BAE was something essay lovers had been wanting for a long time. In 1976, Edward Hoagland remarked, “it’s strange that though two fine anthologies [Best American Short Stories and the O’Henry Prize Stories] remain that publish the year’s best stories, no comparable collection exists for essays.” Ten years later Houghton Mifflin rolled the dice and launched BAE, publishing it as a Ticknor & Fields book. The imprint dated from the early 19th century. It was the house that published Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry David Thoreau, essayists who, as one wag put it, parted their names in the middle. Ticknor & Fields also published Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as The Atlantic Monthly and North American Review—print-heavy, Brahmin literary magazines that are America’s oldest.
James Fields, the publisher of Ticknor and Fields, and his wife Annie were scions of the Boston literary scene. As long ago as 1936, Willa Cather, in an essay titled “148 Charles Street,” had reminisced about pre-World War I visits she’d made to the Beacon Hill home of the now-widowed Annie, who lived there in a Boston marriage with Sarah Orne Jewett. She recalled stories Annie told her about dinners with Henry James and visits by the Brownings. Visiting the house again in 1936, Cather remarked wistfully that “the lighting has changed, and the guests seem hundreds of years away from us.” When BAE was launched in 1986 as a Ticknor & Fields book, there was an air of lavender still hanging about the essay. Perhaps this is why, in his preface the next year, Atwan felt compelled to address the death of the essay, arguing that what had died was not the essay, but a particular kind of essay:
The personal essay for some time has been thought of as a dead form, permanently flattened by the one-two punch of news journalism and New Journalism. Yet what died was only the old-fashioned familiar essay, that genteel and whimsical item—whose writers always sounded vaguely British—which used to be the staple of highbrow magazines and sleepy freshman English courses.To our ears even Atwan’s invocation of New Journalism sounds antique, and given what the Digital Revolution has done to “news journalism,” that reference also rings differently than it did in 1987.
When Carl Klaus and I were putting together Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (2012), we read all of Atwan’s prefaces and all of the guest editors’ introductions. It was a fascinating and instructive exercise. We were struck by Atwan’s steady, measured presence as editor and writer. His prefaces are always historically informed with each one focused on a different aspect of essay writing. We thought they would make a wonderful book if collected. The guest editors’ introductions, though consistently interesting, were, as one would expect, a bit of a mixed bag. Some are excellent and we included two in our anthology, those by Elizabeth Hardwick (1986) and Susan Sontag (1992). Some of the others were more idiosyncratic. Gay Talese’s introduction to the 1987 collection was one of these. It was largely an extended retelling of the story of writing “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” his legendary profile, which had appeared originally in the April 1966 issue of Esquire. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was itself an extended re-telling of the story of Talese trying to get an interview with Sinatra, making this introduction meta-meta. It read as a paean for a New Journalism that even in 1987 was no longer new. Atwan’s preface had labeled the New Journalism part of the one-two punch that had taken out the genteel essay, but to younger readers in 1987 (I was 37 that year—is that younger?) Talese’s introduction seemed almost hopelessly nostalgic. He talked about the generous expense account he’d had back in ’66 and how expense accounts had now dried up everywhere except at the New Yorker. He talked about how payment for articles such as his had plummeted because the money was now in books rather than magazines. He bemoaned the fact that writers had come to rely too much on their tape recorders. He bemoaned the fact that shorter, quote-heavy, quick-turnaround articles had replaced longer, more reflective, more fully researched pieces. In his introduction to a collection of the year’s best essays, Talese emphasized reporting, research, and journalism, not memory, personal voice, and essay writing.
At the end of his preface Atwan described the BAE editorial process. He and an assistant read as many pieces as they could find and forwarded about 120 finalists to the guest editor, “who may add a few personal favorites to the list and who makes the final selections.” Many of us who read BAE regularly like to suss out the shifting influence of the guest editors. The 1987 issue, guest-edited by Talese, included twenty essays, all by white writers, 18 of whom were men. The two women were Gretel Ehrlich and Phyllis Rose. Cushy expense accounts and big checks might have been a thing of the past, but mass-market magazines dominated the BAE selections in 1987. There were two from Harper’s, two from Esquire, and one each from Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker. Even some of the selections Talese plucked from little magazines and highbrow journals were preoccupied with the New Yorker and its upper middle class audience. In a piece from Salmagundi titled “The Lay Intellectual (Apologia Pro Vita Sua),” William Pfaff wrote that the career of Edmund Wilson, one of America’s few public intellectuals, had been made possible by
that peculiar and unique American phenomenon, The New Yorker magazine, which by a fluke of fortune became, from its comic-paper origins, at the same time the most serious of American general publications and a highly successful vehicle of consumer advertising (of often the most grotesque and transparent snobbishness; one wonders who the advertisers think the readers really are, or alternatively, a more disturbing thought, who the readers really are that such advertisements are addressed to them).Pfaff’s parenthetical jab is snobbery disguised as a critique of snobbery, but it does come closer to something like class analysis than does Joseph Epstein’s contribution, “They Said You Was High Class,” which had appeared originally in The American Scholar. Epstein’s essay pretends be about class but is really about status, snobbery, ethnicity, and his own odd and dubious creation—“the verbal class.” Epstein’s self-satisfied opening line reveals what he does and doesn’t know about economic class: “Karl, Friedrich, forgive me, fellas, for never having taken much interest in your class struggle, but the truth is that for the better part of my live I have been a bit unclear about what class I myself belong to.” If were to hazard a guess, Joe, I’d say “petit bourgeois intellectual.”
Epstein has done much for the essay over the years, as essayist, anthologist, and editor of The American Scholar, but he can be too clever by half. Even so, his quip got me thinking about who the audience of BAE is; indeed, who the audience of the essay is. It is you and I, Gentle Reader, and I suspect that we, like Joseph Epstein, are petit bourgeois intellectuals, or at least, kissing cousins to petit bourgeois intellectuals. To quote Hoagland again, essays “are addressed to an educated, perhaps a middle-class, reader, with certain presuppositions, a frame of reference.” This has been true from the start. Montaigne wrote about himself in French (not Latin), a project aimed at the new educated, secular middle class. Urban and urbane, they responded immediately. They got his allusions. They shared his individualism, his petit bourgeois individualism.
So that’s who we are. The problem is that we forget who we are. Cultural historians with a Marxist bent have begun to unpack this problem. Anthony Giddens, for instance, has argued that the middle class possesses class awareness, but not class-consciousness: “The difference between class awareness and class consciousness is a fundamental one, because class awareness may take the form of a denial of the existence or reality of classes [his emphasis].” Or, as Janice Radway nicely puts it, the middle class is a class “that always insists it is not a class.” The label “middle-class” itself obfuscates. Americans prefer it to more precise descriptors such as “working-class,” “petit bourgeois,” or “capitalist.” When polled, eighty percent of Americans call themselves “middle-class,” no matter whether their incomes are below the poverty level or several times the median. For us, it is disgraceful to say you’re lower class, distasteful to say you’re upper class. Such denial has long been part and parcel of American exceptionalism but it served the Reagan Era especially well. The New Yorker, for instance, had always juxtaposed celebrity profiles with hand-wringing liberalism, ads for good scotch and fur coats with cartoons that poked fun at the people who wore the furs and sipped the cocktails, but it was in the 1980s that such self-deprecation soured into self-hatred, and a novel that starred a New Yorker fact-checker on a cocaine binge became a bestseller.
The selections in the 1987 BAE reveal these same contradictions. On the most base level, New Journalism had resulted from a Midtown squabble among Esquire, The New Yorker, and the New York Magazine (formerly the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune) over the same advertising accounts. For the writers who published in those venues the stakes were higher. The upheavals of the 1960s had pushed the New Yorker to publish Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and New York to publish Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: The Party at Lenny’s,” important interventions in the debates of the day that grew into books.
Talese’s 1987 BAE picks bespeak nostalgia for Sixties New Journalism and its forms. Four of the pieces were celebrity profiles in the manner of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—Richard Ben Cramer on baseball player Ted Williams, Daniel Mark Epstein on magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, Gary Giddins on comedian Jack Benny, and Tom Wolfe on inventor Jerome H. Lemelson. There was also a profile by Elting Morrison of his great uncle, who designed and built bridges, and “The Inheritance of Tools,” Scott Russell Sanders’s beautiful (and now oft anthologized) remembrance of his father.
In addition to the profiles, there were other ways in which the selections harked back to the New Journalism. Joan Didion wasn’t included but her husband John Gregory Dunne was, represented by a piece titled “On Writing a Novel.” Calvin Trillin, also known for his humor writing, food reviews and satiric light verse, had a true crime piece about a murder in Kansas. The great novelist Robert Stone, who had been a character in Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, appeared here as a journalist, reporting on the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. New Journalism had always been about the cross-pollination of nonfiction by fiction so it made sense that Talese’s volume of BAE would include novelists such as Dunne and Stone. (For partisans of the fourth genre, this choice always suggests that our inferiority complex is right. Essays can be written by fiction writers, real writers, with their left hand.) Wolfe, the ringleader of New Journalism, was there at the center of the issue, though in retrospect we can see that the inclusion of Wolfe’s profile of a famous inventor actually signaled the end of an era. 1987 was the year The Bonfire of the Vanities came out, marking Wolfe’s turn from nonfiction to fiction.
There was another novelist in the mix: John Barth. The issue opened with an essay by him titled “Teacher.” It was another profile but not a celebrity profile, and it was fully as intimate as Sanders’s eulogy for his father. Barth’s piece was about wife Shelly, whom he’d known first as his student at Penn State in the early 1960s. The essay told the story of their love affair and how they both loved teaching. When he met her again at the end of the 1960s after a reading he gave in Boston, she was a high school teacher. I remember reading Barth’s essay in 1987 because it spoke so directly to me. Elizabeth and I had met in 1986 at the 60th birthday party of a mutual friend, who was—like Barth, like Elizabeth’s father, like I’d once planned to be—an English professor. We’d fallen fast and hard, deciding a week later to get married. We had each moved back to our hometown in Indiana in recent months—she after seven years in Virginia as a social worker, me after ten years as a trade union and community organizer in Boston. When I read Barth’s essay I was teaching high school English, and Elizabeth, who’d always had story drafts in a drawer, was getting her MA in fiction writing. Before I’d become an organizer I’d studied contemporary fiction, and back in Cambridge in about 1969 or 1970, I’d seen Barth give a reading. The Barths’ whirlwind romance, our re-embrace of fiction—it all felt familiar.
Though most of Talese’s picks looked back toward the Sixties with fondness, one decidedly did not—Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.” Never a New Journalist, always an essayist, Lopate was funny and fully present in this essay. Wolfe had skewered the Sixties, but Lopate skewered the Sixties and himself. When he brazenly included it seven years later in his magisterial anthology The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, he slyly introduced it with this slide from third person to first:
Modesty forbids the editor of this anthology from assessing his prowess as an essay writer—though it did not prevent from including the following entry. About it, he has this to say: “I wrote ‘Against Joie de Vivre’ after reading a good deal of Montaigne, particularly his later essays. It was my attempt to do something in a large, quasi-philosophical vein. Of course the central proposition is nonsensical—no one can be against the joy of life, really—and I knew that at the time, but I wanted to push a prejudice, or dark impulse, of mine as far as it would go, and see where it would take me.Perhaps Talese admired Lopate’s piece on its own terms, perhaps they knew each other (though the East Side is further from Brooklyn than one might think), or perhaps Atwan, a fellow Montaignean, pushed for it; in any case, it stands out as more essayistic, more personal, more forward-looking than much of the rest of the volume. It foreshadows the renaissance of the essay that was about to come.
There is a second way in which the 1987 BAE is more about arrival than departure. It includes two pieces from a special issue of the literary magazine Antæus, edited by Daniel Halpern, that was devoted to nature writing. Gretel Ehrlich’s “Spring” read as if it could have been a chapter in her stunning book The Solace of Open Spaces, which had appeared in 1985, announcing Ehrlich as a major voice in American nonfiction. Barry Lopez’s “The Stone Horse” describes his early morning visit to a larger-than-life intaglio of a horse made 300 years ago by Quechan Indians in the floor of the southern California desert. Lopez paints a context for his visit to the horse by sweeping across time from the earliest hunting cultures, evidenced by stone tools and broken spear tips, to the modern irrigation systems, military installations and all-terrain vehicles that now endangered the ancient artifacts.
I already knew these two pieces. I had bought and devoured the special issue of Antæus. Elizabeth and I had both returned to the Midwest to regroup in the landscape where we’d grown up—where the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers meet at the eastern edge of the Grand Prairie and the southern edge of the black dirt left 11,000 years ago by the Wisconsin glacier. It’s where the Wea, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi intersected, and before them the Oneota, Hopewell, and Mississippian people. We put a quote from Gatsby on our wedding invitations: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.” In the summer of 1987 we drove to the West Coast and back, hiking, camping, and looking at petroglyphs and cliff dwellings. A couple of years later, we bought a house along the Jordan Creek just up the ravine from Fort Ouiatenon, a French outpost from the 17th century. I taught high school twenty miles out on the prairie in the most rural school district in the state. Some of my students descended from those first French fur traders.
Before long, Elizabeth and I decided to go back to graduate school—she for an MFA, me for a PhD. In the fall of 1989, I drove up to South Bend, where Barry Lopez was spending a year as a visiting writer at Notre Dame, his alma mater. Bowled over by “The Stone Horse,” Of Wolves and Men, and Arctic Dreams, I’d written him a fan letter and after the reading, I introduced myself. We talked as he walked me to my car. I spilled my thoughts and uncertainty, told him I loved essays, loved nature writing, loved Elizabeth, and that we were trying to figure out where to go for graduate school. He demurred, saying he didn’t really know the academic world. Maybe he thought I was crazy. He suggested UC-Davis because of Gary Snyder, but added that I might look at Indiana University where Scott Russell Sanders taught. “Scott,” he said, “is a good man.” I thanked him, then I drove three hours home through the rain and the dark, my eyes wide open.
We ended up at the University of Iowa, precisely at the dawn of the essay renaissance the 1987 BAE foreshadowed. Carl Klaus was transforming the old expository writing program of literary criticism and composition theory into a program that focused exclusively on literary nonfiction. He brought Sanders and Lopez in for readings, and Patricia Hampl and Carol Bly for semester-long workshops. We read Montaigne and Bacon, Orwell and Baldwin, Didion and Mairs. We formed study groups and read each other’s stuff. It felt like we were riding a wave that was about to crest.
Then Lopate’s anthology came out. The Atwan and Oates anthology came out. The John D’Agata anthologies came out. Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Creative Nonfiction were launched. The Digital Revolution arrived, bringing Brevity and Assay with it. Where once Iowa was one of just a few graduate programs in nonfiction in the country; now there are almost 200. Robin Hemley introduced the NonfictioNow conference. No one longs for the good old days of New Journalism anymore, Elizabeth and I have (almost) raised our two daughters, BAE is in its thirtieth year, and the wave doesn’t seem to have crested.
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: From Montaigne to Our Time. His work has appeared in journals such as The Missouri Review, The Normal School, culturefront, Guernica, and TriQuarterly, and been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in the Best American Essays series.