As I made my way backward through volumes, I started also asking bigger questions about the volumes themselves as anthologies. More and more, I found myself thinking of any volume of BAE not as the best American essays of a given year, but as a glimpse into one essayist’s, the guest editor’s, conception of what an essay is.
The 2004 volume of The Best American Essays is one of my favorites, but it probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to review for this advent. It would have been interesting to note the irony that my two least favorite volumes—2007 and 2010—were edited by two of my favorite nonfiction writers, David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens, and that both volumes were published the year before their respective too-early deaths. Or the personal, memoir-driven 2011 and 2013 volumes edited by Edwidge Danticat and Cheryl Strayed. Or Mary Oliver’s 2009 volume, maybe my favorite of them all, the essays of which seem to have been selected mostly for other writers to read.
Alas, my choices were limited to what was left after the heavy hitters had left the table: 1993, 1994, 2004, and 2006. Ok, confession: I’m still on 1998 in my backward timeline continuum, which leaves me unqualified to judge 1993 and 1994. And I could have just as happily done 2006; Lauren Slater’s editorial vision is distinctive, favoring grief narratives and intensively personal essays, and her introduction uses her own personal-but-research-driven psychological work Opening Skinner’s Box and its ensuing negative reception by many clinical psychologists as a case study in the malleability of truth.
Then I reread Louis Menand’s introduction to the 2004 edition, and I became more cognizant of something I’d always suspected: This volume, more than any other, had so many essays that instructed me on what an essay is, or can be. With this in mind, here are my Top 5 Things I learned About Essaying from BAE2004, in the order I rediscover them.
1. Writing essays is more like singing than speaking.
It’s probably fitting to start with Menand’s introduction, which like many of the BAE introductions is an essay itself, and is here subtitled “Voices.” I still today use a simple but rich analogy in which Menand compares writing to speaking: “As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.” Also: “What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than speaking…What you are trying to do when you write is transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice—except that it comes out as writing.” I could actually do a Top Ten quotes from Louis Menand’s BAE2004 introduction, but I have a deadline to keep here. Let it just suffice to say that I found a lot to love.
2. Essay writers always seem to be running late.
Also in his introduction, Menand says, “Writers are people for whom l’esprit de l’escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of the perfect riposte when the moment for saying it has already passed.” The first essay in the collection, published a half-century after James Agee’s death in Oxford American, is Agee’s riposte both to a now-unknown popular magazine’s coverage of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots, but more personally and more importantly to a group of drunk racist southern sailors and soldiers he overheard on an 86th Street bus who were on their way to fight against Hitler’s army. The real riposte, though, comes from an elderly black woman sharing the bus: “Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.” Agee then relates his own shame at not doing any of the things he thought about doing (he was, after all, drunk himself at the time). In the last sentence of the essay, not published until more than 75 years later, he says simply, “So now I am telling it to you.”
3. There seems to be a rich, diverse subgenre of Essays Of and About the Infirm, and this volume has some representative selections.
Maybe not to the extent of the 2006 volume, which sometimes seems to be composed entirely of this subgenre, but some gems nonetheless. There is of course the annual Oliver Sacks BAE selection (which, sadly, will end this year—RIP, Dr. Sacks), a hybrid essay comprising a collection of reviews of memoirs by the blind, some quantitative research and anecdotal evidence from friends and patients of his, and some personal essaying of his own experiments in college with amphetamines and the heightened sense they gave his own “mind’s eye.” A triad of other essays—Laura Hillenbrand’s “A Sudden Illness,” Mark Slouka’s “Arrow and Wound,” and Gerald Stern’s “Bullet in My Neck”—chronicle their respective authors’ experiences with chronic fatigue syndrome, a witnessed suicide, and, well, a bullet in the neck. All three essayists find their own ways of divulging their material. Hillenbrand, most famous for writing Seabiscuit, rarely meditates on any given moment or clothes her subject in metaphor or symbolism, except for a deer caught in the headlights of a car she was in right before her symptoms started, which she sometimes imagines killed her and sent her to this hell. Both Slouka and Stern relate near-death experiences by drawing historical, personal, and literary parallels, Stern bringing in Bruno Schulz’s brutal, cowardly murder by a German officer after painting said officer’s children’s nursery, Yeats’s poetry, and Mann’s Dr. Faustus, while Slouka links Dostoyevsky’s mock-execution in 1849 and Prague poet laureate Jaroslav Seifert’s near-execution by Germans in 1945 to his own experience.
4. Essayists find meaning in lists.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’d already gotten to Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s” before reading it in this volume. In fact, of all the BAE pieces I’ve read so far, I already knew this one (and possibly David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” from BAE 2005) the best. I consider it part of a sub- (perhaps counter-) genre that I call the list-essay, which would also include Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties" (coincidentally, the next essay in this anthology is Michaels’ “My Yiddish,” one of his last written pieces before his death in 2005), Kitty Burns Florey’s “”Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” (BAE 2005), Michele Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” (BAE 2006), Sue Allison’s “Taking a Reading” (BAE 2009), Hilton Als’ “Buddy Ebsen” (BAE 2011), Angela Morales’s “The Girls in My Town” (BAE 2013), and Mary Gordon’s “On Enmity” (BAE 2014). The most foundational “rule” of the form, as I see it, is that image, aphorism, and anecdote, when separated and listed, assume a new artistic depth that they wouldn’t have in the analog context of a linear narrative or argument. Also, in isolating and listing all these things, I believe a richer meaning rises out of the simple accumulation of facts and impressions—in reducing oneself to a simple list, the writer transcends his or her own self-conceptions and becomes a rich framework of accumulated details. In “My ‘80s,” for example, Koestenbaum uses the word “AIDS” six different times, in completely different contexts; only once does he mention that AIDS is one “of the salient features of our ‘80s,” and even then he doesn’t really need to, as he’s already implied it through the accumulated mention. Or perhaps more cleverly, in the last paragraph he mentions the word “boat” in relation to himself seven times, then says, “How many times must I repeat the word ‘boat’ to convince you that in the ‘80s I was a small boat with a minor mission and a fear of sinking? The boat did not sink.”
5. Polemics can be fun!
Christopher Hitchens, in his introduction to BAE 2010, decried the dearth of good polemic essays in that year’s work; I tend to decry the dearth of good polemic essays in the world at large. They seem to be everywhere—mainstream news, blogs, student work—and they tend to bore the shit out of me. One side of anything just never seems to be enough. But every now and then a Best American Essay of the polemic persuasion (so to speak) does more than take a side, or takes more than one side, or something like that. Take, for example, Rick Moody’s “Against Cool.” Like Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” from BAE 2005, Moody uses the polemic form implicit in the title as a false signifier—what they’re both taking to task isn’t a specific segment of American culture that may disagree with them, but American culture itself. Neither seems like an argument, but rather like a well-researched plea for circumspection. A trope I see running through the entirety of Moody’s essay is that cool is innately rebellious, but not just rebellious—the cool are above authority. That, I think, is the inevitable downfall of cool in American popular culture, and the crux of Moody's plot arc of cool—this conception of life is innately false. But the last two pages are when Moody gets to his more hopeful argument (perhaps) that all these things can be left behind and we can start over, if we just abandon this endlessly overused word cool and start anew. He suggests some alternatives, then concludes, “But this job is best left to you, users of the American tongue. Seize control of your splendid language. Work your alchemical mumbo-jumbo. Mix up your slang. Blow your innumerable horns. Play well. Play with feeling.”
I’m stopping myself now, though I haven’t even gotten to the intrigue of having essays by power couple Kathryn Chetkovich and Jonathan Franzen—the former of whom even writes about the latter—or the way Luc Sante extends the ruminations of Fitzgerald’s “My Lost City” on NYC’s (and their own) continual cycles of rise and fall and rise again and fall again.
Thinking of these cycles, I find myself applying this paradigm to the essay, which like a city is a composite of millions of voices, personalities, perspectives, imaginations, and intellects. Every volume of The Best American Essays is like an annual report on the state of the city, or a report from a fellow traveler, much like Calvino’s fictionalized Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, whose words here can be applied to the city or the essay:
For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glimpse of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. He’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them, which he tends now to collect under the generic term “essay.” His work has been published in Atlas and Alice, The Weeklings, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, and McSweeney’s. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.