This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America's tumultuous modern age by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. In her introduction to this volume, Joyce Carol Oates describes her project as "a search for the expression of personal experience within the historical, the individual talent within the tradition." Along with Robert Atwan, who has overseen the acclaimed BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS series since its inception in 1986, Oates has chosen a list of works that are both intimate and important, essays that take on subjects of profound and universal significance while retaining the power and spirit of a personal address.
This collection honors some of the twentieth century's best-known and best-loved writers on a breathtaking variety of topics. In a journalistic mode, Ernest Hemingway covers the bullfights in Pamplona, H. L. Mencken reacts to the Scopes trial, and Michael Herr dodges bullets in a helicopter over Vietnam. Nowhere is the intersection of our personal and political histories more meaningful than when the subject is America’s enduring legacy of racial strife, as shown by Richard Wright’s "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," James Baldwin’s "Notes of a Native Son," Zora Neale Hurston’s "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," and others. The wonders and horrors of science, nature, and the cosmos are explored with eloquence, bravery, and beauty when Lewis Thomas writes about "The Lives of a Cell," Rachel Carson mulls "The Marginal World," and Stephen Jay Gould preaches evolution and baseball in "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown." Taken together, these essays fit, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, "into a kind of mobile mosaic suggest[ing] where we've come from, and who we are, and where we are going."
Mark Twain W.E.B. Du Bois Henry Adams John Muir William James Randolph Bourne John Jay Chapman Jane Addams T. S. Eliot Ernest Hemingway H. L. Mencken Zora Neale Hurston Edmund Wilson Gertrude Stein F. Scott Fitzgerald James Thurber Richard Wright James Agee Robert Frost E. B. White S. J. Perelman Langston Hughes Katherine Anne Porter Mary McCarthy Rachel Carson James Baldwin Loren Eiseley Eudora Welty Donald Hall Martin Luther King, Jr. Tom Wolfe Susan Sontag Vladimir Nabokov N. Scott Momaday Elizabeth Hardwick Michael Herr Maya Angelou Lewis Thomas John McPhee William H. Gass Maxine Hong Kingston Alice Walker Adrienne Rich Joan Didion Richard Rodriguez Gretel Ehrlich Annie Dillard Cynthia Ozick William Manchester Edward Hoagland Stephen Jay Gould Gerald Early John Updike Joyce Carol Oates Saul Bellow
The title The Best American Essays of the Century
seems transparent enough, but don't be deceived. What Joyce Carol Oates has assembled is not so much a diverse collection as a sonorous march through what keeps getting called the American century. Read this not as a collection to dip into but as a history--a history of race in America. Oates says it best herself in her introduction: "It can't be an accident that essays in this volume by men and women of ethnic minority backgrounds are outstanding; to paraphrase Melville, to write a 'mighty' work of prose you must have a 'mighty' theme." The mighty pens at work here belong to, among others, Zora Neale Hurston ("How It Feels to Be Colored Me"), Langston Hughes ("Bop"), and James Baldwin ("Notes of a Native Son"). Oates has opted not for the most unexpected but for the most important and stirring essays of our time.
Other chords sound repeatedly as well: the problem of our relationship with nature (Annie Dillard, John Muir, and Gretel Ehrlich); the difficulty of identity in disrupted times (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, and Michael Herr). In her essay "The White Album," Didion famously declares: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The stories Oates has collected are not easy. Here is the hard-won truth, from writers unwilling to forgive even themselves. Even Martin Luther King Jr. doesn't let himself off the hook, as he writes in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." --Claire Dederer