which sometimes lends an unguided, survey-like feel to the material. One example will suffice: Right between a terrifically coruscating letter from Frederick Douglass to a man who had enslaved him and Martin R. Delany’s “Comparative Condition of the Colored People of the United States” (written just four years later) comes a lengthy review-essay about Hawthorne by Melville. While it’s true that readers will hop around in a collection like this anyway, a bit more navigation would have appealed.
But that’s a quibble, which the substance of this book does plenty to silence. Give in to its choral quality for stretches of time, and it’s easy to feel not just the sweep of our centuries but the dialogical nature of our grandest ideas and most persistent struggles — a notion reflected in an essay by Katharine Fullerton Gerould, another writer to whom I was introduced by this book. In 1935, in “An Essay on Essays,” she wrote in favor of nonpolemical work. A good essay, she said, “inevitably sets the reader to thinking,” and “meditation is highly contagious.”
Source: Read Full Article