“[E]very work, be it fiction or serious treatise, is embaled in some fantastic wrappage, some mad narrative accounting for its appearance, and connecting it with the author, who generally becomes a person in the drama itself, before all is over.”
—Thomas Carlyle, on Jean Paul Richter (1827).
Robert Atwan’s deep belief in the essay’s inexhaustible mystery and reward has sustained thirty years (and counting) of annual, public meditation on the genre in his forewords to The Best American Essays. As Atwan tells us in his foreword to 1997, the series has always sought to highlight “the essay’s astonishing variety” (1997, xii); it does so “in two ways: by screening essays from an enormous range of periodicals and by inviting a distinguished American writer to serve each year as the guest editor” (1997, xii). Yes, diversity is truly wonderful in its many guises, ecologies, and generic expressions. For the series to have thrived for so long, however, it has needed the audible presence of Robert Atwan as a thinker and essayist in each volume. Every year, he teaches himself and his readers a little more about what Virginia Woolf famously called, “the peculiar form.” In the essay, Atwan has found a “durable” and capacious art, practice, map for a key trajectory of American literature, and corrective to what he sees as the strictures of writing and thinking in school. The Best American Essays rightfully can be credited for at some of the essay’s current success in online and print journals; the exponential increase in courses and programs in creative nonfiction; a burgeoning interest in Essay Studies within departments of literature and Composition; and, as Atwan notes (first with some reservations in 2007, then with many fewer in 2010), how could there be a blogosphere without writers creating as blog posts what Phillip Lopate has called elsewhere, “essays in disguise” (2010, xiv)?
Keep company with Atwan for a little longer over these years, and we increasingly appreciate him as a thinker who has worked hard to develop a high tolerance for his own uncertainty, especially about essays; at the same time, he holds himself accountable for trying to articulate his own ideas about essays as they deepen, become obsolete, or get replaced by better ones. At key moments—the most fruitful in these forewords—he highlights challenges we face as we try to read in ways that change us, write essays that cannot be graded by a machine, have ideas of our own, tell truths in nonfiction, and name touchstone qualities of essays so that we can learn from one another about them.
Once there was a boy from a Catholic household in Paterson, New Jersey, who loved books. His father didn’t. He preferred to follow the horse races in New York tabloid papers. Reflecting in 2011 on how he came to be an “anthologist,” Atwan recounts a childhood and adolescence when he was “not just a voracious and undiscriminating reader,” but an “obsessive” one (2011, xii). He went to Catholic school, and admits with a mix of emotions in which understandable pride wins out: “[a]s far back as the first grade, I enjoyed reading anything and everything. I even loved to read the required Baltimore catechism with its endlessly fascinating questions—‘Why did God make us?’—and all the textbooks the good sisters passed out to us on the first day of school each year” (2011, xi-xii). Yes, we read this right—the textbooks, too. Directed to the Paterson library in the first week in high school by one of the nuns, and awed by the “imposing building with its stately columns,” Atwan reports that becoming a card-carrying member of this institution conferred adulthood on him, at least in his own mind (2011, xii-xiii). Among the countless volumes, young Robert felt complete assurance that he “would never be bored in [his] life,” but also “a terrifying rush of unknown possibilities” (2011, xiii). Access to endless books, and a readerly constitution that demanded new material fueled years of Atwan’s formal and self-directed educations.
It took until graduate school, while working through an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, for Atwan to recognize that he “had been reading literature for years with proficiency and passion but without aesthetic insight” (2010, xi). In retrospect, Atwan notes this better kind of reading requires not only the capacity to understand and document what we read, but to reread, looking for how writers “wire” their work in patterns of ideas, tones, and structure (2010, xii). To become a reader who can see the “circuitry” of a text, we need to give up the easy pleasure of finding in literature a mirror of our own beliefs, preferences, and values. So we need to be interested in others, as well as their works’ effects upon us. Atwan recalls in his 2006 foreword that as a younger reader, encountering Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge for the first time, he was drawn into the book because of his fascination with Larry Durrell, and Durrell’s erotic hold over his ex-fiancé, Isabel Maturin (2006, x). The act of rereading this book many years later surprises Atwan as he notices Maugham’s audacious blending of fiction and nonfiction techniques. Maugham draws the narrator as Maugham himself, “the famous writer, identified as such, complete with references to his previous novels and many biographical details” (2006, x); the whole book is structured as the writer’s memoir. For Atwan, cultivating better readers is a challenging task, but one that literary works—and essays as much as any—need in order to thrive, regardless of whether readers encounter those works in print or online. Some of the responsibility for teaching readers resides with authors and editors.
In each of the volumes, Atwan invites readers to assume as wide a variety of stances towards the essays as the writers themselves enjoy—and we need this kind of understanding and welcome. We can read each year’s volume as the contributors’ “attempts…to come to honest terms with the varieties of American experience” (1993, ix). We also can seek out essays that may focus less on key events, people, and phenomena of a particular year, and instead look for those that express more broadly the American essay’s Emersonian inheritance: “the importance of process, renewal, and originality, a respect for the individual angle of perception and the common flow of experience” (Atwan, 2003, x). And if, like Emerson, we seek thinkers and writers whose choices of language, form, and presence “unsettle all things,” well, we can read for that, too, and find plenty to fulfill us in any volume.
Atwan emphasizes across these forewords the essay’s embrace of formal experiment: he tells us that Annie Dillard’s choices in 1988, “blur the boundaries of criticism, biography, and exposition….They play tricks with narration…undermine our confidence that we can know the writer through the writing” (1988; x). In 1991, Joyce Carol Oates’s selections are notable for how diversity as an idea, value, and practice shape contemporary essays’ form: “Here are reflections and meditations, philosophical fragments, personal narratives and anecdotes, cultural critiques and impassioned arguments….Today’s essay assumes many shapes…” (1991, x). He explains the series’ commitment to diversity more fully in 1997, in his foreword to the volume edited by Ian Frazier, which “introduces a major strain of the essay that most previous volumes had surprisingly underplayed: humor” (1997, xiii). Essayists’ willingness to work across genres, topics, and stances, demonstrate a strength of essays as a form, and potentially a limit or problem for the identity of “essayist.” Essayists “use the whole bag of tricks” of literary practice to make their work, “artful, true, and believable” (1989, x). However, Atwan wonders, even in 2015, about how many writers there are who we might consider “true essayists” (xii)—artists who write essays primarily—in the lineage of Montaigne, Emerson, and White (and I would add Rodriguez, Ozick, Didion, Jordan, and Sontag).
If there can be people who are “true essayists,” there might be something called, “true essays,” although the kind of truth at stake here has nothing to do with verifiable events, or fact-checked episodes that essayists relate. This truth is about whether there is a genre that we can call “essay” and be relatively confident that we can communicate our understanding to others. Atwan returns repeatedly in this series to four qualities we can find in all essays that have lasted beyond their moment of composition: 1) they explore original ideas about specific topics; 2) they include the vivid presence of the writer who readers can discern and track; and 3) they incorporate moments of both self-awareness and skepticism primarily through reflection; and 4) they resist what Atwan calls “standardization” in content or form.
Of these issues, the first is the one to which Atwan returns the most frequently and subsumes some of the others. He muses about the relationship between contemplation and literary craft in essays in the very first foreword of 1986: “Thought and expression, substance and style: the essayist shuttles between these fuzzy boundaries, now settling down with ideas and exposition, now searching for eloquence and charm” (x). Over the years, Atwan explores why when reading essays it is hard to appreciate fully Virginia Woolf’s notion from “The Modern Essay” (1925) that “[t]he art of writing has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea.” This quotation appears in the first forward, but becomes the generative focus in 1992, for the volume edited by Susan Sontag. He notes of Sontag’s choices, “If anything can be said to link these diverse selections together, it is the passion that informs them. Throughout the collection we find many ‘fierce attachments,’ either the writer’s or the subject’s…. [i]ntellectual passions to be sure but erotic ones, too—when, of course, the distinction applies” (1992, x). The impulses of logos and eros need not be at odds with one another in essays, and, in fact, if an essayist hopes to make something lasting in her or his work, they cannot be.
Atwan’s own work reflects his “fierce attachments” no less visibly. Read Atwan’s forewords to 2003 (on Emerson), 2004 (on Agnes Repplier), 2012, and 2014 (on Montaigne) and see how each contributes to an evolving theory on the relationship between what essays are, and what they do (for writers and readers). He has written on Emerson more extensively outside the Best American series than he has on any other single essayist. His chapter, “‘Ecstasy & Eloquence’: The Method of Emerson’s Essays” (in Alexander Butrym’s 1989 collection), charts Emerson’s path to the essay as he sought “a vehicle that would allow him to give his creativity full rein, to take risks with conventional structures and logical organization, to turn traditional rhetoric inside out” (Atwan, 109). And rhetoric, at least as he has seen it taught (and taught it himself) in first year composition courses, needs urgently this undoing. He relates in 1998 a familiar and dispiriting experience of having students in his writing course who could not work their way out of writing the five-paragraph “theme.” It was awful because it was formulaic, but more important, it was “a charade. It not only paraded relentlessly to its conclusion; it began with its conclusion. It was all about its conclusion. Its structure permitted no change of direction, no reconsideration, no wrestling with ideas” (xii). That is, the essay that we teach in school forbids students their own messiness and complexity and potential for surprise—the kind the Emerson recognizes that Americans needed in his time, and which we need in ours. Atwan demonstrates through his own close and impassioned analysis how in Emerson’s essays we can detect “a strenuous pulling in two directions—rhetoric against poetry, line against circle, intension against ecstasy” (E&E, 114), a tension that gives force to the work without resolution. “Ecstasy & Eloquence” leaves one wishing for the book on Emerson Atwan has in him.
We can glimpse more about what this book might delve into at greater depth in his foreword to 2003’s volume, guest-edited by Anne Fadiman. In 2003, Fadiman was also the editor of the journal, The American Scholar. Atwan notes that 2003 marks Emerson’s bicentennial, which gives him many reasons to return to Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” for a few more pages. Here, he makes the case that Emerson’s influence can be felt in today’s essays but indirectly. The 21st century American essay seems in many ways to be the anthesis of the Emersonian one in many ways that matter: we expect our essayists’ voices to be “familiar, conversational, even intimate,” and share “personal stories” full of details (x). Yet Emerson “stubbornly refuses” our desires; he “prefers what he calls ‘severe abstraction’” (x). Although we might support the idea that writing our detailed experiences is a democratic way to share and show our difficult truths, Atwan prompts us to consider whether we also need more “telling” in our contemporary essays—more abstraction or severity, maybe both. In “The American Scholar,” and Emerson’s work generally, Atwan finds a writer who not only provides guidance for how to read an essay, “as the enactment of an individual mind in process” (xii) but also a reason (perhaps the reason) why we should: Americans are not sufficiently skeptical of the ideas that most influence us, especially our own. Atwan reminds us that we misunderstand Emerson when we let him persuade us: “Emerson wanted us to remain always wary of persuasive claims, to worry about the slippery slope between intellectual influence and intellectual tyranny” (x). Emerson offers an important warning to readers and attempts through his example to provide a bulwark against our own credulity. Writers also need to be vigilant; there seems to be no limit to the ways we can dupe ourselves into not thinking as hard as we should in our work.
As Atwan mentions in this current Essay Daily series, typically he limits his forewords to approximately seven paragraphs. That certainly was true in the first decade of the series, but in the last five years the length has increased, and in the process, he’s occasionally added titles. No surprise, perhaps, that the longest of these, running sixteen paragraphs, is his 2012 foreword called “Of Topics.” The essay begins with a pedagogical dilemma he has faced in creative writing courses: What might account for the fact for many students, an essay “is wholly autobiographical, pure and simple….Textured and original description is minimal, as are—if I may use the word—ideas. Forget surprising metaphors or memorable observations. Missing, too, is the one literary element that the greatest essays thrive on—reflection” (ix). Atwan’s concern has been sounded before by many other essayists and teachers of the essay. Phillip Lopate delves into some of the possible reasons that students might resist being explicit about their ideas in his essay from 2005, originally published in Fourth Genre, “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story.” Locate suggests students may have “a narcissistic attachment to [a] younger ignorant self, so fragile, so guileless, and [want] to protect it from the contamination of intellectual sophistication”(6); or their resistance may reflect “an unwillingness to relinquish their rage” at the deep hurts and trauma that draw them to write nonfiction narratives and motivate them (8). Both Lopate and Atwan highlight a diacritical difference between the writer’s motive for composing, and the reader’s need to understand an essay’s exigence: Ideas not only answer the “so what?” question for readers, but also shape significantly the writer’s presence in the essay. Students would benefit from discovering as did Montaigne, Joseph Addison, William Hazlitt, Emerson, and Woolf that having a topic does not imply that the writing will not be personal—“based often on subjective experience and an individual perspective” (Atwan, 2012, x), but it would change the contract that the essayist makes with the reader. Instead of promising that we will learn more about the writer as the primary focus of the essay, topics give writers an occasion to do something other than narrate their experiences.
The essay offers writers a gift, Atwan reminds us, “at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods…the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer” (xiv). We could hear Atwan sounding a warning, too; we cannot forget that the essay as artistic, intellectual practice comes with significant responsibilities. The essay (“The essay?”) may be capacious, adaptive, and responsive to subject matter, historical and political contexts, and the proclivities of the writer’s mind. Atwan enacts in his forewords, and in his dedication to The Best American Essays as an extended cultural inquiry, the ethics of both making our minds visible, and being brave in all ways when we reach the limits of what we know.
Nicole B. Wallack is the Director of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and an Associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard. Her recent essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books and Fourth Genre. Her book, Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies (Utah State University Press, 2016), argues for an essay-centered curriculum in both high school and college. Crafting Presence highlights The Best American Essays' contributions to genre theory, and demonstrates how we can teach students to craft thinking presences in their essays, by drawing on reading and writing techniques from the fields of Composition, Creative Writing, and literature. She can be reached at this email.