Modern Essays Online
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).
The Common Statement
JENNIFER ACKER I feel ecstatically like a living slice of the fossil record, several eras compressed into one vertical stack, beheld and existing simultaneously. Four generations of women reading and rereading and passing on the same sappy, gently humorous stories.
This Morning I Miss Such Devotion
VIEVEE FRANCIS There is a sister whose voice is gentle as a lullaby. A lulling. Even when angered she won’t yell. A particular upbringing that eschews the loud, though such a woman can be found embracing those whose voices swell in the streets.
ADAM PADGETT Melvin came upon a man frozen and dead out in the interior, perhaps caught in a snowstorm he hadn’t anticipated. Melvin hooked his sled to a birch tree. His team of dogs sat and panted, tongues spilling out of their mouths in rosy lengths.
DANIEL TOBIN So we lift the cat tenderly / indoors, our sweet, beloved predator / hard-wired for the hunt, and lean in closer. / Tiger, zebra-like the transverse lashings, / each a spray of onyx gold-licked at the edge.
FATIMAH ASGHAR A spell cast with the entire / mouth. Back of the throat / to teeth. What day am I promised? / Tomorrow means I might have her forever./ Yesterday means I say goodbye, again./ Kul means they are the same. / I know you can bend time.
You're the Sweetest One
LASHONDA KATRICE BARNETT The white woman meant the body lying in the ditch, covered by a sheet. Harvell looked at the bus tracks; the skid marks a few yards away, left by the fugitive car; a pair of yellow shoes about a foot apart on the side of the road.
The Town with the Golden Future
WILL PRESTON It’s a rare day that a ghost town makes headlines. Ghost towns, after all, are not particularly newsworthy. They’re deserted scraps of places, melancholy indicators of bad land or failed enterprises. In many cases, almost nothing remains.
LAWRENCE RAAB “Time means nothing,” he announced, and that/ seemed important to him, although I/ was of the opinion that time was important. / But for him it must have meant / getting older. And I felt sorry / that he didn't see that.
Decriminalization: A Love Story
SUSANA FERREIRAHer family may have tried to shield her from her father’s struggles with addiction, disguising car rides to pick up methadone as family field trips, but she knew. All the kids in school knew.
Graffito Beholds a Sculpted Dionysus Head
STEVE BARBARO Beard-barnacled, chokingly-fixed, almost somehow stupid, yes, / almost like will itself pushed to the extreme of its own / absence, almost like presence perpetuated so as to obliterate
Mons of Luke al Dente
COLIN CHANNER Basil from a pot on the veranda, / over-priced pinoli and pimientos / pressured into dust, / brassy olio from TJ’s rumored virgin, / Greek alleged, / Israeli sea salt from Whole Foods / and Parmigiano-Reggiano / from that shoppe in Wayland Square.
KENAN ORHAN In Ivan’s bedroom are forty-seven photographs of beaches, rectangles of sand and sun. I count them every time I visit my friend, and he kisses them like beautiful women each night. He passes me a bottle of vodka and opens his own.
Series of Thought
BETSEY GARANDI always work in series. It’s how I develop and investigate ideas: a journey with the departure recognized but the destination unknown. ... Often, I’ll have a seed of thought—working with notions of resonance, balance, and continuum—that grows and develops as I move from piece to piece.
JOHN FREEMAN I tell it so many times / on Tenth Street, over lunch / in a bar, to tender eyes, / it begins to sound / like a piece of news— / but once I decide / I’ll tell it how / it happened— / how she starved to death, / mumbled her pain.
MATT SALYER I want the carnal as straight metacognition, / our sexes matted like the primitive hardwire / of teleological automata, / arguing my provenance against / the famous world of time; priming / the nether, I knee-jerk the genuflections / of penetration, a justified machine. Grind
LOREN GOODMAN A student once/ Asked me: what/ Is a poem? And/ I looked at the/ Student’s face—
L. S. KLATT The lifesaver found himself on a fire escape reading / a set of instructions. Step 1 directed him to match / the conflagration in his mind with a facsimile / that appeared in a diagram on the page. / That much was obvious, but Step 2 required careful
From Books and Correspondances A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran
DANIEL LAWLESSA wonderful thing to imagine: / A magic carpet, no Ali Baba. / Just the shriek-shape of it
ANYA VENTURA There were drawerfuls of tiny stuffed birds, their feet tagged and bound with ancient twine; a crest of bleached animal skulls arranged from smallest to largest, from deer mouse to badger.
In the Natural World
LAWRENCE RAAB a thought animals entertain/ however inconsolable they might appear,/ bent over their dead and their dying.
ALBERTO DE LACERDO SCOTT LAUGHLIN The soft whisper of a river/ Mingling slowly/ With another river: a force/ Surging around us/ The profound peace/ Of this natural rhythm
The Syrophoenician Woman
MARIAM WILLIAMS And I remember the first slap that followed the slur, how soft/ were the fingertips, so slick with oil and sweat the burning mark/ seemed to reassure both ‘Know your place’ and ‘This, too, shall pass.’
The Tao of Sunbathing
MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN What if I told you some of the most enlightened women I knew took to the beach and spread oil across their shining décolletage in order to receive the divine? To place themselves in the present and in the path of nature?
The Children's Wing
MARIA TERRONEThe child in the rail-rimmed bed / was crying out in the night, / his stuffed toy fallen beyond reach, / and pretending to sleep, I felt his bottomless sorrow / as my own.
MIK AWAKE Became a skinhead / a year after he moved from / Bumblefucktucky. / Hit me with his cast. / Hurt people hurt people / often with their hurt parts. / Who broke his arm? / His step-dad step on him? / They was poor, but they was white. / A black eye was the only / color he…
Waiting on Results
NICHOLAS FRIEDMAN[T]he endgame that is neither lost nor won, / but brings itself to bear on every creature / with rules we never could quite settle on.
On My Problems
LOREN GOODMAN If I don’t know my problem’s address, I find it out, and I go there without warning. My problem could be sleeping—don’t matter, I go there without calling, without giving my problem any heads up.
KIRSTIN ALLIO I looked like my mother the night she crawled all the way across the plastic floor of her shared room at Shoreview, bloodless as an opossum, looking for death, and finding it when she reached the door they cruelly left open to the low-ceilinged, florescent-singing corridor. They told me she expired at the threshold, and with all my…
The Sky in Ohio
MICHAEL BYERS The house in Hewer was three stories, much larger than they needed, and full of odd vacancies, as though the Jenkinses, from whom Paul and his wife were subletting, had planned to be away much longer than a single semester.
JAMES HOCH Sunday, there she goes again, toddling / out the door, off the back deck, tumbling / in her church dress, a field of hand- / painted green stems and yellow flowers,
Loss and Its Antonym
ALISON PRINE The opposite of losing you / was watching you across the purple light / of the dance floor in the local gay bar / while the salt trucks dragged through the streets. / We had our people back then— / Janet all night at the pool table / and Kevin by the men’s room a little drunk
The Old City
NAUSHEEN EUSUF Here are the steps leading down to the lake/ choked with water hyacinths crowding/ out the lilies, and algae thick as serum.
New Wave: Post Op
MARIA TERRONE Such an adrenaline rush to find / myself alive / this seventh time, injected / with glee on the stretcher, / making my usual “I’m o.k.” calls, / and thinking I'd heard the surgeons' banter
A Loving, Faithful Animal
JOSEPHINE ROWE It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave.
Interactive Map: Explore the World with Issue 14 of the Common