Welcome to our yearly Advent Calendar. Though your store-bought Advent Calendars may well start with the first of December, ours begins today, since Advent begins today. For me, Advent—and its calendar—isn't a religious occurrence inasmuch as it is a form, a way of focusing some thinking in an unfocused, distracted age.
We started the site a few years ago largely to facilitate this kind of focused thinking and conversation about essays, essayists, and The Essay, present and past. We are told, after all, that we live in the Age of the Essay. David Shields calls Facebook a personal essay machine. For me, I'm not sure if we're in the Age of the Essay or not, but there sure do seem to be a lot of them. And it's no surprise that the Age of the Internet, the most rhizomatic information technology since the book (and possibly ever), corresponds to the age of the essay, the most obviously rhizomatic of our literary forms.
There are a lot of essays out there. This is just one of a thousand (a million?) published today. That's largely why we're here: to draw attention to the good ones, the most interesting ones, whether present or past. This year we'd like to direct our attention to the Best American Essays series, founded in 1986 and edited ever since by Robert Atwan in collaboration with a yearly guest editor. The series just released its thirtieth edition—! That makes BAE the longest-running and highest-profile filter for essays that aspire to art in the last century, and, whether you agree with the guest editor's rationale or selections, or—more usually—not, you being an essayist probably, and thus by nature cranky, BAE always feels essential to talk about. So this year we're writing about and to and after the Best American Essays.
As you know, if you've visited us before, each year during Advent we present to you an essay a day from some of our favorite writers and thinkers and people. This year we are honoring the Best American Essays series with essays each framed around one of the yearly BAE anthologies.
Though we won't be going consecutively, I do think the place to start is with Sven Birkerts, who chose the BAE's very first edition, in 1986. Allow me, then, to get out of his way. Check back each morning during Advent for another essay on another year of the BAE as read by another of our favorite writers. —Ander Monson
A Ramble Around Best American Essays 1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick
It happened just recently. I’d been asked if I would pick a volume of the Best American Essays series and use it as a prompt to reflect on the series and how it is with the essay these days. So I made my dutiful way up to the attic, to the shelves where my more orderly younger self had decades ago started arranging the annuals, and where they now make a fairly decent display of spines. When I extracted the very first volume—1986, edited by Elizabeth Hardwick—I found myself doing a little inner head-shake. The cover typography and colors were so familiar—it all came rushing back to me. I had carried the book around in my bag for years when I was teaching composition. I had assigned essays from it to my students, and had mined it for examples for the HOW TO part of my instruction. It was when I then opened—cracked--the cover that I felt the whole thing break loose in my hand.
An insult, an injury—it was as if a part of the past itself had just calved away from the mother berg. But the mind on assignment is uncannily opportunistic. I had not even set the book aside before I was starting to sketch a notion in my head. The breakage, I thought, was a sign. That I should choose this very volume, of course. But that I should also use the literal break as some kind of metaphor. Something about this being a rupture with the past, a big signifier…But my better sense was already countering: that was too easy a gambit, too obvious. Also, I knew before I had even looked at the Table of Contents that it would be wrong to pitch this first volume as a last link to some lost golden age, as in “they broke the mold…”
They didn’t. The mol is fine. I’ve been reading this series for years, and can attest that the 28 successor volumes of BEA published so far represent an amazing range and diversity. The contents, reflecting the colorations of the respective editors’ sensibilities, confirm that the form is alive across the whole spectrum of races, genders, and ages (go read Roger Angell’s reflection on life in his 90s in the 2015 collection!). I bet I could name fifty current brilliant practitioners of the form without pausing for breath.
Having staked myself on writing about Robert Atwan’s debut volume—edited by Elizabeth Hardwick--I asked myself what there was to say? Decades have passed, Ms. Hardwick has passed away, my copy of the book has all but fallen apart in my hands…Yet—here’s my lead: when I now see it here on the table next to me, I feel an old and familiar stirring of interest and possibility. The word “essay” still gets to me. But there’s also some stirring memory of what’s inside the covers, and knowing how I’ll feel when I start reading the pieces again. This is what we know about the best writing—reading does not use it up; it keeps its power. This not by virtue of the reader’s forgetfulness, but through its own intrinsic merit. The right words in the right order are that way because they can be encountered again and again. Real work does not melt away when the eye registers it.
A high-sounding assertion, I know, but it’s also one that can be tested. And I’ve decided to do that here. Not exhaustively, but suggestively--by sampling, by opening the book at random as the ancients did with Virgil’s Aeneid—though not so much for divination as for a kind of quality control. It is not the future I’m looking toward so much as the not-so-distant past. Nearly 30 years have passed since publication of the collection--can I find through this exercise some confirmation of the lasting value—the artistic merit—of the writing inside?
Making my first random pass, I land on Gerald Early’s essay “The Passing of Jazz’s Old Guard,” (page 107) and after reading around for context settle on this bit of reflection on the career of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk:
I suspect that Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) knew that Monk would cease to be vital once he gained wide acceptance, and so Baraka wrote the essay called “Recent Monk” which appeared in Downbeat in 1963, an essay which said in one breath that success wouldn’t spoil T.S. Monk, while saying in another breath, ‘say that it ain’t so, Thelonious, that you sold out to the moguls on the hill.’To my ear, and my very amateur apprehension of all things jazz, this seems critical-reflective prose of a very high order. It situates us in a historical moment, balancing off necessary accuracies of description with an emotional plea that is attributed to Amiri Baraka but also orchestrated within the sentence so that we feel the pressure of the author’s own feeling. Though it’s not within my scope to discuss it here, the essay goes on to become an impassioned exploration of the trials facing the black artist—and man—in a music industry (culture) controlled by white money and white artistic criteria. It would not be beside the point, either, to remark the jazzy syncopation of the sentence itself, the Monkish wobble of that “’say it ain’t so, Thelonious…’”
My next stab plants me inside Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing” (17), where I find:
If the writer is taken to be the work’s way of getting itself written, a sort of lightning rod for an accumulation of atmospheric disturbances, a St. Sebastian absorbing in his tattered breast the arrows of the Zeitgeist, this changes not very much the traditional view of the artist.Barthelme’s essay, written back in the heyday of literary theory, offering itself as a smart lay reading of that whole vast academic agitation (it’s hard to bring it all back now), hits an intellectually bemused tone, an ironic knowingness that has fallen largely from favor. Still, we can applaud the cleverness of the conceit, Barthelme’s turning Richard Dawkins idea of the “selfish gene”—that our point as humans is mainly to pass genetic contents along—to artistic ends; we can also wrinkle our foreheads over whether or not his view really is the traditional view. Barthelme is, as he was never not, clever and provocative. For the ages? This is harder to say, as we are apparently not here to judge, but only to serve as vessels for the necessary work to come into being.
Open yet again, this time to find William Gass’s “China Still Lifes” on page 155. The observant nit-picker following along at home will have noticed by now that I am only looking to odd-numbered right-facing pages. I do so because I can hold these pages flat while supporting the left side of the book between index and fore-finger, thereby not aggravating the problem of the glue-shattered spine any further.
The big cities now have vast blank squares like Tian Anmen in Beijing—they are people pastures, really—fit mainly for mass meetings, hysteria and hypnotism, while the new wide and always wounding central arteries are suitable for totalitarian parades and military reviews; although it was no different in the old days, since some of the courtyards in the Imperial Palace can hold a hundred thousand heads together in a state of nodding dunder.I once referred to Gass as our greatest living “champion of the sentence,” and this nugget does not make me change my view. The passage, from the writer’s travelogue of a visit to China, intrigues in its construction and thinking, but also for the eerie hindsight reminder that three years later that same square, widely known as Tianamen, would be the site of an explosive and violent mass demonstration. Gass’s sentence-making—and this one can be taken as completely representative—has always been sui generis, propelled by his love of sound-play (“nodding dunder”), his unexpected twists of diction (“fit mainly for mass meetings, hysteria and hypnotism,” “always wounding central arteries”…), and proclivity for outspoken assertions like the one ventured here. Gass has, I believe, appeared in a number of the BEA volumes since this first inclusion.
Finally, I open to Cynthia Ozick’s “First Day of School: Washington Square, 1946 on page 219. A woman! And I did not rig it that way, either. It’s true, Ozick is one of only three women essayists included, along with Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Hollander—but the gender representation has improved significantly in recent years. Her selection, like a number of others in the book, is a memoir essay. Here are the first two sentences:
I first came down to Washington Square on a colorless February morning in 1946. I was seventeen and a half years old and was carrying my lunch in a brown paper bag, just as I had carried it to high school only a month before.Though Ozick can do fresh lyric compression with the best of them, here she opts for the straight clean strokes. Two adjectives, “colorless” and “brown,” and just the basic establishing facts. I might be guilty of projecting my sense of Ozick’s great and proven gifts onto what I read, finding in these simple sentences the confidence of tone that is the surest indication that a writer fully owns her material? But no, reading the full essay confirms me. Ozick here has the prose equivalent of a steady camera hand. She also has the shrewd instinct that identifies the resonant detail and knows how to position it as she builds a beautifully paced and proportioned remembrance of her literary coming-of-age.
I stop after four. I am of course well aware that one could do what I have just done with any volume from Atwan’s series and that in choosing as I have I have argued nothing. I have maybe, at best, extracted a tissue sample from the debut gathering. But truly, what can I say about this grouping that could not be said of many that have followed, and that happily keep coming? Do I see any evidence of the essay somehow changing in this past quarter century, or would it be more honest to propose, again, that any perceived differences in style and subject have mainly to do with the sensibility of that year’s editor? Are we less staid now, more lyrical, freer with various kinds of open structure? I consider Joseph Brodsky’s relentless observational iterations in “Flight From Byzantium,” or Barthelme’s careening intellectual improvisation, and I say ‘no.’ I look back at Joyce Carol Oates’ sui generis take on boxing, which somehow gets Rocky Marciano and William Butler Yeats into the same paragraph, and Julian Barnes’s fascinating flanerie on a theme of Flaubert—and I say it again: no. These essays are as assertive and edge-testing as any being written today. There is, true, less evidence of the collagist’s fracture-and-rejoin aesthetic, or the kind of two- and three-ply lyric weave that we see so much of these days. But at the root, in the place of imagining and daring to speak truth, things don’t feel different at all. The essays of 1986 are on a direct continuum with work by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Charles D’Ambrosio…
What the collection does affirm for me—it did so all those years ago, and does so now, as well—is that the form remains a species as adaptable as the cockroach, and that it flourishes exactly to the extent that thinking and invention flourish in any given time. A gathering like this not only legitimizes and disseminates our flights of imagining and reportage, but it also heartens and inspires. “A writer,” said Saul Bellow famously, “is a reader moved to emulation.” My experience with the BAE series—reading it and teaching from it—confirms this. I have only to only to see the individual volumes standing at attention all in a row and my typing fingers start to twitch. The writer’s version of air-guitar, slightly embarrassing.
Sven Birkerts' most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). He currently directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the journal AGNI at Boston University.