The Best American Essays was published in both hardcover and paperback until 2008. Starting with 2009, the books appear only in paperback. For the first two editions in 1986 and 1987, Houghton Mifflin released a now hard-to-find boxed paperback set with both essays and stories. The final Ticknor & Fields' volume came out in 1993.
The idea for a series of books devoted to the year’s best essays first came to me in the spring of 1984. My editor at the New York Times Book Review had sent me a copy of Prize Stories 1984: The O'Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams, to review. At the time I had been reviewing fiction and poetry fairly regularly for both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Except for a few stories (one a classic by Cynthia Ozick), I wasn’t impressed with the O’Henry collection and my review focussed on what I thought had become a narrative gimmick: writing first-person stories in the present tense (“I am in a laundromat on West Fourteenth Street washing clothes and reading Grace Paley”). The review was punningly titled “The Literary Present” as I tried to suggest that this special use of the present participle might be viewed as the equivalent of the old French literary tense known as “passe simple.” My use of “literary” suggested something inauthentic about the narrative. Obviously, the writer wasn’t actually writing in the present but about the past and simply relying on the present participle to create what I perceived to be an artificial immediacy. As I wrote the review, indifferent to many of the stories, I wondered why there wasn’t an annual book dedicated to essays. Weren’t many essays every bit as good, or even better than most of these stories? I’m not sure precisely when this idea struck me but my review appeared in the Times Book Review on June 3, 1984. So most likely the idea for the essay series occurred to me a week or so earlier, in mid-May.
Exactly two years later, I turned in the manuscript of the first volume of the series, The Best American Essays 1986. A good deal of effort went on in the interim. Before I wrote up a proposal I’d mentioned the idea informally at a party to the late Roger Straus, the head of the prestigious publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where my wife at the time was publicity director (Helene Atwan is now director of Beacon Press). I was testing the waters and wanted to see what a trade publisher thought of such a project. I recall Roger saying that such a series seemed possible but it wasn’t something FSG would do (which I knew). I felt encouraged he didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand but was discouraged by his suggestion that perhaps such a series would be best handled by a university press or a college publisher. I did not want to go that route, at least not at first. My goal was to call attention to the essay as a vital literary genre, and I wanted the series to receive more than academic sanction.
I came to the essay through both academia and college publishing. As I’ve noted in several essays on the essay, the genre had long been ostracized from English literature which considered poetry, fiction, and drama the only legitimate literary forms worthy of scholarly and critical attention. (For more, see here.) The only place in academe where the essay flourished was in the standard freshman English course, where students, often reluctantly, learned the basic principles of composition, usually by reading and writing essays or—as the writing assignments were then frequently called—“themes.” Such instruction had been going on for decades and the enterprise largely depended on a steady stream of “freshman readers,” anthologies put out by college publishers that featured mostly essays that would appeal to students and their instructors.” Many prominent writers and critics edited such anthologies—John Crowe Ransom, Donald Hall, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, and Frederick Crews, to name a few. With the explosion of popular culture studies occurring around the same time as the emergence of New Journalism, many of these readers began dropping the old “chestnuts” (Lamb, Hazlitt, Stevenson, Pater, Chesterton) and replacing them with more contemporary authors and relevant topics.
This is about when I enter the publishing scene. In the fall of 1972, a good friend, Donald McQuade, and I proposed a freshman reader to Oxford University Press. Published in 1974, Popular Writing in America: The Interaction of Style and Audience was based on our satisfying experiences teaching composition courses while graduate students at Rutgers University. Though the book contained some fiction, we included a considerable amount of contemporary nonfiction from such writers as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Ellen Willis, Pauline Kael, Vivian Gornick, and Terry Southern. Influenced by the rise of both popular culture studies and New Journalism, the book was, as we well knew, somewhat behind the times, but it succeeded nevertheless. And in publishing as in film or music, one successful venture opens the door to further opportunities, and so in 1980 Alfred A. Knopf published another of our freshman readers, Thinking in Writing: Structures for Composition. This book contained all essays, but it was not nearly as successful as our previous book, though I would learn years later from David Foster Wallace that it remained one of his favorite writing textbooks.
I relate this background, tedious as it may sound, simply to make it clear that when I began to imagine an annual series of essays I wasn’t a stranger to studying and anthologizing them. But the question remained: would a trade publishing house have an interest in such an anthology. The prospects didn’t look good but I thought it was worth a try. I felt very confident that the idea was a good one and that I could carry it off, but I was unprepared for the resistance I met from editors and publishers. I soon found I faced an enormous obstacle: it was that one word: Essay.
Looking back, it seems like a good thing I didn’t realize how diminished the status of the essay truly was. This ignorance allowed me to persevere with what to some seemed like a hopeless idea. Later on, when I began to write about the recent history of the genre I would discover that not only had the essay been ignored in the academy following the expanding literary authority of the New Criticism, but it had also been replaced in many American magazines by the topical and informative article. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century essay was essentially belletristic—a major form of the so-called Genteel Tradition. But the age of belles lettres had come to an end. Essayists themselves had begun to proclaim their genre’s collective collapse: “With so much in its favor, what caused its downfall?” an essayist asked about the essay in 1933. “The answer is,” he writes: “the same qualities that made it popular—intimacy, reverie, whimsey.” With perhaps a touch of misogyny, the author refers to the familiar essay as “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” (John P. Waters, “A Little Old Lady Passes Away,” the Forum)
This literary sentiment persisted throughout the Great Depression and well beyond. In 1934, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, writing for The Saturday Review of Literature, lamented the genre’s death or, as she quaintly put it, the “desuetude“ of the essay. She complained that “the old-line magazines” were “forsaking their literary habit” and becoming homes of journalism.” But “journalism” wouldn’t be used pejoratively for long, as magazines continued to favor topical items over the once solidly ensconced essay. “No Essays, Please!” wrote the fine essayist Joseph Wood Krutch in a 1951 essay about the reluctance of magazines to publish them. For many modern editors, essays were equivalent to “navel-gazing” or “thumb-sucking,” old-time newspaper terms I heard often in the early days of the series. But writers have always been a resilient lot. Once it became clear that the literary marketplace preferred the informative article to the familiar essay, writers began finding creative ways—through voice, narrative, perspectival ingenuity, interlaced imagery and metaphor—to transform “mere” journalism into an art form. Although the debate was heated (and in some ways still continues), by the late fifties and into the mid-seventies, Norman Mailer, Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gloria Steinem, Gail Sheehy, George Plimpton, Pauline Kael, Thomas B. Morgan and many others had infused a new craft and artistry into such magazine stalwarts as the feature story, the topical article, timely reportage, book, film and music criticism, the interview and celebrity profile. Magazines at the time still almost completely shunned the dreaded E-word, but by the early eighties there was little doubt that the prose revolution called “The New Journalism” had also profoundly reshaped the traditional essay with a topical vitality, cultural diversity, and social urgency.
The traditional belletristic essay was typically composed by comfortably situated males who appeared to write out of a congenial retirement and who enjoyed peering at everyday life from the perspective of a bemused observer—what came to be the conventional essayistic stance. Such writing had little to do with the vulgarities of reporting. I’m sure that this sort of stereotypical “Ivory-Tower” essay was what the editors I encountered early on identified as the quintessential essay and what they imagined the collections in my proposed series would feature. That’s understandable, partly because the word had been so closely associated with the gentrified efforts of an older generation of writers and had not yet come to be attached to the more engaged nonfiction prose written by the younger generation of literary journalists. Only a few of the writers I listed above called what they wrote “essays,” nor did that word appear in the table of contents of the magazines they wrote for. Joan Didion’s first two collections, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, did not identify themselves as consisting of essays. The first collection of her essays, mostly written between 1965-67, impressively shows how the art of the essay could successfully assimilate the art of reporting.
So by 1984 when I began formulating the idea for the series, I had little doubt that the essay was alive and well and had been for some time (as a graduate student I’d written a long paper on Norman Mailer as an essayist). But perhaps because of the way the E-word resonated in publishing circles, few (outside of the freshman composition community as I’ve noted) were finding the E-word as applicable to contemporary prose as I was. Was I uncritically stretching the genre to accommodate writing that had little to do with how essays had always behaved since Montaigne? From a purely practical point of view, such stretching would be a publishing incentive: without expanding the genre I was certain there would be no series. Yet, I also believed that the essay had been unfairly characterized and that in many ways the New Journalism—with its own genre-defying assimilation of fictional techniques—had resuscitated our “little old lady” or should we say “little old gentleman.” Gay Talese and his publisher at Esquire may not have considered his classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” an essay, but I did.
The older and more conventional familiar essay had not, of course, entirely disappeared. I had been reading Edward Hoagland for years, and I also expected that recent essay collections, those published within a few years of my proposal, such as Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983), Joseph Epstein’s The Middle of My Tether (1983), Stephen Jay Gould’s Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), Paul Fussell’s The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations (1982), Phillip Lopate’s Bachelorhood (1981), Wendell Berry’s Recollected Essays (1981), and Guy Davenport’s wonderful collection, The Geography of the Imagination (1981) would all bolster my case that the essay had survived and was awaiting a revival.
But these titles did not suffice. After trying to demonstrate that the literary essay was still alive and that the revitalized magazine article with its new reportorial style could be reasonably viewed as essayistic, I was still unable to persuade publishers that an annual series could be a viable commodity. Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of my proposal and I didn’t keep track of the rejections, a few of them not formal but based on conversations with skeptical editors. I should add that at the time—because of the short story collection that had inspired me—my proposal called for a series named after an author like O’Henry. My letter to E. B. White in January 1985 asking him if he would lend his distinguished name to a series that would be called Prize Essays 1986: The E. B. White Awards was met with a polite refusal, though he hoped his work might be considered for the series. White would die that October and I sometimes think that my letter may have suggested to him that he was already moribund and that when he said he hoped instead to be included he was reminding me that he was still very much alive. A few months later a friend, the poet Laurance Wieder, who had early on been helping me with publishers, suggested I approach Moyer Bell. At a meeting in New York they expressed enthusiasm for the idea and I was encouraged until they (correctly) decided that an annual book would be too difficult for a small house to handle. By then, I was calling the series The Emerson Awards. I wasn’t entirely happy with that title. To be sure, Emerson remained one of America’s great essayists, and a personal favorite, but his essays represented a style and form (they might be termed the “unfamiliar essay”) that never caught on in America. Oddly enough, as I’ve written elsewhere, his greatest influence would be on American poetry, not the essay. His name also struck me as sounding too academic, but I couldn’t think of another essayist that I could appropriately name the series after.
Emerson, however, proved fruitful. I recalled that Emerson’s publisher had been the prestigious Boston firm of Ticknor & Fields which dated back to 1832. By the end of the century they had been absorbed into Houghton Mifflin & Co., who would from time to time revive the Ticknor & Fields imprint. The details are fuzzy to me now, but I learned that an editor I knew from Viking Press, Corleis (“Cork”) Smith, who had been Thomas Pynchon’s editor, had recently become director of a new incarnation of Ticknor & Fields located at 52 Vanderbilt Avenue in New York City. I approached him (and one of his editors, Katrina Kenison) with the idea for The Emerson Awards in April. They were interested though cautious: were enough genuine essays published in a year to build a volume? How would I gather the essays and from where? Isn’t there a better word than Essay? And Ralph Waldo Emerson? Come again! They asked me to consider these matters and also to provide a sample of the kind of essays I would be considering for a potential volume.
By the time we met again in July, I had been been able to produce a sample table of contents with copies of 1985 essays that seemed to me precisely the sort the collection I had in mind would include. (I still have a list in note form that I consulted in writing this account and I’m surprised to see now how many of these model essays made it into the first book). Cork and Katrina liked the samples and were satisfied that enough essays were published by a sufficient number of periodicals to warrant a book. But there was a wrinkle I hadn’t expected. I knew all along that Ticknor & Fields was an imprint of Houghton Mifflin but it never occurred to me that Houghton also published The Best American Short Stories. I had been thinking only of O’Henry. Cork thought the essay series would work best if published in tandem with the stories. The stories, of course, were selected each year by a distinguished writer of fiction who served as guest editor. I hadn’t thought of working with a guest editor; I assumed once a series got started I would make the final selections.
Before we went ahead, I needed to assure myself that I was comfortable modeling the essay series after the stories, and working with a guest editor. I batted the idea around with Helene, who knew the publishing world much better than I did and who assured me that aligning a new annual series with an established series could only help my risky project and that working with a distinguished guest editor each year would be immensely enjoyable and keep the perspective of each volume fresh. I saw her point; and I also realized that I had few options since only one publisher so far had shown any interest in the series.
And there was one more hurdle. Wasn’t there a better word than essays? I could tell the E-word had from the beginning made Cork nervous. Yet this word, to me, was what the entire project was all about. It had to be Essays, I stiffly maintained, while voicing some alternatives: The Best American Articles, The Best American Nonfiction, The Best American Pieces, The Best American Thumb-Sucking! The whole point of the series, I argued, was to show that the essay as a literary form was alive and well. The purpose of the series would be to showcase and celebrate the genre. Ultimately, they agreed: Essays it would be. Because of the anxiety I sensed about the book’s chances of success, I also asked for a two-year publishing commitment so the series wouldn’t be abandoned as a result of disappointing first-year sales. They agreed to that also.
Yet were essays truly very much alive? Was the anxiety of my editors reasonable? I was operating on a gut instinct but had no sales figures, bookstore feedback, or any solid information to allow me to be sure. Then in November I saw an essay by Phillip Lopate (who I didn’t know) that appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review titled “The Essay Lives—in Disguise” (November 18, 1984). Lopate’s essay began by acknowledging that when it comes to essays nobody “much cares.” “Commercially,” he adds, “essay volumes rank even lower than poetry.” His own collection of personal essays, Bachelorhood, well received critically, had been “less welcomed by booksellers, who had trouble figuring what niche or category to put it in.” These were discouraging words to someone about to introduce an annual series of books dedicated to essays. I hoped my editors weren’t reading the Times book review at the same time I was and saying to themselves, “Oh, no!” But, despite his accurate remarks about the current status of the essay in the literary marketplace, his essay—with its lovely tribute to Montaigne and succinct coverage of the genre’s history—was for me a bracing reinforcement of what I wanted to do. Exactly, I thought, when I finished his essay: the time is ripe.
Now what remained was to select a guest editor for the inaugural volume, which was scheduled for the early fall of 1986. A manuscript would need to be submitted in April, May at the latest. There wasn’t much time. We all thought the first guest editor should be a prominent figure in the literary world, someone whose name would unequivocally signal the literary nature of the series. We also hoped to enlist someone who had popular appeal. By November, Katrina had been politely turned down by Russell Baker, John Updike, and Calvin Trillin. Next on the list was Gore Vidal, who had published a monumental essay collection a few years earlier. Vidal, who resided in Rome, couldn’t take it on but suggested Elizabeth Hardwick, who also happened to be on our short list. She accepted and my notes indicate that we first spoke about the project by phone on December 14. A manuscript would need to be turned in within four to five months.
Suddenly, I needed to establish a process and a mechanism. There would be plenty of paperwork. The first thing I set about doing was writing letters to magazines and literary periodicals to announce the new series and invite submissions. I ordered from a local printer attractive paper and envelopes with letterhead. I rented a PO box. I had no secretary or assistant (I still don’t) and I needed an efficient office space; though the idea for the series had come to me in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we now had a child and a house in South Orange, NJ. The house had a small room off the main bedroom that I remember the real estate agent called a “solarium,” which sounded much fancier than the room actually was. I upgraded some equipment. In my foreword to the 1996 book, I described that office:
I can recall in the early eighties proudly showing a friend my newly set-up home office: an IBM PC sporting two 5 ¼-inch floppy drives and 128 K of memory; an electric typewriter that could interface as a “letter quality” printer; a 1200-baud modem, a compact copier, a phone with a built-in answering machine (but with a separate automatic dialer), and a fax machine on the same line that spewed out a continuous roll of waxy paper. My friend was impressed and termed it, I distinctly remember, “the office of the future.” That future lasted about five minutes.When they were considering whether to take on the series, the editors of Moyer Bell had introduced me to the CLMP, the Council (now Community) of Literary Magazines and Presses. I used their little green pamphlet to find the names of editors and addresses of magazines I didn’t already know and mailed a letter to each. Yes, it was a slow process back then. But the responses that came in gradually were for the most part receptive and as the journals piled up I felt fully confident that a fine collection would actually materialize. There was so little time, however, and so many gaps in my method of obtaining candidates that I did not have the opportunity to send Elizabeth Hardwick as many outstanding essays as I had hoped. That helps explain why the first volume contains fewer essays than any subsequent book. But there were also much fewer essays being published in literary journals then; in fact, a number of them consisted only of poetry and fiction.
Katrina (who a few years later would become series editor of the short stories) brought me and my illustrious guest editor to lunch at the Yale Club as the book was nearing completion. I wish I could better recall what we talked about when our conversation strayed from the particular essays we were considering. At one point I mentioned that I had first proposed to call the series The E. B. White Awards and she quickly dismissed his work as “middlebrow.” What I remember most were her pack of cigarettes (but not the brand) on the table in front of her with her lighter. The first time she lit up I intercepted and lit her cigarette for her, like a proper gentlemen. After I did this a second and third time, it began to feel like something one of my intellectual heroes Erving Goffman would write about, and I wondered if the repeated gesture was making Hardwick uncomfortable. But then I thought it would seem strangely uncivil if, having started, I suddenly stopped lighting her cigarettes. So I continued to self-consciously do so throughout the lunch.
My editors and I agreed that for purposes of brand identity we would closely model the essay volume after the annual short story collection, which, though begun in 1915, didn’t begin to use a guest editor until 1977, when Shannon Ravenel became the annual editor. The short story editions at the time we launched the essays contained a guest editor’s introduction but instead of a foreword by the series editor only a “Publisher’s Note” briefly describing the history of the series and the criteria for selection. For back matter the book contained “Biographical Notes,” a list of “100 Other Distinguished Short Stories of the Year” as well as a list of “Editorial Addresses of American and Canadian Magazines Publishing Short Stories.”
I no longer recall precisely why, but I was reluctant to follow the short story’s “apparatus” entirely. As I familiarized myself with the short story series I saw that the stories followed a more systematic process than I had in mind for the essays. They selected from a wide range of periodicals exactly 120 stories and from that pool 20 were chosen for the volume and the remaining 100 were included in the “other distinguished short stories” list. I felt the need for more flexibility. I also wasn’t sure I would find 120 distinguished essays in our first year, especially given our schedule, so after some discussion we all agreed on some ground rules for the series: I would submit approximately 100 essays to a guest editor, we would plan for a volume consisting of some 20-25 selections, and I would not limit the distinguished (I preferred to call them “Notable") essays to a fixed number. In other words, I would list among the “Notable Essays” of the year some essays that the guest editor never saw.
At the time my only book publishing experiences had been with college publishers (Oxford, Random House, McGraw Hill, Harper & Row) and so I was pleasantly surprised to see how accommodating the Ticknor & Fields editors were to my suggested deviations from the short story model. College publishers—as a friend of mine liked to say—were afflicted by the “demon of symmetry.” I’m not sure why any longer but I didn’t think we needed to follow suit and include a list of the magazines that published essays (perhaps because there were so few at the time?), and so we didn’t. And they also didn’t see any reason not to drop the impersonal “Publisher’s Note” in favor of an annual “Foreword.” This was a deviation from the stories model that I spent some time anguishing over; did I want to write something about the essay every year? Wouldn’t I soon run out of things to say? I finally decided that since this was a new series it required some explanation, some raison d’etre, coming directly from the person who had started it. Why essays? Why now? Perhaps still infected with the “demon of symmetry” I then decided at the outset that each of my “Forewords”—excluding the boilerplate statement about rules and criteria—would consist of seven paragraphs, no more, no less. I continued this practice for several years, until the demon was finally exorcised.
As it turned out, the first volume consisted of only 17 selections. Counting the “Notables” now it’s clear I never came close to gathering 100 essays from 1985 and that Hardwick apparently saw every essay I considered. As I’ve said, no volume since has contained so few selections. I’m sure I missed many candidates but I also thought that a few essays listed among the “Notables” could have been included in the book had Hardwick not rejected them. Our working relationship seemed satisfactory, we communicated often during the selection process, and she wrote a stunning “Introduction,” one which I’ve long considered one of the best in the entire series. But for reasons I now forget she resisted my votes for several essays I thought merited inclusion in the inaugural book; one of these was Kathleen Norris’s “Gatsby on the Plains: The Small-Town Death Wish” from the North Dakota Quarterly. The other, which especially interested me, was a long essay from Playboy, James Baldwin’s “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” which may have been Baldwin’s last published essay (it appears last as “Here Be Dragons” in his 1985 collection The Price of the Ticket).
The best teacher I ever had, the brilliant critic Richard Poirier, once gave me some unscholarly advice: do your research after you write your paper. He meant that you could get so bogged down in research that you’d never get started or you’d get so intimidated you’d begin losing the distinctiveness of your own ideas. So it was only after we got the series going that I began reading more essays on the essay. Not theory, but essays from the perspective of practitioners like Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, and William Gass (whose splendid distinction between the essay and the article Hardwick would cite in her introduction). I had read individual essays by Edward Hoagland (who would serve as guest editor of the 1999 volume) and had included his work in some college anthologies but I hadn’t read his 1976 “What I Think, What I Am” until I was getting around to preparing the first Foreword. I was astonished to see that ten years earlier he had noted it seemed “strange that though two fine anthologies remain that publish the year’s best stories, no comparable collection exists for essays.” My idea for the series had come independently, oddly enough as a result of reviewing one of the anthologies Hoagland refers to. Had I known in 1984 that Hoagland had years before noted the absence of an essay series I probably would never have persisted in attempting to start one. The idea would have been already out there and so either someone else was in the process of publishing one or the fact that there still wasn’t one strongly indicated there was truly no market for one. When I quoted Hoagland’s remark in the opening paragraph of my first Foreword I was able to add that the annual collection of essays he had once imagined “finally exists.”
Then as I prepared for the second volume in the series, I would discover something in my research that perhaps Hoagland also didn’t realize. There had been previous attempts at publishing a series of outstanding contemporary essays. In 1955, Harcourt, Brace & World began such a series, called Essays Today. To the best of my knowledge, this paperback series lasted until 1962 with Essays Today 5, a copy of which I own, the only edition I can find available on the Internet. Its editor was the Princeton professor, critic, and rare books librarian Richard M. Ludwig. I can’t be sure from Ludwig’s brief “Preface” whether he had edited the volumes from the start, but it is clear that the series was not published annually but roughly every two years and was explicitly assembled to “provide the college student...with good reading as well as models for his own composition.”
The same seems true of another series I would soon come across in a used bookstore, this one in hardcover and known as the Essay Annual series. Edited by Erich A Walter, a University of Michigan English professor and published by Scott, Foresman, the collection featured essays gathered annually from March to March. Like Ludwig’s collection, Walter’s edition contains a brief preface that mainly describes the book’s contents, selection by selection. He never explicitly says so but the book seems to be also targeted to schools. A major textbook publisher since 1896, Scott Foresman had surely college adoptions in mind when it launched the annual essay series in 1933 (around the same time as its famed Dick and Jane books found their way into America’s elementary schools). My copy of Essay Annual–1936, not surprisingly, once belonged to a college student, Hortense Salvey, Douglass College (now part of Rutgers University) Class of ‘40. By a happy, charming coincidence, Miss Salvey, it appears, lived in the same dormitory where some thirty years later I would meet my first wife on a blind date.
The table of contents of Essay Annual–1936 was divided into topics (America and the World; People and Places, etc ) and featured in the back “A Bibliography of Outstanding American Essays Published in American Periodicals.” These components incline me to believe that the publishers intended to sell the series to both colleges and a general audience. The series also took a keen interest in the current literary controversy over the state of the traditional or “familiar” essay. Professor Walter opens the 1936 book with a reference to what was then a heated magazine debate: he begins his preface by calling attention to one of the volume’s selections, Nathaniel Peffer’s “Editors and Essays,” a full-scale attack on Katharine Fullerton Gerould’s “Information, Please!” (see above) that had appeared in the Essay Annual–1935. Peffer, whose essay first appeared in Harper’s Magazine, has some fun mocking the social and cultural irrelevance of the belletristic essay, a “lifeless” form that writers like Gerould have foolishly elevated out of an unfounded nostalgia and one that wasn’t killed by a new breed of hard-nosed editors but “died a natural death of pernicious anemia.”
As I worked on the first volume of The Best American Essays from the fall of 1985 until the late spring of 1986, I discovered that the Essay Wars of the 1930s—a battle that had broader cultural implications—hadn’t come to an end. In fact, as I would soon learn, the controversy in the 1930s represented a reigniting of a literary debate that went well back into the Nineteenth Century (readers interested in this debate should see Ned Stuckey-French’s admirable 2011 study, The American Essay in the American Century). But as I tried to shape the first volumes of the new series the debate for me centered around a practical distinction I had to make between what I thought of as the traditional literary essay—personal, reflective, meditative, creative—and all the other nonfiction that regularly appeared in magazines: service articles on dieting or dating; book and film reviews; political commentary; celebrity profiles, information—please! items, and so on. Much of this material wasn’t hard to filter out—there was no personal voice, no craft, no apparent ambition to survive beyond the week or month of its brief existence.Yet as I came across informative, well-crafted articles that I thought made a formidable impact along with some splendid examples of New Journalism, I realized the series had to feature both types of writing: the genuine personal essay with its decided literary bent and something that wasn’t quite the recognizable personal essay but that was wholly compelling in its originality and observations. The New Journalism named a movement but not a specific genre associated with it. Very rarely did those connected with the movement use the word “essay” to describe their efforts.
So when I invited Gay Talese to serve as the guest editor for the 1987 book, he seemed surprised, not having previously viewed himself as an essayist. If Elizabeth Hardwick’s name would show that the series intended to celebrate the genuine essay, I thought Talese’s name would indicate that the series would also embrace the latest reshaping of the contemporary American essay. Neither Hardwick nor Talese embodied the older belletristic tradition, with its gentility and “middlebrow” values; they were both urban without being cloyingly “urbane.” Yet Hardwick was more associated with the traditional essay and considered herself, unlike Talese, an essayist. My working experience with each clearly showed their differences: essayists write letters (at least back then before email) and I have several letters from Hardwick discussing the book and selections; journalists preferred the phone and I don’t think I have a single letter from Talese.
As I think back, so much business was conducted then by what’s now called “snail mail.” In the beginning of the series, I invariably wrote the authors a letter informing them that their essay had been selected for the volume. And I received letters in return. Or an occasional fax. This went on for perhaps a decade until more and more writers began using email. Now I’d say about 99% of all communication involved with authors and editors occurs via email: faster and easier but also less aesthetically appealing. I saved all the correspondence from the first ten or fifteen years in a set of black thesis binders, but in writing this account I didn’t avail myself of some of the useful information they might have provided because they are all in storage and for now too inconvenient for me to access.
I have every now and then referred to the origin and background of the series in essays, published talks, and especially in the annual “Foreword” I contribute to each volume. I did not consult many of these, so any contradictions between what I have said in this account and what I’ve written elsewhere should be chalked up to faulty memory.
It’s clear to me that after thirty years the essay has gained substantial literary ground. Each year I see more and more essays, thanks to both the increased respect the genre now receives and to the growing number of on-line literary periodicals publishing them. But there’s still room for progress as anyone well knows who has tried to get a book publisher interested in a collection of stand-alone essays on a variety of subjects.
I’d like to thank Ander Monson for all the fine work he has done on behalf of our favorite genre and for inviting me to share these recollections on the thirtieth anniversary of The Best American Essays series.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. The 2015 volume, the thirtieth in the series, is guest-edited by Ariel Levy and has just been released. He has published on a wide variety of subjects, from American advertising and early photography to dreams and divination in the ancient world and Shakespearean drama. His criticism, essays, humor, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous periodicals nationwide. He lives in New York City. Readers might enjoy his fictional essay, a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of the novel's villain, Tom Buchanan. It can be found in six installments here.