This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America's tumultuous modern age as experienced by the nation's foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists.
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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 DedererAbout the Author:
Robert Atwan has edited numerous literary anthologies. He lives in the Boston area.
JOYCE CAROL OATES -- novelist, essayist, critic, poet, playwright, teacher, and short story writer -- is one of the preeminent literary figures and social critics of the twentieth century. Her honors include an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Lifetime Achievement Award, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature. She is also a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
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