Three Books, Two Hats, and an Essay Survival Plan

By

Linda Hall

  “Where are essays?” the horseracing fan asked the bookstore clerk, and some fifteen years ago in these pages, I quoted him. Earlier that day he and I had shared a cab into town; from what he revealed during the ride, I had not expected to encounter him in a bookstore, let alone on a quest for essays. The clerk sent him back where he’d come from—two shelves marked literary criticism. He browsed; I watched, feeling as if I’d stumbled upon a Montaigne meet-up at Caesars Palace.
  That bookstore, part of a chain, is now closed, but a big independent shop opened in town several years ago. The window promises “unique gifts,” referring not to the books but to the toys, games, jewelry, and literary kitsch. (If you’re in the market for a pro-reading greeting card that quotes a Secretary of State under President Clinton, look no further.) On a recent visit I confirm what a friend has told me about my favorite part of the store: it’s gone, replaced by stacks marked young adult. Now it’s my turn to ask Where are essays? I am directed to the emergency exit, where, nearby, is a shelf labeled literary essays. It does not hold Claire Messud’s recent collection Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write (subtitle: “An Autobiography in Essays”); I notice several copies in fiction. But all three of Phillip Lopate’s new anthologies are here—The Glorious American Essay, The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970, and The Contemporary American Essay. Literary essays? Most of the entries are not, and there are those who would contend that plenty aren’t essays.
  “But wait,” you might say, and Lopate does say halfway through his introduction to The Glorious American Essay: “What is an essay?” For 194 short answers to that question, I recommend Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French’s Essayists on the Essay. Quicker, however, to plunk you down at an imaginary dinner party with real remarks. Picture them at a very long table—the living, dead, famous, forgotten, aspiring, obscure and at least one recent Lopate reviewer, David Mikics. It is Mikics who kicks things off, quite sure of his ground: “Ralph Waldo Emerson, that apostle of individualism, is also, it goes without saying, the United States’s central essayist.” Next to him sits an Australian, Walter Murdoch (ask not about his grandnephew Rupert), who guffaws: “Emerson’s Essays are not essays, but sermons.” William Gass, author of “Emerson and the Essay,” doesn’t hear either of them, but they can hear him. Essays are unhurried, he is saying, “although Bacon’s aren’t.” Murdoch turns back to Mikics: “Bacon’s bundles of wise saws are not essays—nobody ever talked like that.” Genially, Christopher Morley steers the conversation away from individuals: “The ideal essayist may be—how does the old line run?—chemist, statesman, fiddler, or buffoon.” Murdoch once more, also genially: “He must have a sense of humor, but he must not be a buffoon.” At the opposite end of the table, the topic is topics: Joseph Wood Krutch maintains that the essay offers “probably the best method of discussing those subjects which are neither obviously momentous nor merely silly.” He is met with a mock protest from Professor Hastings of Brown. Contemporary Essays, which Hastings edited in 1928, takes up some topics “as momentous as Ike Walton’s fishing basket, some as trivial as the battle of the two generations.”
  Nobody is drunk; many are punchy; an un-essay-like omniscience takes hold: The essay is dead! No, the essay is the It-genre! Cynthia Ozick might be called upon to weigh in, but she is engaged in conversation with Ian Frazier (they edited back-to-back editions of The Best American Essays). “Sometimes an essayist’s effect has been as immediate as Thomas Paine’s,” he notes. Flabbergasted, Ozick summons a teacherly patience. “Common Sense,” she says, is like “J'Accuse"—though both qualify as "heroic landmark writings…to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand.” A true essay, she contends, “is not meant for the barricades. It is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.” But to regain common ground with Frazier, she turns to mourning the essay’s displacement by the article, “that shabby, team-driven, ugly, truncated, undeveloped, speedy, breezy, cheap, impatient thing.” Go on, I think, but William Dean Howells, as if to call this old news, starts waving an issue of Harper’s from 1902. Quoting himself, he reads aloud: “The article"—he too dislikes it—"is now desired more and more, and the essay less and less.” Gass sees an opportunity to get in a word against another sort of article, that “awful object” produced by and for academics. “Spoken aloud, it still sounds like writing written down,” he claims, “writing born for its immediate burial in a Journal.”
  For a ruling from Lopate, we need only return to The Glorious American Essay: “Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree,” he writes. “We are just as privy to Thomas Paine’s mind working through reasons to rebel as we are to his contemporary Hazlitt on the pleasures of hating, and why should a piece of writing be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning?” If I read these writers correctly, they object not (or not chiefly) to coherence but to a deficiency of one or more literary virtues. I doubt that anyone understands these virtues better than Lopate. It was he, in fact, who once claimed that Fran Lebowitz’s essays lack “true essayistic movement”; he who observed that “most column writing does not seem to allow for…self-surprise, the sudden deepening or darkening of tone”; he who, reflecting on books that collect a novelist’s or poet’s book reviews, speeches, journalism, and prefaces, complained that a “tired air of grudgingly gracious civic duty hovers over many of these performances.”
  What are we to make, then, of the many entries in The Glorious American Essay that seem squarely at odds with the anthologist’s professed tastes? One answer is that Lopate the editor is not to be confused with Lopate the writer or reader. He wears, he’s admitted, a different hat in these books: “I am not so picky … more tolerant.” For direct proof, consider the case of Elwyn Brooks White. In “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” (1989), Lopate laments White’s “sedating influence” on the form: “Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but there is not a single
  E. B. White essay that compares with the gamy, pungent, dangerous Orwell of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys…’ or ‘Shooting an Elephant.’ When White does speak out on major issues of the day, his man-in-the-street, folksy humility and studiously plain-Joe air ring false, at least to me.” To me, too, and yet who could imagine The Glorious American Essay without White? And so our anthologist behaves very much like White’s longtime employer, the “scrupulously fair, sporting” (Lopate’s description) old New Yorker: he finds an essay he can live with—"Death of a Pig"—checks to make sure he did not already select it for The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)—nope—and gives the man his due: “[H]e did much to perfect the conversational personal essay in the American vernacular, deceptively casual but so artfully composed.” In The Golden Age of the American Essay, he repeats the procedure, and comes up with “Sootfall and Fallout.” Another New Yorker beneficiary of Lopate’s large-mindedness is John McPhee, whose “Draft No. 4” (good choice) appears in The Contemporary American Essay. Some may recall that, in the eighties, McPhee’s style reminded Lopate of “a colony of industrious termites capable of patiently reducing any subject matter to a sawdust of detail.”
  Yet I am dodging here. White was an essayist to the bone, McPhee is a legend of literary nonfiction. What raised my eyebrows in The Glorious American Essay were the tracts and manifestos, the excerpts from longer works, the entries that were composed as (and read like) lectures or papers. When our racing fan sought out essays, does anyone believe that he had a hankering for Washington’s Farewell Address, Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1, Franklin’s “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” Jefferson’s “Religion,” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, John Dewey’s “Democracy in Education,” or Jane Addams’ “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements”? For that matter, when Phillip Lopate, vacationing one summer in a borrowed house on Cape Cod, took Hazlitt out to a hammock and fell in love with the form, hadn’t he already read innumerable articles and political documents, none of which kindled his life as an essayist? Paine and Hazlitt both argued coherently; only the latter changed Lopate’s writing life. The anthologist’s determination to broaden the definition of the form—to see it as in need of broadening—thus seems curious.
  Is it also damaging? In his keynote address at the 2012 River Teeth nonfiction conference, Robert Atwan, for thirty-five years the series editor of The Best American Essays, identified what he saw as some real dangers in mislabeling:

  [F]reshman anthologies will include any sort of nonfiction prose and call it an essay: speeches, manifestos, editorials, criticism, snippets from larger nonfiction works, scientific analysis, academic papers, and so on… Surely there’s a qualitative difference between a work deliberately conceived and composed as an essay and a series of paragraphs excerpted from a nonfiction book and given an arbitrary title. Yet many anthologies don’t even differentiate between the two; they casually label both selections essays, to the artistic detriment of the true essay and to the confusion of the student. In fact, by using the term essay indiscriminately, many anthologies perpetuate the genre’s diminished and nonliterary status.

For most of my reading life, those consequences didn’t worry me. My Salmagundi essay on the essay (catchily titled “In Defense of Benign Neglect”) argued that low status, though unpleasant for writers, had been good for the form: never a watched pot, it had fairly steadily boiled. As for the difference between excerpts and essays, it’s real, but the former, I notice, often work beautifully as the latter. And when I think of my own college anthology, which included both Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” I recall the pleasure and pride I took not only in recognizing the distinctions between the two but in sizing up entries such as Lebowitz’s “The Sound of Music: Enough Already,” which was unlike either.
  And yet, on first reading The Glorious American Essay, I grew tetchy. Status still didn’t interest me; real estate did. I kept thinking of how much space could have been devoted to undisputed essays—nonfiction prose that cannot pass as anything else—if Lopate had omitted the work of certain extraliterary V.I.P.s. He refers in his introduction to critics who “go through the table of contents with a calculator and total up the statistics”; I did just that, except instead of finding too many dead white males, I found too few essays. Then I brooded, just as Mr. Atwan had, on the essay’s plight. While any old prose turns up in essay anthologies, “Once More to the Lake” will never appear in a book of letters, short stories, poems, or speeches. And even as the form’s prestige has allegedly increased, the essay remains a tough sell—no less so when the essayist is giving it away. It’s too personal, whether or not the essayist ever says “I.” Too demanding (for the general public), or too much fun (for scholars). Too digressive, especially if it’s billed as a review. Too long-winded, even in the opinion of well-wishers: Joyce Carol Oates, editor of The Best American Essays of the [twentieth] Century, laments that she could not include Willa Cather, “whose available essays were simply inappropriate, and lengthy.” (Fortunately, The Norton Book of Personal Essays offers Cather’s “A Chance Meeting” and—thank you, Phillip Lopate—The Glorious American Essay gives us “148 Charles Street.”) When nothing else can be said against the essay, it is declared “not really relevant.” The editor who asks “Why this, why now?” is an editor who doesn’t understand the form. An essay such as Agnes Repplier’s “The Grocer’s Cat” has a very hard time making its way in the world, an even harder time staying put in it.
  But here it is in The Glorious American Essay, along with several other obscurities that Lopate has resurrected. Which leads me to see the matter of real estate in a different light. Had our racing fan all those years ago wandered into the store in search of Repplier, or Mary Austin, or Fanny Fern, or Katharine Fullerton Gerould, or (token forgotten male) John Burroughs, his chances of finding any of them on those two shelves of literary criticism would have been almost nonexistent. He would have fared no better down the street at our excellent public library. But now and for decades to come, and largely thanks to certain entries that strike me as less deserving, these writers will have a place in the culture. Lopate loaded up The Glorious American Essay with Significance, and it will do for the book what kitsch does for the bookstore. Cultural guardians who are indifferent to the essay but have heard of history will not easily discard a gathering of so many heavyweights: Martin Luther King, Jr., on war! Edith Wharton on war! Albert Einstein on The World (“as I See It”)! Moreover, awkward as this is to point out, it is not merely the unjustly neglected of past centuries who will be protected in this anthology, but those who are currently ubiquitous and not destined to remain so. I’m thinking of the writers in the final quarter of the book, so many of whom have a primary identity not as statesman, chemist, fiddler, or buffoon, but as essayist. Lopate, I submit, was thinking like a publisher; it’s a job I’d hate, but if you want to prolong the life of essays, it’s a job someone has to do.
  As long as this anthology is easily available, readers with a receptivity to the form will open the book to “An Essay on Essays” and watch Gerould pull the rug out from much of the rest of the book: No one, I think, would call Cicero’s first oration against Catiline an essay; or Burke’s Speech on the Conciliation of America: hardly more could we call Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ a true essay. The author must have made up his mind, but when he has made it up with a vengeance, he will not produce an essay… The whole world is living more or less in a state of war; and a state of war produces any literary form more easily than the essay… I am not urging that we play the flute while Rome burns… But it seems a pity that meditative prose should suffer a total eclipse, if only because meditation is highly contagious… We do not spend all our time on the heights, or in the depths, and if we are to live we must reflect on many matters rather temporal than eternal. Should Gerould’s meditation prove catching (reviewers, I notice, have been quick to quote her), Lopate will share credit as superspreader.

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  Lopate’s original plan was for just one anthology. When the book grew too bulky, his publisher gave him two more, The Golden Age of the American Essay 1945–1970 and The Contemporary American Essay. Of the former, he writes, “I am well aware that there is something suspect about the whole notion of a ‘golden age,’ which invites the sentimentality of fuddy-duddies who can’t seem to feel comfortable in the present and who discount the value of youthful creativity.” He is presumably also aware that six years into the postwar era, Joseph Wood Krutch published “No Essays, Please!"—a complaint not about essays but about the editors who didn’t want them. Which was, Krutch noted, most editors. Magazines at the time preferred reportage, profiles, and data-heavy polemics. With subjects that were neither urgent nor trivial, essayists increasingly had no place to go. A year later, in 1952, Randall Jarrell published "The Age of Criticism,” his own complaint about the era. Though much of the criticism filling literary journals Jarrell considered excellent, there was too much of it—and at the expense of fiction and poetry. In this “fit of criticism against criticism,” the word essay hardly appears. It does not figure at all in “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket,” Jarrell’s witty entry in The Golden Age. Or at least not explicitly. On a list of things society wants from an artist other than art, Jarrell mentions “articles about his hometown for Holiday, about cats or clothes or Christmas for Vogue.” The contempt is unmistakable. Was the postwar period in fact a bad one for essays? One shouldn’t rely too much on testimony from the time. After all, Jarrell himself once observed that those who live in a golden age tend to go around griping about how yellow everything looks. More than a half century later, however, in his River Teeth keynote, Robert Atwan summed up the period as an especially bleak one. The New Criticism excluded essays from imaginative literature, thereby ending “once and for all” the belletristic tradition, and “by the 1960s, the essay was an endangered literary species, hanging on here and there, but increasingly defined in nonliterary terms along with journalism and commentary.” Case closed?
  I say no, and not merely because of the existence of Lopate’s anthology. Even those who reject my 2006 Salmagundi argument about the advantages of nonliterary status will acknowledge that many a lowly postwar “piece” written to finance a life of novel writing outshone the resulting fiction, and there’s no denying that among the most beloved twentieth-century essays are three “articles…for Holiday”: E. B. White’s “Here is New York,” republished after 9/11 as its own little book, and Joan Didion’s “Notes from a Native Daughter” and “On Keeping a Notebook.” (Also beloved, of course, are Didion’s essays for Vogue.) In 1957, Elizabeth Hardwick proposed to The New Yorker “a piece of writing” about her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. Though she badly needed the commission for personal reasons, it’s nonetheless telling that she believed the piece would be “the most important thing of my career.” William Shawn turned Hardwick down, but she published dozens of essays on places, on people, on public affairs that deserved to be collected, and, thanks to the critic and translator Alex Andriesse, now have been.1 “Essays lie all over the land, stored up like the unused wheat of a decade ago in the silos of old magazines and modest collections,” she famously wrote in her 1982 introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader. Are the unheralded postwar essays by Hardwick’s peers mostly chaff? The answer requires devoted prowling in the stacks and back issues, not easily accomplished during a pandemic.
  What I can report is that, though Didion and White and Hardwick are represented in The Golden Age (Hardwick with “Boston”), the majority of the anthology’s entries are critical essays: Edmund Wilson on Paul Rosenfeld; Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”; Harold Rosenberg’s “The Herd of Independent Minds”; Leslie Fiedler’s Freudian analysis of a number of American novels; Flannery O'Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”; Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting”; Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’”; Philip Roth’s “Writing About Jews”; Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”; Edwin Denby’s “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets”; Albert Murray’s “The Blues Idiom and the Mainstream”; Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita; Lionel Trilling on Lolita; George F. Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”2 Sentence by sentence, how dazzling these essays are—and in too many cases, how dated. “Writers today have no choice, often enough, but to write for magazines like The New Yorker—and worse, far worse,” Irving Howe writes in “This Age of Conformity.” A colleague asked me if he was being satirical. Towards the end of the book, we encounter examples of the New Journalism. Sentence by sentence, how vigorous and playful this reporting is—and how dated. I felt myself a tourist of the 1960s (here’s Norman Mailer on Jackie Kennedy, there’s Tom Wolfe on Baby Jane Holzer). Not an unpleasant experience, but more like visiting a museum than reading an essay.
  On the basis of The Golden Age, readers new to the form may conclude that the essay is bound to date, and so what. Aren’t essays so valuable as history—even literary history—that they need not endure as literature? Isn’t it too much to expect eternal appeal from the temporal? In front of me is an anthology that suggests otherwise. Published almost a century ago, it is forgotten (two copies are available on Amazon), as are all but a handful of the writers. I turn to “Bed-Books and Night-Lights.” We still sleep, and many of us still read, and an old-fashioned book before bed is generally recommended over anything on a screen. But what, or whom, shall we read?

Think of Plato, or Dante, or Tolstoy … I cannot. They will not do—they are no good to me … I know those men I have named are transcendent, the greater lights. But I am bound to confess at times they bore me. Though their feet are clay and on earth, just as ours, their stellar brows are sometimes dim in remote clouds. For my part, they are too big for bedfellows … The truth is, there are times when we are too weary to remain attentive and thankful under the improving eye, kindly but severe, of the seers. There are times when we do not wish to be any better than we are.



From the same book, “On Talk and Talkers,” an essay I’ve filed in my mind’s anthology next to Phillip Lopate’s marvelous “Against Joie de Vivre”:

I am missing the first bicuspid on the upper right side of my mouth. Eight years ago I got a root canal. It was routine, I guess? How the shit can you know unless you have a skull X-ray machine in your living room? Anyway, I hadn’t seen a dentist in fucking forever because dental care is super expensive and while teeth are easily the thing a person is most afraid to fucking lose, ain’t nobody got hundreds of dollars just lying around for annual X-rays and cleanings. Besides, I was twenty-five; was I really expected to worry about my goddamned teeth?! I AM YOUNG AND I AM GOING TO LIVE FOREVER BECAUSE HOT POCKETS ARE TOTALLY NUTRITIOUS.



Same anthology, different essay:

  Girlfriends will be really excited that you floss your teeth, because they should and they think it’s really inspiring that you do that and they will ask you if they can do it with you because it’s easier that way, bumping their hips and thighs against you while you keep peering at yourself under the shitty bathroom light. They will even talk glowingly over drinks with their friends about the really diligent way you have of flossing and then the little brushes and even how you rinse and you’ll look at their friends who look kind of weirded out and you’ll be thinking you’re just making me sound really old…. [W]hen I drank I would often pass out before I could floss. Then I stopped drinking. I found myself in my thirties leaning into the mirror one night cleaning away and I thought: fuck, is this what I lived for—to floss.

My first reaction to these passages was to envy America’s dentists, who in their personal encounters with essayists are probably not often subjected to reflexive shouting and cussing. My second reaction was to reach for Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2011 “Would You Please Fucking Stop?”3 Lopate arranged The Contemporary American Essay alphabetically, and Le Guin would have been a welcome presence somewhere between Samantha Irby, author of the first passage, and Eileen Myles, author of the second. Though I have a hunch that Irby and Myles intend for us to delight in how far the essay has traveled from the days when repressed and repressive privileged men called the shots, their prose only put me in mind of a different species of elite male: the American frat boy.
  To be sure, not all of the anthology’s essayists write this way. Some are determinedly innovative, availing themselves of literary nonfiction’s bag of tricks. There are experiments with typography and essays that might strike the unschooled reader as responses to a classroom exercise: Try beginning every sentence or paragraph with the same two words. (In “Draft No. 4,” John McPhee, who taught for decades at Princeton, recommends that blocked writers put down the words “Dear Mother,” whine and whimper about their compositional difficulties, and then snip off the salutation. It may not be long before we have a glut of essays from writers who decide to keep it.) Lopate notes the influence on the contemporary essay of poetry, of the short story, of social media; he does not mention the rise of the nonfiction writing program—graduate and undergraduate—which I believe has had an impact even on many who have neither taught nor studied in one. I’ve come across sports writing built of numbered fragments, and with white space in lieu of transitions; it’s not clear whether, say, a piece of criticism on the NBA draft profits from the lyric essay approach.
  Those who have yet to acquire what Mary Cappello calls “a taste for discontinuity” will be pleased to find in The Contemporary American Essay sparkling essays by Sven Birkerts, Meghan Daum, Emily Fox Gordon, Lynn Freed, Joyce Carol Oates, Darryl Pinckney, and Aleksandar Hemon (I don’t know how I missed Hemon’s memoir, “The Aquarium,” when it appeared in The New Yorker in 2011; it is a knockout). Yet these essays, too, are personal, and so different from the entries in The Golden Age that one would not guess the same man edited both books. In the earlier anthology, families scarcely exist, and though James Baldwin has teeth and A. J. Liebling an appetite, pretty much the same goes for bodies. Everyone seems to read all day long, and then to write about reading. In the latest volume, reading is like teaching—people do it—but the essay is generally reserved for our chief preoccupations: relationships, ailments, getting through the day, getting through the night. Strangely, or perhaps not, few of the writers seem to have been influenced by the post-war essayists. Teju Cole, who writes about James Baldwin, is one of the notable exceptions. Reading The Golden Age, I wondered if there was more to that era than criticism. Having lived through the past twenty years, I can say with confidence that we are not as relentlessly personal as The Contemporary American Essay suggests. We have the literary essays of James Wood, a resident of this country since the mid-1990s. We have the dance writing of Joan Acocella. We have too many great science writers to mention, but I’ll go ahead and name David Quammen and Oliver Sacks. We have Garret Keizer on, among other subjects, stupidity and noise and privacy and teaching. (It would be hard to name three guest editors of The Best American Essays with less in common than David Brooks, David Foster Wallace, and Mary Oliver, but each included Keizer. Publishers, a collection of this writer’s essays is overdue.)
  Knowing that Lopate too likes Keizer—he extravagantly praised Getting Schooled, a book that began as an essay of the same title—I was sorry not to find the latter in The Contemporary American Essay. I was even sorrier when Lopate told The New York Times Book Review that he wished to see more writing about “[t]he day-to-day challenges and rewards of teaching.” I longed, in fact, to snatch away his anthologist’s hat and toss it in the Hudson. I wanted the other Lopate—discerning, less dutiful, less hip. It was that man who offered a countercultural paean to maturity at the 2019 AWP conference.4 (The city of Portland was what drew me to the conference, but as I noted on my “Attendee Satisfaction Survey,” Lopate turned out to be the highlight.) If you’re writing about adultery, he told the capacity audience, it helps to have an awareness that it’s been going on now for quite some time. It helps, for instance, to have read Anna Karenina. It was that man who, in “Experience Necessary,” told us he “clung to the fustian charms of Lamb, Hazlitt, Stevenson, and Beerbohm, with scarcely a side glance at Sedaris, Wallace, and Vowell.” Lopate the anthologist, it will be pointed out, gave more than a glance to Sedaris and Wallace: he included them. But he also included “Experience Necessary.” A deliberately mischievous move? I don’t need to know. I am just happy the essay is here. This is, I think, another age of conformity, one in which—because we are young, or because we are not—we feel obliged to swear allegiance to the present. “Experience Necessary” stokes our independence, and like Gerould’s “Essay on Essays,” it may very well subvert much of the anthology in which it appears.

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  Speaking of the young, and the age: in The Contemporary American Essay, Lopate thanks his twentysomething daughter, Lily, “for reading so much of this material and telling me frankly what she thought.” In the first two anthologies, she is thanked only for keeping him sane. I suppose it’s assumed that the latest volume will be widely used in undergraduate classes (at least until, like Hastings’ Contemporary Essays and Donald Hall’s The Contemporary Essay, it’s old) so why not poll the member of the household who was most recently a student? But I would be equally interested in what Lily thought of the earlier essays, not least because two of the biggest hits in my own classes don’t qualify for the contemporary anthology. “The Spoils of War,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s account of teaching a Vietnam vet, is not easily quoted to advantage; its power is cumulative. The other essay, “I Don’t Like Ladies,” is almost too quotable—also gamy, pungent, and so dangerous that the author, a journalist named Mildred Adams, used the pseudonym Joan Maybury. I feel rather reckless even praising it under my own name: the subject is women who don’t work, and my family has good friends in that category.
  Lopate has said that an anthologist more easily faces the past “because we already know what’s lasted.” But survival, with essays, is no straightforward thing. “The Spoils of War” is in Schwartz’s Face to Face and a niche anthology—women writers on war. Has it survived? “I Don’t Like Ladies” appeared in Harper’s in 1933, was reprinted in the 1934 Essay Annual, and remained in the composition text Learning to Write until 1957. Non-working women did not vanish, but Maybury’s essay did. What a pity that James Thurber, whose essays are, to my mind, terribly stale, appears in both The Best American Essays of the Century and The Glorious American Essay, while “I Don’t Like Ladies” is out of print. Introducing the former, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “I didn’t see my role as one to reward the lucky amateur who writes a single good essay, then disappears forever.” Fair enough, but when a single good essay is plucked from obscurity, the writer is not the only beneficiary.
  Grateful as I am for the life preservers that are Lopate’s anthologies, perhaps the ultimate essay survival plan would look something like this: we all go poking around—in back issues, forgotten collections, side currents. I referred earlier to “devoted” prowling, forgetting that a student of mine discovered “I Don’t Like Ladies” during a nightly homework session (I assign routine browsing). Essays are easier to find than we think. Another idea, to which we might return every decade: The 100 Best Essays You’ve Never Read, selected by writers, editors, and teachers (and no, “The Declaration of Independence” wouldn’t make the cut on the grounds that “too few of us have actually read it”). Where are essays? “Nowhere,” wrote Katharine Fullerton Gerould when “I Don’t Like Ladies” was newly anthologized. I’m sure it felt that way to her. It often feels that way to me. But now as then, Hardwick was right: essays lie all over the land. Their rescue is up to us; let’s go get ‘em.

*Review of Phillip Lopate, editor, The Glorious American Essay (New York: Pantheon, 2020), The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970 (New York: Anchor, 2021), and The Contemporary American Essay (New York: Anchor, 2021).