Glorious, Golden, and Contemporary
A Review of Phillip Lopate's New Anthologies of the American Essay
By Cicily Bennion
For essayists writing today, Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay is not only influential, but inescapable. The anthology, published in 1994, has never gone out of print, and in the past twenty-eight years sold thousands of copies, becoming a staple in the classrooms and bookshelves of nonfiction lovers everywhere. For an anthology, or any book, this is a wild success story. Lopate’s 1994 project was ambitious. In the introduction—a remarkably succinct, coherent, and comprehensive distillation of a sprawling form—Lopate works to define the essay, identifying it as a genre that frequently adopts a conversational element, values honesty and confession as well as privacy, and allows for contractions and expansions of the self. He writes of the essay as a mode of thinking and being, and paints essayists as writers who embrace melancholy, appreciate cheek and irony, and serve as keen observers of the world as well as themselves. While there are some who take issue with aspects of The Art of the Personal Essay, particularly when it comes to issues of diversity and representation, writers of literary nonfiction today who might claim to be unaffected by Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay are—much like musicians who might try to downplay the importance of The Beatles—kidding themselves.
Given the success of this first anthology, one might assume that Lopate would consider the project done. However, in the past two years, Lopate has published three more anthologies: The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present; The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970; and The Contemporary American Essay. When comparing Lopate’s 1994 tome with these new anthologies, it’s possible to trace the trajectory of Lopate’s thinking on the essay in these past decades. Where the 1994 work expends great effort to define the personal essay and showcase a few of its most consistent traits, these new anthologies work to expand that definition. Lopate has dropped the “personal” and is working actively to include works that are more obscure and others that, while well-known in their own right, might not have previously been thought of or read as essays.
In the introduction to The Glorious American Essay, Lopate quotes at length from Cynthia Ozick’s “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Ozick writes:
A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play… A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse…!”are heroic landmark writings, but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind (quoted in Glorious xvi-xvii).
In the time I’ve spent studying the essay, this definition from Ozick has been frequently invoked and rarely challenged. That “the essay is a free mind at play” has long been one of my own fallback definitions of the genre. Here, Ozick invokes so many virtues of essaying: its associative nature, the primacy of voice and intellect, and a rejection or subversion of constraints—both rhetorical and, particularly in more contemporary essays, formal.
Lopate, however, isn’t quoting Ozick’s definition to support his own, but to challenge hers. He writes, “Why should a piece of writing be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning?” (Glorious xvii). With this one seemingly innocuous question, Lopate is signaling a significant departure from, or perhaps expansion of, his 1994 definition of the essay. The essay is no longer to be understood as strictly personal or exclusively domestic. And despite Ozick’s warning against it, Lopate did, indeed, include Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in the anthology.
In some ways, this is nothing new. The critical conversations of essayists, it seems, are frequently centered around the question of what is (and is not) an essay. It’s a question that I, admittedly, find tedious at times, and I’m jealous of the poets and fiction writers who are free to go about the merry days largely without worrying about whether their novel is a novel or their poem is a poem. This question of definition for the essayist is, however, unavoidable. It finds its origin, I believe, in the fact that so many writers come to the essay in much the same way I did: a discovery that then necessitates a recalibrated understanding of the term. No matter how much we might glory in the richness of the essaying tradition—in its ability to accommodate contradictions and uncertainties, to give voice to the experience of a diverse range of people, to allow space for both memory and speculation—the fact remains that in American society, when you go to a wedding and tell the strangers at your table that you write essays, they’ll think you incredibly dull.
Also not new are questions about the political expediency of the essay. Some, like Cynthia Ozick, are adamant that the form has no “educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use.” Its purpose, rather, is to document the inner workings of an individual mind—to first set forth a vision of the world that is grounded in a personal reality, then make art of it. Art for art’s sake, if you will. Others, however, see no clear or useful distinction between the personal and political. And, to take it a step further, in these turbulent times, there are some who would pressure essayists to respond directly to the political moment in which we live.
Lopate’s response today to all this genre anxiety is to open the floodgates. What types of writing has he embraced, then, in his anthologies on the American essay? He tells us in the introduction of The Glorious American Essay that he’s included “every type of the beast:” the familiar essay, the personal essay, the critical essay, the biographical essay, the dialogue-essay, the humor essay, the philosophical essay, the academic essay, the polemic (xvii). Also, speeches, letters, sermons, papers (whatever that might refer to), and newspaper columns (xvii). He’s “sought out essays from every walk of life, not just the ostensibly literary,” including science, geography, education, theology, food, and art criticism (xvii). What has he not included, then? He states quite simply that he’s “resisted fiction, including pieces that invent the facts or that attempt a hybrid form of fiction and nonfiction” (xvii).
I suppose, as the reviewer, I’m meant to tell you what I think of all this. Here’s what I’ll say: I am keenly aware of the tendency essayists have to call most anything they like an essay. I’ve seen others do it, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve even gone so far as to fanatically declare most any TV show I like to be an extended essay or series of essays (most recently Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal). But something about Lopate’s editorially inclusive approach feels more intentional and grounded than my own gleeful and impulsive essayistic claim staking. I found that the literary inclusivity of these new anthologies made for a delightfully wide reading experience. And because the essays included were so varied and covered such a wide sweep of time, these anthologies were able to trace the contours of several important conversations that have been taking place over the course of American history surrounding race, the environment, women’s rights, and questions of a national identity (both political and literary).
Anthologies are valuable for precisely this reason. They encourage us to look back and absorb vast swaths of literature. Few of us read enough. A good anthology can function as a sort of shortcut to being well read, and grant writers a stronger sense of historicity—something particularly valuable for essayists, who have a long tradition of engaging in writerly call and response and reciprocal influence. Still, anthologizing is a treacherous project, or as Lopate himself calls it, a “chump’s game” (Glorious xvii). The task of collecting significant works from any genre, place, or time is simultaneously monumental and futile. No anthology can be complete, and we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment if we read them as if they were. An anthologist can only hope that the works they’ve collected will generate productive conversations and spur other projects—something Lopate’s 1994 Art of the Personal Essay has certainly done. It remains to be seen what conversations and response Lopate’s three newest anthologies will receive. It may be another ten years before we can call them successful or not in that sense. Even at their best, anthologies are, to borrow a phrase from Italo Calvino, who writes convincingly of the virtues of taking on the impossible, “the ruins of ambitious projects still marked by the splendor and meticulous care with which they were conceived” (130).
Before reading Calvino, I may have been inclined to roll my eyes at Lopate for even attempting a trilogy of anthologies on the American essay. But consider this: “Overly ambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields of endeavor, but not in literature. Literature can survive only by pursuing outsized goals, even those beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dared to imagine will literature continue to serve a purpose” (Calvino 137). Perhaps calling Lopate’s trilogy of anthologies on the American essay a task “no one else dared to imagine” is too generous, but to my knowledge, it’s a task no one else has attempted, even if they imagined it. I can’t, then, in good conscience, fault Lopate for trying.
A mark of the sheer ambition of this project may very well be that it required three separate volumes. Lopate has made no secret of the fact that the project was originally conceived as a single anthology. But as he worked on putting together The Glorious American Essay—a volume which begins with Cotton Mather and ends with Zadie Smith—Lopate realized that the essence of the American Essay could not be contained in one book. In the introduction of Glorious, Lopate notes that there are “regrettable omissions, given the stark reality of page limits” (xviii). But he answers this concern with a breezy, “Fear not, reader: this is only the first of three volumes” (xviii). The other two volumes take a closer look at narrower stretches of time, periods that Lopate has identified as being particularly significant and exciting for the American essay.
Volume two, The Golden Age of the American Essay includes writings from the postwar era, 1945-1970. In identifying this period as “golden,” Lopate points to the sheer number of writers of the time who were producing outstanding essays. These include James Baldwin, E. B. White, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, James Agee, Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, Gore Vidal, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese. In further examination of what made this era outstanding, Lopate argues that the political climate of the time—think of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and environmentalism—combined with a need to foster a uniquely American identity after the United States’ emergence as the dominant world power in the wake of WWII made for fertile essaying ground.
Our own time, much like the postwar era, is an “uneasy” one, full of “rupture and anxiety, filled with historic challenges and opportunities” (Contemporary xi). It is, perhaps not coincidentally, also a “thriving period for the essay” (Golden xvii). The third volume, then, is The Contemporary American Essay, which is dedicated to the many significant contributions writers today have made to the essaying tradition. In designating what qualifies as contemporary, Lopate limits himself to the 21st century, though he’s careful to include both young and more established writers of today, including “older authors who made their mark in the twentieth century and had the temerity to keep producing significant work in the twenty-first” (Contemporary xii). Writers in this third volume include Hilton Als, Eula Biss, Mary Cappello, Sloane Crosley, Brian Doyle, Lina Ferreira, Rivka Galchen, Samantha Irby, David Lazar, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Joyce Carol Oats, Lia Purpura, Clifford Thompson, Wesley Yang, and Lopate himself. In this last installment of the trilogy, Lopate makes a clear case for the strength of the essay in today’s literary landscape. The essays in this volume vary widely in form and subject matter. Even the pickiest readers will find something that delights them. Readers who have perused the first two volumes will see with new eyes the ways in which the essays of today, though they may be superficially different from the those of earlier centuries, are a clear continuation of what came before; American essayists continue to wrestle with big ideas and play with the boundaries.
In these anthologies, I encountered many writers who were new to me. In The Glorious American Essay, I encountered the work of Martin R. Delaney for the first time. One of the major Black writers of the nineteenth century, Delaney was the first spokesman for Black Nationalism. His “Comparative Condition of the Colored People of the United States,” originally published in 1852, outlines with painstaking relevance the horrors of racial discrimination and oppression. The essay recalls for me more contemporary work I’ve read that establishes America’s history of racism not as something that was born out of ignorance but was an intentionally conceived system, one with clear economic and social benefits for the ruling class. Delany writes that it is “a fact worthy of observation that wherever the objects of oppression are the most easily distinguished by any peculiar, or general characteristics, these people are the more easily oppressed, because the war of oppression is the more easily waged against them” (Glorious 161). He goes on, “In view of these truths, our fathers and leaders in our elevation, discovered that as a policy, we the colored people were selected as the subordinate class in this country, not on account of any actual or supposed inferiority on their part, but simply because, in view of all the circumstances of the case, they were the very best class that could be selected” (162).
Other essays, while familiar to me, felt renewed within the context of the project. It had been years since I read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” or Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and even then, I read them not as literary artifacts, but political and social ones. Reading them again in this new light was engaging. Take, for example, Edwards’s sermon. As a religious text, it does little for most readers today, but as an essay, it stands as a fascinating example of an antagonistic relationship between writer and reader. Edwards is filled with indignation. He is, in some sense, the ultimate curmudgeonly, contrarian essayist. Unconcerned with likability, Edwards berates the reader in an effort to save and persuade them.
Twentieth-century favorites of mine include James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.” Baldwin is one of the few writers who is anthologized twice in these volumes, once in The Glorious American Essay and again in The Golden Age of the American Essay. Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” appears in The Golden Age and offers a fascinating account of his experience in a tiny Swiss village where “from all available evidence no black man had ever set foot” (111). E. B. White’s “Sootfall and Fallout” in The Golden Age is—though this combination of form and content may seem unlikely—a meandering and pleasant argument against nuclear weapons and air pollution. Rachel Carson, like Baldwin, appears twice in the three anthologies, with “The Marginal World” in The Glorious American Essay and “The Obligation to Endure” in The Golden Age. Both essays are supremely well done, and together they make a clear case for Carson as not just one of the great conservationists of the twentieth-century, but one of the great writers as well. Edwin Denby’s 1965 “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (from The Golden Age), is ostensibly a work of dance criticism whose text is pulled from a lecture, but it contains such resentment and joie de vivre that it’s difficult to truly classify. Denby offers dance students at the New York School an impassioned description of the beauties of the city, but delivers it like a reprimand,
If you start looking at New York architecture, you will notice not only the sometimes extraordinary delicacy of the window framings, but also the standpipes, the grandiose plaques of granite and marble on the ground floors of office buildings, the windowless side walls, the careful, though senseless, marble ornaments… Sunsets turn the red-painted houses in the cross-streets to the flush of live rose petals. And the summer sky of New York for that matter is as magnificent as the sky of Venice. Do you see all this?… It is absurd to sit here in four walls while all that extraordinary interest is going on around us. But then education is a lazy, a dull way of learning, and you seem to have chosen it; forget it (447).
From the New Journalist camp, there’s Tom Wolfe’s “The Girl of the Year” (1964) and Joan Didion’s “On the Morning After the Sixties” (1970), both of which appear in The Golden Age.
In The Contemporary American Essay, Lopate highlights work that is stylistically outstanding. In “I Am the Happiness of This World,” Hilton Als writes in the voice of Louise Brooks. Rather than writing about Brooks as his subject, Als seeks to embody her on the page. The essay begins, “I am Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess” (3). This fictionalized persona raised, for me, many productive questions about the limits of nonfiction. Initially, it seemed that this text’s inclusion went against Lopate’s stated aim to “[resist] fiction, including pieces that… attempt a hybrid form of fiction and nonfiction” (Glorious xvii). But upon further reflection, I believe Lopate’s decision to include this essay was an intentional claim staking, that Lopate is placing this text definitively in the “nonfiction” category. The essay is based in the factual realities of Brooks’s life, and nothing (apart from the persona) is fictionalized, as far as I can tell. In claiming this piece as an essay, Lopate seems to be making a statement about the universality of human experience, or perhaps the always fictional nature of the persona in an essay.
Other essays in The Contemporary American Essay skew more toward the personal, with works like Thomas Beller’s “Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man,” which reflects on the writer’s time working at H&H Bagels. Content-wise, this is a departure from the essays in volumes one and two, but the essay is meticulously crafted and, despite material that narrow-minded readers might deem too quotidian to qualify as literature, Beller successfully offers a compelling portrait of a younger self. In the end, the essay is a lovely coming-of-age story. Other essays, such as Mary Cappello’s “Tactless,” are not narrative driven, but focus on an idea or concept—in Cappello’s case tact/contact. While some readers might crave more formal experimentation from an anthology of contemporary essays—there are, for example, few fragmented essays, no hermit crab essays, nothing that might truly qualify as flash—the writers here are pushing at the limits of the essay as we know it, even if, at the end of the day, the essays are written in paragraphs.
There is something, dare I say it, deeply patriotic about Lopate’s project to anthologize the American essay. Like Emerson (whom you’ll find in The Glorious American Essay), Lopate seeks to establish, or perhaps simply prove the existence of, a uniquely American literary inheritance. If his aim with the 1994 anthology was to showcase the genre, here, in these three volumes, he seems equally driven by an interest in American identity. As Lopate writes, “Many of the essays chosen for this anthology address themselves specifically—sometimes lovingly, sometimes critically—to American values… Even those that do not do so have a secondary, if inadvertent, subtext about being American” (Glorious xv). The essays compiled do indeed speak to a long heritage of intense disagreement and constant negotiation and renegotiation of our national identity.
Lopate seems to argue, as well, that the success of the essay in the United States—and its tendency to swing in and out of fashion—is closely related to its engagement with big ideas, writing that “whenever the American essay has been unhitched from the urgent political and moral issues of the day, it has had to battle to stay commercially relevant” (Glorious xiv). Yet, at the same time, Lopate warns writers and readers against understanding the essay as a form of activism, quoting Harold Bloom; “The pleasures of reading are indeed selfish rather than social… I am wary of any arguments whatever that connect reading to the public good” (Contemporary xvi). This distinction between engagement and activism is a fine one—one that I’m not sure I can wrap my mind around just yet, but I do believe that in this compilation of great American essays, Lopate has provided plenty of examples from writers who engage with or display their American identity, and who aim to contribute to the public good through their writing, whether that writing might qualify as activism or not.
Readers who have a deep interest in the history and trajectory of the American Essay will benefit from owning these volumes. One should not be intimidated by the vastness of these volumes but instead should delight in the sheer variety of writing on display. The works collected here are individually remarkable and collectively outstanding. As I made my way through these pages, a new understanding of the essay emerged, and I came to see that these anthologies are indeed an ambitious project still marked by the splendor and meticulous care with which they were conceived. In the end, it seems that Lopate has not so much abandoned the tenets of the personal essay that he lauded in 1994 but is, instead, directing readers to reach beyond the personal and welcome a broader spectrum of nonfiction into the essay kingdom, as he calls it. Lopate has taken what is already a sprawling form and pushed the boundaries even further. Ultimately, taking a step back from the personal to embrace these other forms of the essay can only be a benefit. Essayists are once again being asked to stretch their thinking—something we like to think we’re good at. If we can more enthusiastically accommodate and integrate not only the familiar and the personal but the critical, the biographical, the philosophical, the academic, the polemic… if we can do this, the essay as we know it will once again transform.
- Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Translated by Geoffrey Brock, Mariner Books, 2016.
- Lopate, Phillip, editor. The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present. Anchor, 2020.
Cicily Bennion is a writer, PhD student, and Voertman-Ardoin fellow at the University of North Texas where she specializes in creative nonfiction. Her essay, “About Boredom,” was recognized in Best American Essays 2020, and her work has been published in Hotel Amerika, The Journal, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Cicily is the essays editor at American Literary Review. Read her essays at cicilybennion.com or follow her on Twitter.